Friday, March 29, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: They Leave Their Babies Outside

Our guest today is Amulya Malladi, the author of five novels published by the Random House Publishing Group. Born and raised in India, she has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in journalism. When she is not writing books, she works as a marketer at a medical device company. She has lived in four countries, 10 cities, and about 14 different houses since she left India 17 years ago and met her husband. Currently, she lives in Copenhagen (technically, just 10 minutes from Copenhagen, but it’s not quite suburbia—just suburbia-ish). The weather is complete crap in Denmark—and she does wonder why she ever left California. On the other hand, she loves Europe, appreciates its charm, and believes that nothing beats Copenhagen on a warm, sunny day. The only problem is warm and sunny days are pretty rare in Copenhagen. You can reach her at
A friend of mine was visiting me in Copenhagen from New York. We went for a walk down to a café and, on our return, she saw my neighbor’s pram outside in the garden. She thought nothing of it until the pram started to move and she heard the wail of a baby. She froze and stared at me. “Are you telling me there’s a baby in there?” When I confirmed her suspicion, she stared at the pram in horror. “They leave their babies outside?”
It was just one of the things that had baffled me about Denmark when I first moved here more than a decade ago.
When I had left India 17 years ago to come to America, everyone told me to be prepared for culture shock. I was so prepared that I didn’t have any. I took everything in my stride. However, when we moved to Denmark, I had not been prepared. I was already an immigrant, and Europe is just about the same as the U.S., I’d thought back then. Not quite, because when I moved to Denmark, I was slammed with culture shock. Denmark was and is very different from the United States and, initially, it was hard to take things in stride—in part, because I was no longer 21 and, partly, because some of the stuff was really out there.
My first brush with Danish weirdness happened before I lived in Denmark. My husband who is Danish and I were living in London and had flown to Denmark for a 115th birthday celebration. Yes, I was confused too. One of the oldest people in the world? No, my husband told me—they do this in Denmark. His aunt and uncle were celebrating their respective 45th birthdays; their daughter, her 15th; and their son, his 10th—hence it was 115 years of birthday celebration.
The party took place in the ass-end of nowhere, in a sort of community house in rural Denmark. The whole family attended and, for the first time, I was very conscious about being the only brown person in a room full of about over a hundred white people. Living in California and even London for the past few months, I was never the only brown person anywhere. But here, it was lily white—all blonde hair and blue eyes and me. Added to that, I didn’t know a lick of Danish then. All my husband had taught me was to say, “Tak for mad,” which means “Thank you for the food.” It’s a Danish thing you say after a meal to the host. According to my husband, even now after a decade of living in Denmark, as far as he’s concerned, as long as I can say “Tak for mad,” that’s all I need to know.

So here I was at a 115th birthday party with people speaking in Danish all around me, looking at me, and talking to me through Søren at times, and sometimes uncomfortably in English themselves—and I was very aware that I was this exotic doll to my husband’s family. They were all very welcoming and fascinated. But this was an unusual place for me to be.
Still, even this scenario was not the most surprising thing about that party. The most surprising thing happened when, in the middle of the meal, pieces of paper with what looked like Danish poetry was handed out to everyone.
Apparently, it was tradition. When it’s someone’s birthday, someone close to that someone writes a song about them, set to one of the traditional tunes (one that everyone knows), and then, when the person who wrote the song indicates, everyone stands up, holds hands, and sings the song as they sway.
No, really, they do.
My husband grinned at me and said something along the lines of, “Go with the flow, babe,” and I certainly did. I couldn’t read the lyrics and didn’t know the melody, but I held hands and swayed while wondering what the hell kind of a whack job family I had married into. But I also realized something else—that inherently Danish families were no different from Indian families. We had our Bollywood song and dance, and they made up their own song and dance.
By the way, most non-Danes who marry into Danish families will describe this song-singing activity as one of the weirdest things they experience in their new culture.
And then there is that whole leaving babies outside business. I can’t tell you the number of times I have walked down the street to find a wailing baby carriage outside a café or a store. Then I stand by the carriage, shaking it to calm the baby down, while I ask my husband (if he’s with me) to go inside and find the errant mommy. I have knocked on people’s doors, because they can’t hear their baby cry outside. I’m not saying Danes are heartless—they have baby monitors etcetera, and they do love their babies, but they also believe that wrapping babies up in Arctic-grade clothing and leaving them outside is the best way for them to sleep. This also means that Danish babies can only sleep in their prams and, since Danish weather is mostly unpleasant, I have seen many a parent walking around the street during a storm, pushing a pram, trying to put their baby to sleep.
I don’t abide by this. If fresh air is so important to babies, open a window in the house. However, this leaving babies outside to sleep business also shows how comfortable Danish society is with the custom and how safe it is. No one thinks twice about it. You go to a café, and you leave your baby outside in the pram. And no one takes your baby away. I think this is what shocks us non-Danes about the Danes.
There are many, many other things that made me go whoa! when I first moved to Denmark. I was shocked at how culturally different Denmark was from the U.S. I expected Denmark to be different from India, but it was surprising how far apart Europe and the U.S. are.
I’m still baffled at the xenophobia and that the concept of the melting pot is alien to Danes. They sincerely believe that you come to Denmark and become Danish; you leave your old self, culture, and traditions behind.
And after a decade in Denmark, I’m baffled that in the U.S., they’re still talking about gay marriage and abortion, whereas this discussion is just not happening in Scandinavia. It’s been a done deal for some time. Gay people can marry, and women can do what they like with their private parts.
I have now lived in South Asia, the United States, and Europe—and it’s been quite an education. Mostly, what I’ve learnt is that people are different. You can’t box them into a generalization. You can’t say, “All Americans…,” or “All Europeans…,” or even “All Danes…”—because it’s just not true.
New Yorkers are so very different from Californians, who are different from the people down south in Memphis, where I went to school.
The French are so different from the Italians, who are so different from the Brits.
And the Swedes and Norwegians and Danes are very different culturally from each other—though food generally sucks in both Norway and Denmark.
I think I have now moved past culture shock to the point that nothing really surprises me. I have traveled enough, met enough people from around the world, and become a citizen of the world myself that I don’t just tolerate the peccadilloes of various cultures but accept and appreciate them—and when possible, enjoy them.
Amulya and her husband in Milan.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

You Can Never Go Home, Reverse Culture Shock

By Kelly Raftery

As a newly minted Russian Area Studies degree holder, a chance meeting with another student led me to my first job in Russia--representing the western half of a joint venture in St. Petersburg. I had been a study abroad student in the same city a year and a half previously, except at the time it was still called Leningrad. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a great many new opportunities for those of us who spoke Russian. So, off I flew into dark and dreary St. Petersburg with just a duffel bag and the hope someone would meet me at the airport.  

That first job crammed more life experience into nine months than I could have gained stateside in as many years. There was no gradual, planned out progression from one country to fifteen, from a command economy to a free-for-all capitalist system, it all literally happened in the space of months. There were no adequate laws on the books to address all the new commercial transactions, there was no concept of consumer protection, and even if there were laws on the books, enforcement was irregular and arbitrary. Those months in Russia featured experiences like being relieved of every single thing I owned by a robber who politely left me a single pair of underwear, socks, and my toothbrush, becoming acquainted with victims of mafia hits as well as a mafia hit man, and shopping for black market weapons with an engineer friend. Those of us who lived in Russia at that time are a funny bunch; I just recently renewed ties with someone I had known as a child, not knowing we had both lived in Russia during the crazy early 90s. She told me she had been kidnapped, I told her how impressive that was, but that I had been held at gunpoint, she countered with, “I've been shot at and held at knife point, but not held at gunpoint. Yeah my life seems boring now. I never get abducted and tortured by strangers.”  This was the world we all lived in, those of us who worked in Russia and the other former Soviet Republics in the 1990s.

A book of rationing coupons from the 1990s.
The value of the ruble fell daily. I would wait until the absolute last minute to pay my phone bill to ensure that hyper-inflation and devaluation was working in my favor. One memorable month I owned the equivalent of about $250 when the bill arrived. By the time I walked into the payment point a few weeks later, I parted with about $15 in rubles. During the difficult winter months, certain foods were available only with ration coupons, which left out foreigners like me. Instead, my coworkers would obtain cheese and sausage for me via friends with “backdoor” contacts, retail workers who supplied the Black Market.
In summer, the hot water was turned off to sections of the city in turn, ostensibly for maintenance reasons. I remember rotating among friends’ apartments for a rare hot shower and simply steeling myself for the piercing arrows of cold water that shot out of my faucet the rest of the week. Hot showers took on the allure of erotic fantasy. If you had asked my 23 year old self for a definition of ultimate pleasure it would have probably involved a hamburger and fries (a 30 dollar extravagance at the time), a hot shower, inch-thick towels and pajamas washed in a machine with fabric softener. There were no Laundromats, no washing machines or dryers at that time in Russia either. Dealing with dirty clothes boiled down to washing it by hand or paying someone to do it for you and my meager salary did not stretch to household help.         
The first McDonald's in Russia - still the world's busiest. 
Nirvana to my 20 something self.
Eventually, I came home. And after I was home for a while, I went back to Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union many times. Each time I was in the United States, I was struck by an incredible feeling of unreality. If in Russia I was an exotic fish, as professional western women were a rarity there in the early 1990s, at home I was a fish completely out of water. I certainly spoke English with my bland Midwestern accent and for all intents and purposes, I was a twenty-something American woman. I would stand at parties, completely unable to make small talk, confused when the conversation turned to the latest episode of “Friends”, the best bar on the North Side or what music was on the radio that week. It was all so alien and strange. In Russia, making it day to day was a struggle. The rules changed, the money was worth less daily, and nothing was predictable or stable. In America, my counterparts were working cubicle jobs and spent five days a week counting down to the weekend. In Russia, every single day brought a new challenge and the need to think outside the box to overcome it.   

Eventually I came home for good, but brought a bit of perspective with me in my husband. Despite being born and raised thousands of miles apart, we share common values, priorities, and outlooks on life. We have deep gratitude for all that the U.S. has materially, but remember living through a time when a person’s life savings disappeared in a heartbeat. So, on the days when reverse culture shock still strikes me over the head, at least I have someone by my side who understands those blank looks of confusion and shares those memories of struggling to just get by day by day.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Karma Chameleon

 By Supriya Savkoor

As the daughter of immigrants, someone with brown skin and a somewhat eastern upbringing, I should have a lot to say on the topic of fitting in. My co-bloggers think so, anyway. And yet I’ve been stressing over my post for a week now.

Contrary to what some people might expect or believe, I’ve never had much trouble adapting to new environments. We moved a lot when I was a kid, so I changed elementary schools four times that I can remember. Who knows, it may have been more. It was all so routine.

Of course, in those days, I was often the only brown kid in these schools, which tells you how long ago this was. But that was part of the adventure, what made me unique. Maybe just the tiniest bit exceptional. I’m sure I was the only kid who legitimately got to check “other” on all those old school forms, the ones where the only choices were, “black, white, or other.” None of my teachers knew what I should be checking, so at one time or another, I’ve checked off all of them. (Maybe I’m more black than white? Or, maybe I’m more white? I’m from Ohio, so could I be other? That’s right, a perfect chameleon, I chose my answer depending on my color mood.)

And so now, trying to remember the times when I didn’t fit in, I do suddenly recall a little acronym we American children born of Indian parents have heard so often (supposedly not as an insult): ABCD. That stands for American-born confused desi. Desis being anyone of South Asian descent, so Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, and any others with roots on the subcontinent.

Was I confused? Most certainly. In America, ever the melting pot, even back then, most folks accepted my differences, though perhaps they didn’t always understand them. (True story: “India? Oh yeah, where they’ve got our hostages.”) But why did so many Indians, especially ones living in India, think I was confused?

I don’t mean to poke fun of either side, but I know such stories ring true to many “others” like me. And I saw the genuine confusion in the eyes of relatives back east. I was more other there than I was here. I looked like one of them, but I didn’t speak any of their languages, know their national anthem, or drink their water. So they were the ones confused, right? Er, not me.

I may not have known it then but being other gave me a deeper appreciation for both cultures as well numerous privileges and opportunities in both countries. While I wasn’t always grateful for them back then, I certainly am now. You could say it was my karma.

Have you ever had to walk the line between two cultures? If so, were you successful, and how did you do it?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What Do You Mean There's Mangoes In This?

Moving to a new country is exhilarating.
Photo by D.C. Pelka
By Beth Green

First stage, Honeymoon: You’re thrilled to be here in [insert country name]. It’s wonderful!
Who wouldn’t like the people? The culture is so quaint! There are so many new things to see and do. What do you call that anyway, in [insert language]? Quick, let me write it down. I’m just learning so much!

Moving to a new culture is more than just a trip abroad. It’s a head trip, too. When we transition from a known quantity to an unknown, we’re setting ourselves up to react to a whole new series of experiences. I grew up traveling with my parents on a sailboat, and I’d visited 27 countries by the time I entered high school. I spent a further year abroad as a university student, in Spain. So, when I moved abroad in my 20s to teach English as a foreign language, I felt that in one respect I was rather above the rest of the travelers I met. Culture shock couldn’t touch me, oh no.

And, it was true that, living in Prague and coming from the U.S., there wasn’t all that much to feel shocked about. Aside from language, local customs and foodstuffs were not terribly different, and while there were definitely things to adjust to, I didn’t experience the swings in temperament I witnessed in some of my friends and colleagues. There were patterns, I saw—mostly within in a six-month time frame—of people vacillating between exhilaration and despair. One friend I knew for six months in Prague: he showed up, he loved it, then he hated it, then he found a job in another country.  But, by the time of his going-away party, he told me he wished he had given the city another few months before leaving. Thank goodness, I thought, that I don’t get culture shock.

Then, I moved to China.

Second stage, Negotiation: People are staring at me. Why are they always staring at me? Do I have something on my face? Did I forget to button my fly? Oh, God. Look, look at that! See what that guy just did? I can’t believe it. No one else noticed! How can they live like this? Back in [insert home country] we’d never stand for that. Nope. No way. What is that guy saying? Hey, [tries to speak in local language]. Do you understand? Do YOU underSTAND? [Insert expletive], this is useless. Why do I even bother?
 Culture shock can make you feel like the
host culture restricts you too much.

The first month in China was glorious. There was so much to do, so much to explore. I had bursts of energy, and then took long naps, blaming it on the heat. My new job took tons of preparation, but I still found time to go out with my new colleagues, see the city, and go on trips on my days off. And the food! The best I’d ever tried. How could it be that so few people I knew came to China to travel?

The second month, I started to feel less optimistic about learning Mandarin. I noticed that the other teachers, the ones who had been in the country longer, didn’t have much good to say about living in China. I wondered why they stayed if they didn’t like it. The food was still enticing, however, and I was getting to be a chopstick whiz.

The third month, I was laughing along with my colleagues’ jokes a little. I mean, yeah, I liked China a lot, but sure, the public toilets left a lot to be desired! And, sure, people were mostly friendly, but why were they staring so much? Local restaurants were just my thing. Now, I was actually able to order without the waiters laughing at me—well, actually, they still laughed at me, but I got the food I wanted.

The fourth month, I noticed I was grouchy a lot. The students were wearing on my nerves. My apartment had problems that were never fixed quite right. The weather seemed to be cruelly singling me out: raining the days I had a white top and no umbrella, freezing the days I wore sandals and shorts, sweltering the time I toted a sweater. The food lost its luster.  It was too salty. Too overdone. Too slippery. Why couldn’t we find bread that wasn’t sweet? How could a culture with such culinary masterpieces consent to sell only Kraft singles as cheese? And why was I gaining weight while all these Chinese people stayed so slim?

The fifth month, I ordered a mango shake by accident. Let me be clear—I hate mangoes. While this may be blasphemy to most fruit-lovers, I think I’m mildly allergic to them. Also, when I was young my family was once given a 5-gallon bucket of mangoes, which we proceeded to eat for months and months, until the last jar of mango preserves my mother had made was exhausted. Since then, they turn my stomach.

Now, usually, when I order something by mistake, I just eat it. To the irritation of my partner, I almost never complain in restaurants, even when it’s warranted. But on this day—not a particularly stressful day—instead of sorting out the problem, I pitched a little fit in the juice bar. People gathered to watch the display.

We left, shakeless, and I instantly felt terrible. I burst into tears on the street in front of the shop. Where were my manners? Where was my internal commitment to blend in, to be the good American abroad?

Aha, I thought, between sobs. This is culture shock.

Third stage, Adjustment: My [insert language] is coming along. I feel progress, finally! I’ve booked tickets to go home—but just for a visit. And, my new friends tell me that I should really go with them to this other town on our next holiday. I think it will be great. I’m really looking forward to it.

Don't feed me mangoes.
Photo by D.C. Pelka.
Recognizing the stress of moving to another land is probably the best way to handle culture shock. I tried to analyze my anxiety and work out the situations that bothered me and how to deal with those when they came up. I learned the characters for “mango” and “papaya” (also a hated ingredient) and never ordered any fruit drinks colored orange, even if I didn’t see those characters. I watched the effects of culture shock on newly arriving friends and co-workers and tried not to badmouth our host country where new arrivals could hear me, so that I didn’t pollinate anyone else with bad ideas.

Fourth stage, Mastery: Been there, done that. I’m here, and I can handle it. Want me to show you around?

By the time a year had passed, and it was time for my partner and me to think about whether we’d move on or renew our contracts so we could explore more of China, we’d really got the hang of things. We were still largely illiterate, but our spoken Chinese was improving. Friends came to visit, and it felt great to play guide. I was sure I wanted to stay in China longer the day that we visited the Guangzhou jade market, when I helped a frustrated British woman communicate with a seller.

After the deal was over, she looked at me with big eyes.

