Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cross-Cultural Consternation

I'm perched on the couch that I vacuumed decades of dust out of yesterday, finally unpackaging the vacuum that our landlord inexplicably bought us a couple of weeks after I complained bitterly of the mess and and the "repairman" who had "fixed" out bathroom door made. I've just eaten a bowl of muesli and yogurt, the latter which, after spending a night in my broken fridge does not seem to have been saved by a transfer to the slightly cooler environment in the apartment across the hall. Rather than admit defeat and want to take out the broken icebox fiasco on my landlord through bodily harm, I ingest this slightly-rancid coconut-flavored mess with a bit of regret; the strange feeling in my throat leads me to fear I'll have to eat the costs instead of the rest of the yogurt.
Yesterday, I attended the CMRS seminar. My friend Natalie was presenting her findings on the Sudanese she works with and, though I didn't expect a poor performance, I was particularly impressed by her professionalism and the soundness of her research. Exhausted, I didn't stay long when a veritable herd of us trekked over to Horraya, instead preferring to return to the abode of the broken fridge.
Prior to the seminar, a man had showed up at my door speaking to me in Arabic and then got Ahmed, my landlord, on the phone to translate. He was there to diagnose our refrigerator which involved mostly poking it with a screwdriver. He left without having accomplished much, assuring me he'd return "bokra", tomorow. I accepted this and was therefore surprised when I was sitting on this self-same couch watching the documentary, Taliban Country, and heard my doorbell. It was my dear friend from earlier with a buddy carrying a bag of breadsticks, hardly the tools of the trade of a "refrigerator specialist" as my landlord would later inform me this man was. Convincing, really. The specialist and the generalist banged about loudly in my kitchen for sometime and, when I went in to see just what they were up to, I found, to my horror, that they'd commandeered one of our kitchen knives to use as a tool. As a certifiable OCD-ridden hypochonrdiacal germophobe, I was just imagining what kind of plague and poison were now infesting this utensil with which I may want to slice bread or prepare food in the future. Hoping that the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach would be my saving grace, I retired to my living room and the documentary until I heard water running. Lo and behold, they were washing up, availing themselves of perhaps the only bottle of eco-friendly, Method brand dish soap in all of Africa and my preciously scarce paper towels. In the process, they'd manage to throw the sullied knife on top of my clean silverware. At this point I let out a series of unintelligible gasps, grabbed the knife, and flinged it into the sink. I was tired, nerves frayed, and had come unhinged. In the end, of course, I can wash the knife and I likely won't miss the bit of wasted dish soap, but it was my fatigue that trumped up this violation of my personhood in my mind. Now, let me point out that there is a distinction between lambasting another culture and lamenting that the differences between one's own and another cause frustration. I am here engaging in the latter NOT the former. In general, expectations about personal space and one's personal possessions in the States are such that we don't touch strangers unless we must (to get someone's attention, to prevent them being hurt, etc. and even then we're uncomfortable with it) whereas here, you're touched all the time. People here wanting to get past you on the metro don't put their arms down and maneuver through, but rather grab the shoulders and touch the backs of every person on the way out the door. And then, there's the apparently more communal conception of possessions that leads the men working on my fridge to think that they can, without asking, use my things. My friend Erin discovered that workers general expect you to make them tea, especially if you're a woman. This was confirmed by my Egyptian friend, Reham. When the man who we quite erroneously called a carpenter"fixed" our bathroom door, he demanded bottled water. And then, as I've mentioned, there was the time when my landlord was over and I offered him something to drink and he never drank it or said thank you despite asking for it. Or the time when the "carpenter" and the landlord took a bar of soap from our bathroom and rubbed it along Ross's door to try and make it fit into the doorframe better. Then of course there's the related but different matter of the landlord, workers, etc. just crossing the threshold of the door and trampling all around the apartment. Once, the landlord just opened the door and waltzed into my bedroom (thankfully I wasn't in there sleeping or anything). Where I'm from, this would be perceived as an uncouth sense of entitlement. I constantly remind myself though that this idea is completely alien to the transgressors of which I've just so verbosely complained. I look for some alternate explanation, like some kind of noble idea that everyone's in this thing (life) together and share and share-alike, etc. In any case, however I may, in all humble cultural sensitivity, justify or explain their actions to myself, it drives me batty.
Well, while I've been on this rant, the original man (not the "specialist") who came to fix my fridge in fact showed up, ordered me to empty out the appliance, and, with two other men, took the broken-down old thing away. Now, supposedly we'll have the fridge back with a "new engine" in it yet today. We'll see what that timeframe we're really talking later on. I'd go and make lunch now but my frozen vegetables, thawed and refrozen, are across the hall and I'm not sure if anyone's home.

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