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:



  1. Interesting – and also very sad – story. I understand how it would be seen as inconsiderate to appear to be having a great time while your neighbor is really struggling, but I think I still prefer our (sometimes faked) cheerfulness.

  2. Emily– I agree that the faked cheerfulness is better, although not having to fake it was refreshing at times.

    Sara– No, I did all the traveling on my own starting at age 16 when I moved to Chile for a year. 🙂 I have been working for NGOs though.

  3. ARGH, I keep not being able to post on your blog because of some stupid WordPress error. My last comment just didn’t post so I’m going to try this again.

    Moldova sounds depressing yet strangely fascinating because it’s the polar opposite from the always cheerful, try and see the positive side culture we are used to from the U.S.

  4. Hi!
    I’m from Moldova, and for me is always interesting to find other peoples’ opinions about my country!
    The smiling thing really made me laugh. It’s true partially, I didn’t realized it could look so weird from another angle!
    I’m almost sure that the persons who asked you about your smile were old. They always like to complain and search for compassion. And also they were telling you that just because you were a foreigner , but I’m not very sure about that! I live in the capital and things here are slight different. It would be very unusual not seeing cheerful faces in town. Especially young people always smile, laugh and have fun!
    In what village were you living, by the way?

    I’m really sorry that Moldova seamed so depressive to you! Thank you for writing this blog!

  5. Buna ziua Ana.

    I lived in Nisporeni for over 2 years. Yes, most of the people who told me to stop smiling were older, but at first it was my students (8-10 grade) that explained why. Then I talked to my doctor friend and psychologist friend and they explained more. I think people did smile more in Chisnau… although not excessively. Also, i think people smiled and were joyful in their own homes and gatherings… but less so in public.

    That said, I thought Moldova was depressing in the interactions– I loved my time there and my students and friends.

    Also, congratulations on your English. It is very good.

  6. Buna seara Clare!
    Nisporeni is not such a small village as you say 😀
    You’re lucky it could been worse!

    You are right about being joyful at family gatherings, especially after some drinks… As much as I might not like it, but moldovan people drink much wine, and not only ( I saw you mentioned that in some other post too).
    Did you had the chance to go to a wedding or some other big family reunions?

    Thank you 😉

  7. Interesting comparisons. The cheek kissing thing and almost accidently kissing the person on the lips. That’s happens to me from time to time. You know how sometimes due to the angle, people may try to kiss your other cheek (the left instead of the right)? That confuses me if I’m not paying attention. I like the cheek kisses too!! I love how affectionate hispanics are (both the Spanish and the Latin Americans.)

    Moldova sounds interesting!! I’d love to go.

  8. Ana– Nisporeni is only not small because you are comparing it to other places in Moldova. Also, I did lots of work in the villages throughout the region. Also, yes, I went to engagement parties, baptisms, weddings, wedding anniversaries, funerals, end of school, birthdays and any other imaginable celebration.

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