Comparing two cultures is a privilege – if not an essential practice – that can catalyze greater understanding of the self, a native society and how societies relate to one another. My time in Moldova has helped me see beyond what I had been socialized to accept as “normal.”
People have to make sense of what they observe, and the way the human mind accomplishes this most efficiently is to draw upon previous experience. We compare and contrast, often intuitively. It’s a box – we can become trapped in it – but it’s on wheels.
More significantly, this box may symbolize solution. Moldova and America will of course be the focal point for this proposal. Just like America’s container, the Moldovans have their own. Perhaps it’s a tad taller and of different stuff, but it’s got walls and it stands. For the Moldovans, it zooms, too.
Consider this: there are elements of Moldovan life, politics, values and behaviors that mirror the life, politics, values and behaviors that have flashed bright or dark in the evolution of America. Like America, Moldova has been named a democracy. Like in America, Christmas and Easter are commonly celebrated holidays. Like Americans, Moldovans have cell phones and internet. And, like in America, people in Moldova wear yoga pants to the supermarket.
There are also bits that would knock a foreigner breathless with their “senselessness.”
One of the ongoing jokes of foreigners who come to stay in Moldova is our susceptibility to “the current.” But it’s not the actual airflow that gets us, no; it’s the divine nature of the idea that makes it virtually unquestionable. You see, “the current” is the air that blows at you from an open window, or perhaps an electric fan. And it’s said to cause sickness – perhaps the chill, or simply the air, “tip of the hat to ye olde miasma theory.” You may sit in an overcrowded minibus on a terrible summer day with no hope for relief from the heat, simply because the older woman in front of you demands that the window is shut against “the current.” It doesn’t matter if try to explain that disease is passed in multiple different ways, and that keeping a group of very close people locked into an airtight situation may, in fact, be what causes the disease – imagine that someone in that claustrophobic space, sans clean air, has the flu! And you ride in that close proximity for over an hour! It also does not matter if you try to argue the benefits of heat relief by directing a fan straight at your bed – no, “the current” springs from the fan, too! Even though it’s just recycling the stale air in your room…
Now stop. Pull back from the sensibility and the senselessness, and remember. When you were young, maybe a child, weren’t there times when you were in awe of everything around you? Don’t you remember your first stumble at your first job, that foolishly shameful blunder where, upon reflection, you thought “I suppose this is right, but… isn’t this just strange?” Then eventually, you stopped thinking about and even noticing those things and adopted them as “common sense?”
That’s what the Moldovans have done, too.
One example is related to language and the limitations posed therein. In Moldova’s Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, the dominant language is Russian. While Russian is spoken across Moldova, other communities prefer Moldovan – many younger generations speak little to no Russian. It’s the reverse in Gagauzia. Although students study Moldovan from the first grade, few can speak fluently, some understand the basics, and some cannot speak at all. There is little reason to practice when, in public, everyone speaks Russian (sometimes Gagauz), and at home others speak a second tongue (perhaps Gagauz, or Bulgarian, or Ukrainian, amongst others). But this affinity for Russian also minimizes the community’s access to world news. Many families only watch Russian news, which may perpetuate stereotypes against Europe and America. One Peace Corps trainer told us about a Russian-language show, 5 hours long, that comments on (and criticizes) American culture and politics. With this exposure, it is no wonder that Gagauzians may be skeptical of Americans or Europeans.
With this exposure, it is also no surprise the ways in which Americans may be “othered.”
I walked into a small store one morning in the shopping center close to my local bank to grab a quick breakfast. I chose the corner store with visible pastries, patronized only by an older man who was conversing with the cashier. As soon as I walked in and up to the counter, the older gentleman looked at me, asked where I was from, and I responded that I am an American volunteer. Half-jokingly, he asked: “So you eat three meals a day, too?” I chuckled politely, but was puzzled. I thought – is this a joke? What have people told him about Americans?
Several months later, I went with my partner to the Comrat State University to present the Journalism Club we have been developing. We were looking to recruit students from the Journalism Department to become mentors for our program. Toward the end of the presentation, the attending professor interrupted me with a question that evolved into an accusation. “What methods of journalism will you be teaching the students? Because I know that American methodologies may be different from our own, and I know, for example, that American journalists might criticize their parents. And although we all have different values, the family is very important in Moldova.” Although I was somewhat stunned – Americans are not all disrespectful hooligans, flouting family values! – I reassured her that we would not be teaching youth anything of the sort. I gave her the name of the textbook we are using and she thanked me.
This particular idea followed me to my office, where I recounted the tale to my organization’s director. She countered with another example. Recently, her mother was so indignant that Americans refer to their parents by their first names. The insolence! I eyed her. “Where did she get that idea?”
Apparently, the woman had been watching American movies where the characters so disrespected their parents. Gagauzians, like others, sometimes assume cultural quirks based on American movies. It’s common to air American films dubbed in Russian in this region (I spent an entire minibus ride, once, watching “Six Days Seven Nights” dubbed in the Rus. It was my only encounter with a television-equipped маршрутка). I laughed, and explained to my director that it’s only partially true – I do have some very progressive relatives who insisted that their children called them by their first names, and my brother does it jokingly to my father… But it is by no means the norm.
The multitude of perspectives you have when confronting a culture other than your own varies, of course. You can be the bystander, the “other,” the partner, the interlocutor, the integrator… but there will always be a part of you separated by a veil of experience. I now consider myself an actor in my community, though I understand that I will always, in part, be an “observer.” But you, who reads this, will be more of the “voyeur” (unless I am doing my job very well, and by extension of my writing, you too become an “observer”).
In short, when facing the “other” (not necessarily the individual, but the forces that have formed and drive the group), you’re observing another system. They have their rules, we have ours – our unique systems. Though I can assure you this thought’s hue bleeds through from my college days, the time that’s passed has paradoxically brightened its tone: we’re all just working with what we’ve got. We have evolved as a species in our little microcosms, which have, fortunately for all of us, provided lovely petri dishes for experimentation. We have learned (are still learning) what “works” in certain geographical regions, with certain histories and languages, and set up mores that have helped us become more functional social beings.
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