Others’ Cultures: Part 1

Habitus

I recently wrote a research proposal for a competition that would allow me to extend my stay in Comrat. The work would involve both a culminating paper and an ongoing storytelling project. Both would explore the nuances of belief, religion, magic and superstition in Gagauzia. I knew my tales would be meant mainly for an American audience, and proposed that Americans could learn a thing or two about truth and fact when reading my expositions.

I sent the thing off for feedback, and my step-aunt Ellie provided a galaxy of criticism! She recommended that I expand on the topic of how I would ethically approach cultural reporting. More importantly, though, she pushed me to consider how to treat people seriously – in writing and in person.

More than just anonymity, it seems to me that the fine line between belief and superstition needs to be handled carefully. Is there more you can do to talk about how you take beliefs, and the people who hold them, seriously, using truthfulness and plausibility as a standard but not as a tool of judgment?

…this question – how you treat these different beliefs, some of which may seem very unreasonable or illogical – is a central question I think: how to do so respectfully, without “exoticizing” them,  and bringing it into larger (global, American…) conversation about truth and facts. 

Ellie was cautioning me about not just judgment, but about voyeurism and representation. Her ideas encouraged me to contemplate how I portray Moldovan culture to others, and how I am interpreting my surroundings and then translating them. It’s a multiple-step process: experience and observe, initial judgment, question judgment in the moment, reflect after some time (in a moment of peace), draw a conclusion, and – if I choose to write about it – translate.

Engaging with a foreign culture (and this “foreign” culture can even be one within your own country – America, for one, is the perfect example of surface-level connections and some majority ideals with disparate cultural cores) is all about Perspective – not, as I once embodied in my initial interactions with my Moldovan surroundings, the Voyeur. The Voyeur attempts to strip naked the culture with a more gross curiosity – and I wanted that keen insight. Part of me relished the idea that I could interpret something new, that I would have an outsider’s freedom to understand. But it didn’t take long to reject this in favor of Perspective, because I realized the thick distance (close to inhumanity, I felt at the time) was too indulgent. It felt like turning a telescope on some alien species.

So I embraced Perspective – the one who smiles at surprise, burbles while I stumble, and then kicks sharp as I reflect: “Aren’t you sure it’s that strange…?” She leads me to the place where I can adjust the blinders. I can – rather than zoom, gape or recoil – consider what I see. Perspective helps me regard “others” and their cultures with the understanding that they are not, in fact, exotic, and not really that strange, either.

Truth is, the “others” simply seem exotic. The deception is that unfamiliar surroundings are, for “others,” mundane. One of my basic examples for this has to do with living arrangements – easy, perhaps, because we come back to our homes almost every day, and these structures are our most basic stability and security.

When I came to Moldova, I agreed to live with a host family for the first two months of pre-service training, and then another host family for the first three months (which, for me, has become my whole service) at my permanent site. One of the first things you learn about Moldovan homes is that there is usually a “big house” and a “little house” (in Comrat, we refer to the “little house” as the “summer house”). The summer house is just what you would expect – a home more often used in the summer; not always as well insulated as the main house, and containing its own kitchen. It’s also often used for storage. It seems like almost everyone here has got one! This was the same when my second host mother (the versatile, broom-slinging, cat-shooing, computer nerd journalist Anna Nikolaevna) was a young woman – she explained that every family had a winter house and a summer house.

At first it was unusual, of course. Having a second home on your property seemed to me like a luxury – I know very few families in the United States with two homes in one place. Usually, a second home is a vacation home somewhere far off, reserved for people with money. But now that I encounter this every day – in fact, my host mother has two summer houses! – I never think about it. I expect the summer house. It was an odd moment when my host mother mentioned “summer house” at the dinner table, and something pricked, and I remembered– damn! I’ve adapted! Now, what seemed “exotic” is commonplace…

But it’s a frightfully common thing for people to exoticize the “other.” It’s understandable. We come from our own contexts, and as creatures of habit, we interpret unfamiliar habits from within the framework of our own. As illustration, I’ll present some of my own silly questions.

Recently, my awareness of how deeply America’s consumerist culture has branded me forged again to the fore. I was chatting with my host mother Anna in the kitchen, and I wanted to know about life when she was a young woman – 17 or 18. She told me she was born in 1938. I already knew she grew up under Soviet rule and that she and her family had sustained themselves through famine. I wanted to know more about the food situation, so I asked about the Comrat marketplace: did they have supermarkets like they do now, these big beasts with the brands? She laughed in my face. They had markets, yes, but they were tiny – “мелочь”, she said, or virtually nothing. There were five little shops behind what is now the city’s square, behind the “cathedral.” Mostly (if you had money), you would buy from the outdoor bazaar, which still stands in the place it did in Anna’s youth. But Anna’s family had no money. The other option was her family’s garden. Okay. So what was more common, I asked – buying food marked in Russian or Romanian? And again, she laughed! There were no labels – people had just gathered what they could and were selling things in glass jars in those little stores. I was making some very modern assumptions.

It’s no wonder. I’ve spent just over a year in Comrat, Moldova with these new ideas, behaviors and expectations. Like my shadow tags along fickle most days (disappearing in greater and lesser shade), a nagging thing begs at my heels. The entity pricks like she carries a pin, fancying herself Achilles’ adversary. It was she who reminded me of the summer house peculiarity. When I turn, she’s there: my Unfamiliar, the Unexpected. She still whispers: “But isn’t that strange…?”

She’s the reminder of the “others,” that I’m somewhere that is odd. Odd because it’s new, odd because my language isn’t perfect, odd because I have little historical context. I still don’t always “get it.” But I ache to “get it.”

So my Unfamiliar is my guide, and the sister to Perspective. These twins are conjoined as my simple answer for why we insist on exoticizing the “other”: they remind me that we other “others” already have rules that make sense! And since those rules make sense to us, and are so deeply ingrained in us, we refer to them when approaching the challenges, the questions, the idiosyncrasies of the unknown. But in my experience so far with the Moldovan “others,” I’ve learned that this “simple” answer isn’t really an answer. Instead, it’s a box – one that we haven’t cut the holes from so we can breathe.

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