Stories and Culture

The Epic Failure of Your Perceptions, or, When is it Immersion?

When you come to know how little you will know is vital. Part of it is developing the skill to change your vantage point. Part of it is learning to give yourself the side-eye. Humble advice: employ “the snort” for emphasis.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my integration into Comrat. It’s uncomfortable to know that I’m often still interpreting interactions and observations based on my own cultural framework and personal values. I’m perfecting the “you’re an idiot but I love you” internal monologue. I practice on the cat to make sure it’s affectionate.

Didn’t I integrate already?

Exhibit A: Businesses

I went with my friend to (try to) film interviews about local businesses. We approached 8 people (a woman selling kvass, a couple selling honey, a woman selling sunflower seeds from a big bowl, a few people at the bazaar and a vendor at the local coffee place) to learn about their businesses, and were unanimously turned down. We began to speculate that our interviewees were uncomfortable because of the questions we asked: we wanted to know whether they had bosses or ran their own business, for one. It’s a post-Soviet country! And authority! It’s a thing, a dangerous thing! You know? Then the guy at the coffee place explained that:

  1. He didn’t want to interview because he knows how the media will take your words, mutilate them and interpret them some other way, and
  2. It’s very hard to start a business here, and people don’t want to give away their secrets.

We went home and told my host mother and her sister about it, and the sister suggested it could also be because many street-side and bazaar vendors don’t pay taxes, and would be worried that the police would see the interview and come to find them. Oops. Either way, it was a bad idea, and we were clueless. Failure: CHECK. Takeaway: don’t mess with big (or small) business, especially when the sunflower seed lady just buys her seeds at the corner store and then pours them into a big bowl to hawk to passerby.

Exhibit B: Women and peeing babies

I wanted to celebrate the women who stop the local mini-buses! (Wait for it…) I was writing a piece about my adjustment to local gendered norms, and asked my partner to read it for me – I wanted to make sure my portrayal was fair and accurate. We ended up discussing a practice where the drivers of the маршрутки will stop and let mothers off with their children to pee (I mentioned this in my blog post In Love: A Letter of Admiration to Moldova). I was going to re-use this story and celebrate the power of women and family values: moms stop mini-buses in the middle of nowhere! They are superheroes in this country! But my partner explained it’s actually because Moldovan women stop putting diapers on their children after 1 year. Here, it’s common knowledge that this is bad for the babes, especially the little boys and their tiddly bits. So my celebration of “family values” and the strength of the lady-folk went down the toilet with those diapers. (But actually – don’t flush diapers in Moldova, the plumbing is weak.)

The Plumbing

The plumbing

Conclusion:

Suck it up and ask. Remember: side-eye, snort, repeat if necessary. A cat helps too.

A cat

Hmm

Nope

Later

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