“Cultural Differences.” It’s one of those spectrum phrases that covers so much ground and can mean many different things. For a traveler, it usually means the initial culture shock in a new country. But of course, that wears off after a while. Then, as you wade deeper, cultural differences manifest as significant frustrations you didn’t notice before but now can’t shake.
The most poignant version, though, is when you start to feel like you are “getting” the culture, and then you do something that is a slap in everyone’s face – including your own. It brings you back to the reality that you are merely a visitor in this new country. It is a reminder to walk humbly and gently with those around you.
I have had these experiences.
At first they truly made me feel ashamed. But quickly I realized that I wanted to remember them, and to do so I needed to write them down. (And what better place than the blog??) These are the valuable lessons that I will take back with me after our year abroad.
Shame #1 – Why isn’t my first instinct generosity?
A few weeks back Daniel and I were walking through the center of Chișinău on Pușkin street. It’s one of the nicest parts of the city: the sidewalks are maintained, there are shops and restaurants up and down the street, and it’s always bustling. We had just stopped to grab a sandwich from one of those places that’s merely a window with sandwiches displayed. It’s Moldova’s version of fast food.
Most Moldovans sit and eat their food, but as Americans in a hurry, we decided to eat as we walked. A block or two beyond the sandwich window (and about 1/4 of the way through our sandwiches), a young woman walked up beside me and stopped to ask a question. It’s pretty unusual for someone to stop and ask you something on the street. Most people keep to themselves. I didn’t understand at first and had to ask the girl to repeat herself. I assumed she was asking me for money.
The culture of asking for money in Chișinău
There are not a ton of panhandlers on the streets of Chișinău. The ones that I do see are often physically disabled and they sit at street corners with a cup. They never directly address you in their petition for money. There are, though, women who will get on the trolleybus with a stamped document and a photo of a child. They usually have a memorized script about their child’s needs. They are the only people I have encountered who directly ask for money. (Oh, and one precocious child in a park.)
All this to say, it was my American assumptions – not my Moldovan experience – that informed my assessment that this girl was asking for money. Her actual request floored me.
“Can I have a piece of your sandwich?”
Guys. She didn’t ask for all of my sandwich. Nor did she ask for money to buy a sandwich. Her request was for merely A PIECE of my half-eaten food. Stunned, I broke off a large chunk and handed it to her. She quickly walked away.
I was immediately ashamed. How did I not give her my whole sandwich? Why did I not follow her and buy her a whole meal!?? My sandwich costs $2 USD. That amount of money is NOTHING to me. But, focused on what she was saying in Romanian and clouded by my American judgments, I missed a lovely opportunity to care for a fellow human.
Shame isn’t a nice emotion, but it can have teaching purposes. I have realized that being generous is somewhat of a knee jerk reaction for me. I don’t know that I can control that reflex in the moment. What I can do, though, is prioritize acts of generosity throughout each day so that when next faced with an opportunity like this, I will behave in a way that makes me proud.
Shame #2 – Discovering the worth of 100 Euro
My next shame-filled moment occurred not with a stranger but with a friend. This friend was telling me about an upcoming trip to Istanbul that she was really excited for. Only the wealthy elite in this country take vacations on the scale that many Americans do. The tier of Moldovans with some disposable income (but not a lot) takes simpler trips. They either visit family, or take buses to nearby locations in Europe. That’s about it.
This friend of mine would soon be travelling with her brother-in-law and sister to visit family in Turkey. She told me they each had 100 Euro tickets for a 24 hour bus ride from Chișinău to Istanbul. I was shocked at the length of that trip, and I told her as much.
But the shock was not my mistake. The mistake was comparing the price/time of a bus trip versus a plane trip. I told her that a 90 minute direct flight from Chișinău to Istanbul only costs 190 Euro. And then I went on to say that the difference between 100 Euro and 190 Euro really isn’t that much money for how much faster the trip is.
I saw her pause – not knowing how to respond to this. [Cue my stomach sinking.] Because of course, 90 Euro is not that much money if you make 3,000-4,000 Euro a month (more in-line for an average American salary.) But the average salary in Moldova is more like 300-400 Euro a month…and 90 Euro of that is a BIG DEAL.
Generally I try to be pretty sensitive to the wealth gap, but this time was a total failure. It was both a moment of shame and a good reminder that the financial reality for Moldovans is so different than my own. I don’t think of this difference all the time, but I wonder how often people look at me and make assumptions about my wealth and my options. How do I live in a way that is mindful of my wealth – neither hiding it nor flaunting it?
Shame #3 – You can never downplay a life that isn’t your own
My final shameful exchange was also with a friend. We were walking through a park and talking about life. I’ve known this person for many months, but it is only with passing time that I learn more and more about the details of her life.
For example, I knew that her mom lives in Israel for work and comes back to Moldova rarely for visits….like once a year maximum. What I didn’t know is that her mom has been doing this for three years.
When she told me this I was surprised, “Only three years? That’s not so long!” As before, I instantly experienced that horrible feeling as she looked at me – silent – for a few seconds. She responded that three years is a long time to be away from your mom.
And it is. It most certainly is. I am ashamed that I forgot how hard family separation is on individual people. Because the fact of the matter is that most families are broken here. I know people whose parent(s) left when they were children and have been working abroad for 10 years now. I know people who were abandoned to an orphanage by living parents, people with parents in prison, and people whose parents died at far too young an age.
In some ways, I understand Moldovan culture enough to know that parents leaving is the norm, and that three years is not a significant time to be away. But in my “understanding” I forgot my empathy. I forgot that any separation of any length of time is devastating for the family experiencing it. These parents leave because they have no other choice for their family; they truly feel there is no other way.
Please say there’s a takeaway from all this…
I don’t have a neatly packaged lesson from this diary of shame. I just know that shame diminishes over time…and thank goodness for that!! Pretty much everyone will tell you that it is not a healthy emotion, and I agree. But in these cases, I feel like it serves as a guidepost for me. In 5 years I don’t want to remember that sinking stomach feeling, but I do want to remember my desire to be more generous. I want to think before I speak and to approach all my conversations with deference to the lived experience of others. Here’s to hoping my overseas shame experiences lead to some good things! 🙂