Picking up on the subtleties of other cultures is a slow process, with lots of awkward conversations, miscommunications and tiny-huge mistakes. Fortunately, the process is punctuated by shining moments of revelation. Someone explains what the action represents or what the word means or how the family does things back home, and pieces start fitting together like a jigsaw! Then it’s on to navigating the way through the next subtle cultural differences.
To illustrate the process of learning cultural subtleties, here are three diconnected events that happened last year, with three different people who don’t know each other at all.
I went to visit my friend, a recent migrant from mainland China, who is here on a student visa. At the time she was living in a cramped sharehouse in Ashfield. We sat in her bedroom eating dumplings, one of us on her desk chair and the other perched on the bed. After our snack, I followed her out to the kitchen to clean up our plates. She took my plate off the and rinsed it in the sink. It was just a quick splash of hot water (no detergent!!) and then the dishes were stacked in the cupboard.
I stared at her. How unhygienic! But I held back from saying anything – I was a guest after all.
It was the end of the week at work and I went to the kitchen to wash out my tea cup. The kitchen was gross! Everyone had left their unwashed mugs and plates on the bench top, presumably they would stay there until we came back to work the next week. I decided to do the right thing and wash everyone’s stuff up (just this once!) so that the kitchen wouldn’t smell bad when we came back to work. As I started cleaning, my friend (who happens to be a recent migrant from Hong Kong) came in to wash his cup too. He instinctively grabbed a teatowel and stood beside me to dry the things I washed.
“What?” He pointed down at the sudsy mugs I was depositing on the drying rack. Why wasn’t I washing the soap off? I laughed at him and told him it would be fine, but he wasn’t joking. He slowly started wiping the mugs, and as soon as I had let the soapy water out of the basin, the rest of the soapy stuff was rinsed for him.
I had a church friend over for dinner, also a migrant from mainland China on a student visa. She helped me cook and at the end of all the preparation, I got stuck into the washing and my friend stood next to me to dry. Again, I left things covered in suds on the drying rack. Again, this friend pulled me up:
“You left soap on the plate”
“I know. It’s OK, you can just wipe it off with the tea towel.”
“Oh, really? In China, the soap is very bad for you and it is dangerous to eat it.”
Argh!!! There it was!!! Everything suddenly made sense, like I had made it to the end of a detective story. Some kind of detective story about washing dishes. Now I am slightly more equipped to interact smoothly with Chinese people when doing the washing up. Cross Cultural Win!
Now it’s time to work out one of the 50 million other points of cultural confusion.