“Thank you,” she said. “That was amazing. How do you do it?”

“It just takes time.” I said. “You’ll get there.”

Monday, March 25, 2013

Indecision in the Land of Overabundance

By Heidi Noroozy

Tram drivers in Gotha, GDR
Photo by Felix O (CC BY-SA 2.0)
It’s 1981 and I’m on my way to Marxism class in the tooth-shaped University Tower on Leipzig’s Karl Marx Square. The tram is an old rattletrap from a bygone era, with its hard wooden seats and worn-out shock absorbers, and it’s packed with students and early bird shoppers. Outside the window, Soviet-style slab buildings rub shoulders with once elegant stone mansions, filling gaps left by long-ago bombs. The war has been over for 36 years, but wounds heal slowly in the East German heartland.

In this drab landscape, a spot of color bobs along the sidewalk, a bright yellow object poking out of a woman’s bulging shopping bag. Bananas. My mouth waters, and I don’t even like bananas. But it’s been months since my neighborhood supermarket has offered any produce more exotic than onions, potatoes, cabbages, and those dessicated oranges from Cuba that the locals call “Castro’s Revenge.”

The tram shudders to a stop and in seconds I’m the only person left on board. The crowd surges toward the banana lady. Someone must have asked where she bought the coveted fruit because she points down a side street and soon even the sidewalk is bare. I’m still such a novice at this socialist shopping gig, I don’t bother to follow the crowd. By the time I reach the shop, there won’t be as much as a yellow peel left.

In the decade before the Berlin Wall came down and the two German nations reunified, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) suffered a serious shortage of exchangeable currency. The burden this placed on international trade meant that many items began disappearing from the stores.

Bananas: once a coveted luxury
item in the GDR
A supermarket run could turn into guessing game. Would the shelves be well stocked or half empty? Would they have real coffee that day or only the cheap stuff, mixed with chicory to make it go further? Maybe there’d be a note taped to the dairy case warning customers that they were allowed only one package of butter per shopper. Hoarding was verboten.

Mangelware,” the shopkeeper would say with a disinterested shrug when I asked after a newly missing item I’d seen only the previous week. The word means “scarce commodity” and explained everything from an empty meat counter at the butcher’s shop to the absence of ethnic specialties on the menu of my favorite Hungarian restaurant.

Sometimes the problem wasn’t Mangelware but a scarcity of labels. At my neighborhood grocery store, certain non-branded food staples came in plain white paper sacks with their contents printed on the front in purple ink: rice, flour, and sugar. Occasionally, the factory would run out of ink, and you had to feel the package to figure out what it contained. A lumpy bag was rice, a grainy one held sugar, and the soft, squishy one was most likely flour. More than once, I bought a grainy-feeling bag only to discover it held cornmeal and not the sugar I’d expected.

Early on, I realized I had to develop some new shopping strategies. Back home in the States, if I ran out of milk or bread, a quick drive to the supermarket quickly remedied the situation. It would never have occurred to me that, on arriving at the store, I’d discover the items I needed had vanished from the shelves.

In the GDR, I learned to shop like the locals. Whenever I saw an item that was in potentially short supply—toilet paper, packing tape, or those elusive bananas—I’d buy it on the spot. Who knew when I’d see it again? Over time, such “opportunity shopping” became so ingrained in me, I forgot how to do it any other way.

When I left the GDR at the end of my two year stay, I spent the flight home dreaming about all the long missed food I’d get to enjoy. I planned to make thick peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and suck the sweet juice out of California oranges. And I’d buy ten packages of butter if I felt like it. It would be a year before I could face cabbage and potatoes.

Too many brands!
Photo by Tara Whitsitt (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
But the first time I entered an American supermarket, my enthusiasm evaporated into a cloud of anxiety. I wandered about the air-conditioned space, feeling a bit shell-shocked—such abundance, so many choices, way too many brands. How to decide? I knew there had to be some strategy to help me find my way through this confusing maze of brands, but I couldn’t bring it to mind. The cereal aisle was the worst, with its bright colors and loud labels. What I would have given for a plain white sack that I could poke with my fingers and decide whether it held cornflakes or Rice Crispies. I fled the supermarket without making a purchase, too overwhelmed to figure out this simple dilemma.

My shopping amnesia turned out to be short-lived and days later I was picking items off the shelves and tossing them into my basket without a second thought. And yet, I don’t really want to forget those moments of utter helplessness when I entered the supermarket and didn’t know what to do. The echo of that reverse culture shock reminds me that not every place is blessed with such riches, and many people around the world have to make do with far less.