Toilet Paper Whoas

(The title of this post is 100% plagiarized from an email from my big brother, John.)

For some reason, I seem to have a lot of conversations about:

-using the washroom in developing countries

-(not) using toilet paper in developing countries

-squatty potties

-falling into sewage

I would like to think that everyone experiences this phenomenon. (If this is not the case, don’t burst my bubble.) On a related note, two things happened this week.

1. I received the following email from my brother who is currently living in Ecuador:

Hi Amelia, Have you ever had to put a coin into a Toilet paper dispenser? I know humans commonly dispense [it] in India, but even there, is it objectively rationed as a machine might? If so, do you have any recollection of how many squares come in a portion? There’s a blog topic swirling around my mind…is thurs. good for you to talk?

A blog topic swirling around in his mind–BAHAHA! Now you see where I get my creative genius and stunning wit.

Apparently, John had to purchase a package of toilet paper (for $1 USD).

Toilet paper packages, finger shown for scale

The contents of a dispensed toilet paper package: 12 squares.

John, as much as we feel for you and would strongly advise you to invest in a whole entire roll, we have one very important question: which direction do the toilets flush? Does it vary within the country depending on which side of the Equator you’re on? Please advise.

2. The second thing that happened was that we had our first small group/home church/Bible study of the year. For a warm-up, Varun and I decided to play Two Truths and A Lie, just to keep things holy. Here’s what I wrote:

-I have eaten rattlesnake

-I have fallen into sewage

-I have met Obama

Apparently, this caused serious confusion. Some people didn’t think I was brave enough to eat rattlesnake. Some people felt it unlikely that I’ve met Obama. And then there was my lovely friend C, who happily proclaimed, “But guys, think about it! If any of my friends is likely to have fallen in poo, it’s Amelia. She’s like a magnet to awful situations!”

Ummm…thanks? I struggled to keep a straight face as I laughed on the inside.

C was right: I am a bit of a catastrophe magnet, and I have fallen into poo. Like, submerged in it.

(GAG)

On to more polite conversation: have you ever had toilet paper rationed? If so, what was the given amount? Have you ever used a toilet paper dispenser? How much did it cost?

Many Villages::The Depths of Cultural Differences

This semester I’m taking a course on Cross-cultural counselling. Part of the coursework is a weekly journal reflecting on anything I’ve learned, thought about or found challenging from the course material. I decided to post parts of these reflections in a weekly series called “Many Villages”.

I didn’t realize how much I like talking about/processing culture until class this week. (The fact that I blog about this very subject should have been a clue to me, but there you have it.) As we brainstormed the meaning of words like culture and respect, I got super excited for the semester. Dr. Chow shared his own experiences in interacting with others from varying cultures and said in passing that as a Chinese man, he never makes assumptions about other Chinese people, because“there are many villages in China”.

Sometimes, I forget that even our home is made up of several villages. I come from a home with influences from Sicily, Ireland and Germany. Varun comes from a home with influences from two regions in India. Between us, we have lived in 12 cities in 5 countries. It would be an understatement to say that there are ideas and ideals from many villages floating in the air of the Rana Household.

And yet, I forget. I make snap decisions, assumptions about people’s motivations, and value assessments using a rather 2D model. My default is to look at the world–people, behaviours and ideas–through the lens of my own experience. This seems obvious, and you’d think that someone in an intercultural marriage would be aware of this. And I am. Yet at the same time, I’m not. Culture runs so deep.

In a real sense, culture is the behavioral expression of one’s values, appreciations and tastes, and relational style in both simple and serious matters of life. Add to this the dimensions of language and cultural memory, and you have worlds within worlds. In effect, culture provides the how and why of an individual’s behavior…” (-I’ve had this quote in a word document for a long time, and I can’t seem to remember it’s author. No plagiarism intended)

Worlds within worlds is, perhaps, the best way of describing it. Too often, I chalk up culture to variations in cuisine and music. I reduce culture to a set of behaviours I can mimic, words I can decode and festivals and celebrations we can adopt. In some sense, I think this is a way of protecting our marriage, wanting to see culture as an opportunity, not an obstacle. And yet, deep down, I know that my cultural background permeates my very being.

Who would I be if I were not an American? If I were not raised in a Catholic home in the late 20th century? What would I think if I were not of European descent? What would seem rude to me if I were raised in a family-oriented, honor-bound culture?

These questions echo through my thoughts, unwilling to be anchored by answers. Because in truth, I have no idea. And this is how I know that my culture—my context, values, beliefs, traditions, foods, memories—goes much deeper than I could imagine. It is far more than losing one’s accent or changing a mode of dress.

Let me give you an example from my own marriage. [Note: This story is not meant to criticize or invoke hurt, gossip or dissent. It’s meant to illustrate how deeply affected I am by my culture ideas, and how much growing I have to do!]

There is a certain behaviour that I have noticed in an Indian family member that I find confusing. I perceive it as something meant to belittle me, and as something that is selfish. I have tried to explain my frustration with this behaviour to Varun, but it never seems to bother him as much as it does me.

Last weekend, we went on a day trip with a family in our neighborhood from South Asia. This family is new to Canada and has quickly become dear to us. We had a wonderful day together! Yet, to my surprise, this same behaviour was manifested in the majority of our new friends! I watched as Varun responded with—what seemed to me to be—grace. As we talked about the events of the day, I expressed admiration of him for his patience. He looked at me, perplexed. I told Varun how patient he was when this particular behaviour occurred repeatedly. Varun laughed, and shrugged, noting that this is a totally normal behaviour. “But didn’t you feel patronized?”, I asked, remembering my agitation. “No. It’s just practical. There’s nothing about you in it, and culturally, it’s an important expression”.

I looked at Varun, sensing the currents of Indian values and collective memories that swirl beneath the surface of his Canadian persona. Even as we create a hybrid culture in our home, we are deeply different.

It’s amazing to me that I can have such a strong gut reaction to something that, to Varun, was not at all noteworthy. And yet as I considered Varun’s understanding of it, and the fact that it was never meant as an affront to me, my feelings began to shift.

Interacting with other cultures is so much more than trying new foods or watching films with subtitles (although this is awesome and important!). It means doing the difficult work of excavating long-held patterns of thought, allowing expressions to have multiple meanings and offering patience and grace. It is also incredibly rewarding; it affords opportunities for exploration and expansion, for stretching myself beyond my natural reactions and gut feelings.

It might take our entire lifetime together for Varun and I to begin to fit into the skins of our hybrid culture. I imagine that even as an elderly couple we will still have the rhythm of our mother cultures pulsing through our veins. My hope is that through the years we will not minimize our cultural differences to guard ourselves from conflict. Nor will we allow the differences to define us, to make us forget that we are family. But if nothing else, Varun’s good-natured patience is sure to smooth out some of my rough edges.

_______________________________

What do you find difficult in interacting with friends or family from other cultures? Do you notice any behaviours or ideas that make you uncomfortable? How are you succeeding at learning and growing from these challenges?

Political Correctness Fail

The conversation screeched to a halt and I was met with staring faces: two shocked (my Canadian friends) and one amused and what-have-you-done-now? (Varun).

Me: Um. What?

B: You said ‘Eskimo’.

(Apparently this requires no further explanation)

Me: Yeah. As in, igloos. I don’t get it. Is this a bad word?

A: We do not say Eskimo in Canada!

(Expectant silence. I think my apology would go here)

Varun: Oh! Is it like calling someone [insert racially inappropriate term here]?

Me: Varun!

A and B: (Thoroughly scandalized)

A: Amelia. How can you have lived in Canada for 6 years and not know that? The correct term is Inuit.

[Don’t worry, these girls are my dear friends and have stuck by me through much worse.]

As humorous as this moment was, it was also an intriguing reminder that beneath my poutine-cooking ways and long vowels, I’m not Canadian. Somehow, I missed the Eskimo memo.

As I thought about it, I began to be concerned that maybe this wasn’t an America/Canada thing, maybe this is jut a political correctness fail. Thankfully, my Dad hit up Wikipedia and clarified everything:

The term Eskimo is commonly used by those in the lower 48 and in Alaska to include both Yupik and Inupiat. No universal term other than Eskimo, inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people, exists for the Inuit and Yupik peoples.[1] In Canada and Greenland, the term Eskimo has fallen out of favour, as it is sometimes considered pejorative and has been replaced by the term Inuit.

My Dad’s email concluded with a typical Dad-line, “Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you have an entire course on this?”

Oh dear. The man never forgets when he shells out cash for me to take a course of circumpolar geography.

For my American amigos (are we allowed to say ‘amigos’?), Nunavut is the northernmost territory in Canada. As you might imagine, Geography of Nunavut was less than jam-packed. The class consisted of our professor leaning against his desk sporting moccasins and drinking coffee out of a worn tin mug while telling stories. For an entire semester he regaled us with his adventures in Nunavut, braving blizzards, researching seal migration and learning Inkutitut (ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ)). I don’t remember the banning of the word Eskimo, but I do remember being very hung up on the fact that the capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, has a population of 6,699. People.

Iqaluit

The Inuit, as I’m told they like to be called, are amazingly resilient people. Seriously. Do some googling about northern Canada. And then go outside and embrace the waning days of summer. And please do not say ‘Eskimo’ at a Canadian luncheon.

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