Daily Archives: October 11, 2008

Hardest cutom to adjust to in my time abroad


This weeks theme for the Chilean bloggers post is “hardest custom to adjust to”.  In Chile, I can think of a few things– for example the lack of automated services (hence long lines), the health concepts about what gives people colds (for example wet hair and no slippers) or the excess of public displays of affection wherever you go… But, the two personal experiences that come to mind and I want to talk about are not Chilean examples: one is in general about kissing cultures and the other is about smiling in Moldova.

I should preface this, for people who are not long time readers of my blog, that I have been back and forth to Chile for over a dozen year with three specific years that I spent the entire time in Chile (Rancagua, Viña or Santiago) and multiple other trips of up to 2.5 months. In this time, I have also lived for two and a half years in Moldova, a former USSR state that is now located between Romania and the Ukraine.  Finally, I lived and worked for 6 months in Cambodia in 2007.

So, kissing cultures.  Kissing cultures are cultures where people great each other with a kiss. The US is not a kissing culture as we shake hands or just wave “hi”.  In Chile, a kissing culture, the norm is one kiss on the right cheek when you meet someone and when you leave.  One of my students (US to Chile) asked me if you had to kiss people even if there were 20 in the room and your were only entering for 15 minutes. The answer is yes.  You go and kiss everyone (which will take up 3-4 of your 15 minutes). Then on the way out, you kiss everyone again (another 3-4 minutes).  There are some friend groups or situations where you can get out of this, but not many.  Personally, I like the kissing even if at times overly excessive.

Other kissing cultures call for two kisses, one on each cheek.  Some call for men to kiss men (in Chile, women kiss women and men and men only kiss women).  Some cultures, although admittedly less, kiss three times: right, left, right. My group of friends in Cambodia were and eclectic expat group consisting of: Americans, Frenchmen, Germans, Swedes, Australians, Kiwis, and Finish.  The Americans were the only non-kissing culture, so we lost and everyone kissed.  The problem was in remembering who kissed how many times.  Even now I can’t remember.  I do know that if you come from a 1-kiss-culture, like Chile, and meet 2 or 3-kiss-cultures, moving your head when being done, while the other is continuing to kiss can lead to accidental kisses on the mouth.  In the end, yes it happened, and yes we all giggled about it.

The second story that comes to mind as difficult to adjust to– as the kissing culture was mostly a funny experience filled with faux pas— was smiling in Moldova.  In Moldova, I lived in a small village that was very poor, very cold, and where life was extremely difficult for the villagers.  But, like everywhere, there were joys in life.  These joys could be a beautiful day, good weather, the birth of a child, a student getting accepted into a high school or good vocational school, the birth of piglets, or a good harvest.

On the sunny days, even when below zero, I often felt myself cheered as I walked to school with sun on my face.  On several occasions, I was chastised by the locals for smiling with remarks like “what do you have to smile for”.  Apparently, the weather or having received a care package, was not a good enough answer.  The more I thought about it, the more negative I felt the culture was.

When asked, in the states or in Chile, how you are doing, the response is almost always “good”, “okay”, or “not bad”.  Even when having a bad day, unless with close friends who you really want to open up to, the culturally appropriate responsive is neutral to positive. In Moldova, when I asked that question, people often went into rants about their poor crop, mysterious pains they were having, an illness, death or loss of an animal, etc.  It was depressing!

After spending some time and making good friends, I broached the subject with a local one day.  Turns out that the culturally correct response was to be negative even if you were doing well. That way, if the other was having a hard time– and in a country like Moldova it was easy to see how the other would be struggling– you were not rubbing it in their face. In fact, your story of difficulties could be interpreted as uplifting; everyone is in this and struggling together.  My smiling, for no apparent reason, in this light was just pointing out that my life was better.  Objectively, as an American, it was.

After understanding how and why Moldova was set up this way, I still had trouble not smiling while walking in the sun (and 4 feet of snow in -35 degree weather) but at least I was no longer offended for people yelling at me about it.

Here are other participants in this week’s Chile bloggers post: