Monday, June 05, 2006

Launching International Culture Clatch undefined period of time

I almost used the word clash, but you know, that's not what it is. It's not quite an exchange, either. So I'll play on the idea of a coffee clatch, where gossip and misunderstanding can take you on a surprising turn. (And I won't define how long this will go on...at least two times, wihtin some span of time. LOL)

I've decided to explore some central culture issues, across cultures.

I decidedly do not live in a homogenous society. In fact, homogenous societies sort of make me feel a little uncomfortable. It's all in what you are used to and I am used to a society of differences. Even so, sometimes it's easy to get all caught up in our American-ness and forget, oh yeah, the rest of the world doesn't have a celebration on July 4th, although everywhere in the world does actually have a July 4th. Actually, July 4th is why I was thinking about my Norwegian friend, the one who questioned me about Greeks.

The other day I was talking, so to speak, to a friend about Germany and Greeks. Every time I think of Greeks, I picture tall, gorgeous blondes. First, we have all of those statues of gorgeous, athletic Greeks, so the gorgeous part is just my visual. Second, I knew one, in real life, a real person. This guy was tall, golden and gorgeous. He was Pure Greek, and even had the nose and name to prove it, as he said.

See, here is where the odd American question issue crops up. Do people in other cultures ask questions like this, so stuck in their own POV? Not in my experience, but I’d like to hear in case my experience is, well, limited.

People would ask this guy, the Greek one, “So, like, are you a real Greek?”

Is it simply poor phrasing?

Usually he’d say, “Yes, I’m a real Greek,” and let it go. But once in a while I heard him snark, “No, I’m fake.” The amazing part, really, is that the person would nod, as if expecting that answer, and go along his or her merry way!

I knew that often, Greeks were dark, swarthy, but, like I said, being from a diverse culture, I assumed okay some are dark and some are fair.

This assumption came into question by my Norwegian friend, Pal.

The first problem Pal and I had was that we were both in a foreign country (France as it happens), and neither of us spoke each other’s language of origin, originally. One thing about fluency in theory (that is, learning it and not living in the place where it is spoken)…you will never be a native speaker, and language malfunctions will occur.

We initially conversed in French (which he was fluent in and I knew enough of to embarrass myself) and ultimately he switched over to English, for my ease and his amusement. Although, I got a little amusement out of it too.

I learned Swiss French. This creates a great deal of amusement when I am in France. Southern French people can’t even understand me. Fair enough, since I can’t understand them either. The dialect is different, and the accent difficult, particularly outside of the larger towns. Now larger towns speak what I call generic, a term that can apply to almost any language in any large city. I think people in large cities are more used to varying accents, as well. I learned Large City Generic Swiss French, which at least gets me some appreciation in cities outside of Switzerland, like oh say Paris, for example.

When Pal and I spoke French, we each had lovely (or dreadful) accents from our native language, and vocabulary and comprehension issues. Okay, I had vocabulary and comprehension issues.

Which might have been what was at play when we discussed the Swiss invasion of Greece. However, I think that conversation occurred in English, right after the Great Belgian Debacle.

Okay here we go: I though Pal was Belgian. I was working off of stereotypes (how he looked and behaved) and the accent I heard in his French. (Admit it, there is a perceived cultural norm, things we associate with certain countries and its citizens.)

However, I’m not near as savvy as I think, clearly.

He was bewildered as I quizzed him endlessly about Belgium. When we finally reached the point at which I asked him if he missed it there, and he asked why, and I said something about home, he was decidedly Not Amused to have been perceived as Belgian.

“I am NORWEGIAN,” he said, with a slight chest thump for emphasis. He leaned back in the hotel lounge’s large leather chair, picked up his cocktail, puffed his thin cigar, his throat still working agitatedly above his cravat.

At this point, I stuttered and stumbled and muttered and mumbled, hopefully getting an apology across. I was way too embarrassed to explain why I though he was Belgian. I’m sure that would have made matters even worse, so when asked, I said simply, “I must have gotten confused, I thought someone said you were from Belgium.”

