When Cultures Collide: No, Really. It’s Not About You.

When Cultures Collide: No, Really. It’s Not About You.

Before I was allowed to consider my upcoming trip for a special International Studies Certificate at my college, I had to attend the same study abroad orientation as any other student. I say “as any other student” because, as a friend pointed out, these things seemed to be geared more toward, say, nineteen year olds who lived with mom and not thirty year olds going to visit friends in a country they’ve already been to, but a lot of the content was surprisingly helpful, and really stuck with me. So I guess I’m kind of glad I had to do it?

Last week I mentioned that on our first night in Romania we had some issues at the grocery store. What I didn’t really get into was how I had a complete and utter breakdown after we got back from shopping. Seriously, it was awful. I was sitting on the rug, I was crying, I was declaring repeatedly that I wanted to go home. Maybe it was the jet lag, but it was also something else:

I thought it was about me.

See, one of the things we talked about in that orientation was how “culture is an iceberg” and only so much of it is above the surface. This is a pretty common concept that you can read about all over the internet if you just do a quick search, but essentially the idea is that you can only observe so much of a culture, the rest must be experienced and learned over time and is “below the surface” like the rest of the iceberg. (You know, the concept “that’s just the tip of the iceberg?” That’s this.)

This very monotone but otherwise very brief video sums it up pretty well:

Coming in to Romania, I really thought I had a pretty firm grasp on their culture. I have Romanian friends (really, that should have been a red flag right there—ever heard “One of my best friends is _______!” yeah, silly past me. What were you thinking?) I had been reading about Romania and its culture for most of my life, I kept up to date with Romanian news and did tons of research before arriving, but still I found that when I got there certain things escaped me.

There were little things later on on the trip, like waiting a long time for the waitstaff to bring us the bill (you have to tell them you are ready) and not needing to say “excuse me” every time you bump into someone (“Scuze is more for, like… well, not for little things,” a friend told me while we were there) but the first night was the worst and most eye opening experience of cultural disconnects, and the one that really taught me the most about visiting new countries in hindsight. When I was being told about the iceberg model it was literally the first thing that I thought of, and now? I’m really glad I had that experience. Even if it wasn’t as bad as I felt like it was at the time.

The Grocery Store Incident

I grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, with family in South Carolina and Georgia, the land of yes ma’am and no sir and politely talking about the weather and smiling at people even if you don’t like them, and when I was first introduced to the fact that non-Americans find it weird when we smile at strangers I made sure to commit to memory even if it didn’t make sense to me; I tried hard not to randomly smile at people on the street and to keep a straight face. I mean, it was difficult because of who I am as a person, but I tried my best to research How To Not Look Like A Stupid American Abroad and was committed to the cause: I was going to do as the locals do, no matter what.

Our first night in Romania, I wanted to make sure we had something for breakfast and wanted to check out the nearest Mega Image, which is literally the Romanian version of Food Lion for those of you who grew up in North Carolina like I did. We had fun even though we were overwhelmed and enjoyed seeing the Food Lion logo on everything (which, you know I now know is the logo for the whole conglomerate, but to me it will always be Food Lion) and eventually it was time to pay.

This sign translates to, basically, “Now open 24/7!” (Yes, there are some Romanian words that will look funny to Americans. Yes, you get over it extremely quickly.)

I’m used to seeing things at our local grocery stores like “10 items or less, this lane” or even “cash only, this lane” and since there were signs hanging over the checkout lanes, I assumed one of these must be something like that. We looked in our basket and had quite a few things, so we figured we needed to be in a non express lane, except oh right my Romanian was not only terrible but we had been awake for over 24 hours and translating was suddenly very difficult.

My husband remembered at this point that we had the Google Translate app, which translates images in real time. Like signs! What a great idea!

Except for, you know, the fact that every grocery store in Romania has security posted up near the front.

Did you know that? I mean, I was used to seeing stuff like that in little stop and go places in big cities, but I wasn’t prepared to see it in Romania. Except we were in a huge city. It made sense.

I barely remember now what he was saying exactly, but the jist of it was extremely clear even with my bad Romanian: no photos, no taking pictures, if you’re going to do that you need to get out.

My husband put his phone away after we failed to explain what was actually going on, and we stood stressed out at ten at night in this foreign grocery store trying to decide what lane to get in, now having caused a huge scene and made it obvious that we were tourists in a strange place.

We picked a lane at random, now eager to get out of the store, and ended up trying to just follow someone with the same amount of things we did. It later turned out that there was no express lane, they were all the same, but I think this is a pretty good rule of thumb for foreign grocery stores. Eventually it was our turn and we fumbled over the lack of conveyor belts and purchased a reusable bag and at no point did the cashier greet us, smile, say hello, or anything. In fact, it seemed like she was glaring at us while ringing up our groceries, and I felt sure that it was because of the incident. Or because she hated us. She had to repeat the amount twice and sounded completely exasperated, and when I finally pulled out my cash and she helped me find the right bills I wanted nothing more than to collapse in tears at how everyone in Romania probably hated us, which was a stupid thing to think even if it was how I felt.

So as soon as we got back to the apartment, I did. Remember that breakdown I mentioned earlier?

It was bad.

Where We Had It Wrong

This incident became a favorite anecdote to share during our trip, and may of our Romanian friends all had the same response: in their country, it was not necessary for cashiers to be “fake polite” the way they are in the United States. Even working a shift at the grocery store with confused foreigners at ten at night, they just had to ring people up. It wasn’t in the job description to ask about my day, if I found everything alright, to smile at me and to say hello. Sometimes we got a cursory “good evening” out of people, but more often than not it was the same everywhere during our trip: they wanted to take our money, sell us the things we were buying, and let everyone get on with their day.

If I had stopped to think about the cultural differences, I probably would have had an easier time. Instead of considering that “iceberg” concept that maybe taking photos in grocery stores is weird or maybe people don’t have to be nice, I assumed I had screwed something up majorly and that everyone was going to hate me and that I was never going to fit in. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

As I get ready to return to Romania, I’m trying hard to do so with an open mind and to be ready to accept things that might be different. It’s still important to be self-aware, but I think a huge part of that awareness when encountering a new culture is being aware of your surroundings and of your willingness to be polite and live like a local rather than assuming immediately that everything is about you.

Sometimes it’s just about the culture, and about everyone else, and it’s not about you at all.

How very American of us to assume that, right?

You’ll adjust eventually. I promise.