Monday, September 6, 2010

An epiphany

A couple weeks ago, my organization went on a picnic to celebrate Constitution Day. It was a great day of relaxing, swimming, and delicious food. (Mark and I cooked with the help of a local guy Danyar. And although the stew I made wasn't supposed to be a stew, it was still pretty good.)

One thing that stands out is an exchange I had with a bus driver and consequently everyone at the picnic. We were all sitting down to eat a snack about 30 minutes after we first got there. The bus driver was napping in the bus, so one of my friends told me to invite him to eat with us.

I walked up to the bus and leaned inside. Then I said something to the equivalent of "Здрастуй! Мы перекусаем. Вы хотите кушать с нами?" Which translates, in my mind, to Hello! We are having a snack. Do you want to eat with us."

Immediately, I mean immediately everyone at the picnic made a groan of horror. Michael, how could you be so rude? How could you say such a thing? What, I asked. I just asked if he wanted to eat with us. Exactly, they said. You should never ask if someone wants to eat. They'll be shy and say no. Just invite him to eat with us.

So I tried again. "Мы приглашаем Вас кушать с нами." (We invite you to eat with us.) Again, the cries rang out. No, no, no. Confused and getting frustrated, I asked, then how am I supposed to tell him to eat with us. Just tell him, "Пойдем. кушайте! " (Let's go. Eat!)

Suddenly, two years in Kazakhstan made sense. Every gosti experience. Every host family experience. Every meal I've ever eaten with locals. By now, I've come to accept that being told to eat wasn't rude here. It's just what people do. Eat! Eat! We hear it from day one. But I never really that asking someone if they wanted to eat was rude. What in my mind equates to respecting someone's own desires and giving them the opportunity to choose and come eat was horribly offensive. I thought back on my two years and wondered how many times I may have offended someone by offering them that choice.

1 comment:

Chad Hayes said...

Dude - I heard about this today on NPR as I was driving to work. It was in the context of the Chinese language though. Apparently all the American/English traditions - what we call being polite - of saying please, thank you, etc are considered to be rude in other parts of the world. Formal language erects a barrier between you and the person you are talking too that in other cultures considered to be rude. It is polite to order someone to eat with you or go somewhere with you because you are treating them like friends or family - as opposed to someone who you are not close too. It cuts against everything we are raised to think in American/English/Western culture... Just thought I would let you know cause I found it interesting and it was something I identified with in your blog. Hope all is well and I can't wait until you are back stateside so we can catch up and hang out some. Take care.

- Chad