He reassured me he was NOT, and, in fact, had never even been there, with no plans to go.

Why this was necessary to him, I don’t know.

If I am mistaken as a foreigner, I take it as a compliment. HA! I managed to shed enough of my American shell to fool you! This means I have been more polite than you would expect from an American or have better foreign language skills than you expect from an American.

Hey, I’m as proud of the US as the next guy, despite the clean and bumper sticker-free back window of my car, and I’ll own up to being American every time.

But let’s face it, our international reputation? Not so good. So I accept the compliment as intended, and move forward, swallowing back any perceived insult.

However, in this conversation with Pal, he was feeling slighted so he extended what he’d consider a retaliatory dig at me,” I’d never mistake you as anything other than American,” he said, smiling, smirking really.

“Good,” I said chirpily, recognizing the intended insult, “I wear my sneakers and jeans with honor.” Even though I had on slacks and espadrilles.

He smirked again, then just puffed, drank, smirked, puffed, drank, smirked.

Growing somewhat annoyed, I said, all the while knowing I was the pot calling the kettle black, “You know, not everyone looks any one way or acts any one way, even if they are from the same place.”

He raised his eyebrows, “This is not true of Norway.”

“I’ve only met blonde Norwegians, but I feel certain there are shades of blonde and even brunettes, too. You aren’t all the same,” I told him, confidently.

His eyes narrowed, “Norwegians are as fair as Greeks are dark.”

HA! I had him! “Not all Greeks are dark,” I said, “Some are blonde!” I sat up a little straighter with my winning salvo.

He sat down his drink, put out his cigar and leaned forward. He spoke slowly, as one would to a simpleton, “There are no blonde Greeks.”

I said, “I know a blonde Greek and his entire family is blonde with blue eyes.”

“Immigrants,” he said with a wave of his hand.

“No,” I said, “I happen to know his family goes back as far as they can trace, to Greece. We talked about it one time.”

Determined to have the last word, he said, “Then they are immigrants. Must be descended from the time the Swiss invaded Greece.”

History is a little hobby of mine, but I could think of no known war or invasion, much less conflict, that I had ever heard between Switzerland---isn’t that the neutral country?---and Greece. Greece has certainly had its share of trouble with invading and invaders, and even ongoing trouble to this day. But nothing to my knowledge, with Switzerland.

“I’m sorry,” I said, puzzled, “The time the Swiss invaded Greece?”

Could this be a language malfunction? By invade, did he mean immigrate?

“Of course,” he said, “Swiss. He is clearly Swiss.”

We were interrupted and never did finish the conversation. Before I made any other decision, I researched and found no altercation between Switzerland and Greece.

Therefore, I have concluded he was having a bit of fun with me. Perhaps mocking me, assuming I had assumed something about him---erroneously---based on his appearance.

He seemed so serious about it, though. And every time after that, I’d query, “Swiss invading Greece?” He’d smile and nod, “Yes. No blonde Greeks, not real Greeks,” so convincingly, that I began to wonder…what in the world do Norwegian history textbooks contain?

It occurs to me we might have incredibly different perceptions of the world not just due to current cultural diferences, but also due to education.

Technology may be shrinking the world, and Europe may have unified to some degree, but there isn't per se any one universally agreed upon history, much less a universal focus.

For all I know, some teacher somewhere told a young Pal that once upona time, the Swiss invaded Greece. For all I know, this might have been ommitted in my own education.

Then again, he was probably just mocking me.

Although I usually reseve that right for the French. ;)

Next time...the trouble with Spanglish and tricky words like food poisoning.

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2 comments:

Veronica Mitchell said...

Hmm. Your Norwegian friend makes me think that cultures differ, but boors are universal.

Julie Pippert said...

Too true...people vary but you can meet a boorish bore anywhere, or is that everywhere.