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Big Cultural Differences in a Small World

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 09/04/2009 | 1 Comment |

ONE DAY IN SARANSK (RUSSIA), my American friend, who would help all the poor and heal all the sick if she could, says to me: “Please talk to someone. The girl I am staying with is going to the U.S. in two weeks through the “Work and Travel” exchange program and she does not know where she is going to work or where she is going to stay! She is asking if I know anyone in New York who can help her find a job for four months. I used to know someone and of course I will ask them to help the girl, but please talk to someone!”

Some things are acceptable

Some things are acceptable

I talk to the Dean of the School of Languages at Saransk University and explain the situation. She says she will fix it because whoever is responsible for that program is not doing their job. I also speak to the parents of the girl. They have called a relative living in the U.S. who will meet their daughter and look after her if it is needed—if she cannot find a temporary job. Her father adds that she can come back any time, that she doesn’t have to stay for four months, if things don’t work out. As he tells me this, his daughter, who sincerely wants to visit the U.S. and study English there, stares at me naively, unaware of the deep water she is about to step into.

That was three months ago. Today, I get an email from my daughter’s kindergarten about the Mount Pleasant Police (just across the river from Charleston) being called to investigate a 21-year-old ice-cream vendor who gave a ride to a 12-year-old boy after selling him some ice cream. Purportedly, the vendor, who is Russian and in the U.S. on a student-exchange program, “demanded” that the young boy get in his van. Also purportedly, the vendor claimed that he simply offered the boy a ride because there was a lot of traffic on the road, and that such a gesture is common in Russia, which in my experience is true. In Russia, pedestrians regularly catch a ride, which is cheaper than a taxi and a way for drivers to earn some extra cash. Everyone there knows how it works.

Tonight, at the weekly College-of-Charleston Russian Club gathering, I happen to speak to one young man who is clearly Russian and who tells me, when I ask, that he is a Russian university student here on a four-month “Work and Travel” exchange program. After spending three months in North Carolina selling ice cream from a rented van, he is in Charleston for his final month.

Of course, I suddenly realize it is him. I mention the incident with the police and ask him, “aren’t you aware of the tension and fear that exists in the U.S. about child molesters and kidnapping?” He says, blinking with his naïve blue eyes, that he did not even think about it; that the young boy he sold ice cream to was headed in his direction and so he offered him a ride, just as he would have done in Russia.

I certainly don’t know all the facts, and I just met this young man. But it sure sounds like a typical example of a foreigner visiting the U.S. without being aware of the consequences of his actions in a different culture.

As it turns out, my friends in Saransk have had many similar experiences. Just one example was when a couple of male students from the Middle East killed a goat one day and brought it’s carcass to the apartment where they were staying, leaving bloody stains on the stairs of the apartment house—which, of course, terrified the neighbors who then called the police. The students explained to the police that they wanted to cook dinner and invite their friends. So they did what they would normally do at home, only to find out that it was shocking and unacceptable in a Russian (or any other) town.

The world’s doors are opening quickly for students, but they should not be naïve when traveling abroad. •
under: My Travel Journal

Responses -

As a teacher and kindergarten director, I am deeply touched by the plight of these idealistic young people who are innocent of any crime. They are trusting and expect to be trusted. In the field I am in, we are taught to look for signs of child abuse and to be suspicious of anyone who could be a threat to children. I regret that this story seemed so significant to me and to the others who did not understand the cultural difference that we saw fit to send it out to parents without knowing all the facts. We do have a strong obligation to protect our children and I will continue to be vigilant about that charge, but I will endeavor to learn more before hitting the forward button!


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