Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Elevator Parable

"Do you know the difference between Americans and ours (Croats) when it comes to elevators?"

I had just pulled into the new recycling center in Osijek and had begun unloading old plastic milk bottles into the designated bin when the man in charge approached me speaking Croatian. How he knew I was American within two seconds without even talking to me was beyond me. Plus, what in the world does recycling have to do with elevators? It must be joke, I reasoned to myself.

"No, I haven't heard this one before," I responded in Croatian.

He looked at me puzzled. Then resumed:

"Well Americans only get into the elevator if they can maintain their personal space. But Croats will keep filling the elevator until no more can fit..."

I was taken aback. He was absolutely right. He had correctly identified a key distinction between Americans and Croats. But this was a strange setting for a conversation about cultural differences - especially seeing that we hadn't formally met before. This was the first exchange we ever had. What was he trying to say?

I just stood there and waited for him to continue.

"So many people just keep piling the bottles on top of an already full container," he continued.

Then I put it all together. I had just piled my old plastics on top of an already full container. I was guilty of interrupting the order he was in charge of maintaining. In other words, in his parable, I was the individual who committed the crime of stuffing too many things into a small space. I was the person to whom the moral of the story applied. I was the Croat.

Now, in my defense, I placed my recyclables in the container with the removable sign on it. If the sign had been on the empty bin next to it, I would have placed my plastics in that one instead.

But I didn't care to complain. He had just made my day. In my effort to assimilate, this was a moral

I was finally guilty of not being American enough. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From Culture Shock to Home

A basketball skitters along the gravel driveway prompting a dog to defend himself against the perceived threat. A mower to my right and a weed-wacker to my left provide white noise while the moon balances on a phone line above me. And barbecue, from every direction, reminds me of my former life. This evening could easily be part of a 4th of July weekend in America.

But the air around me, filled with these sensory stimulants, is foreign. Even though I call Croatia home, there are still days like this - days full of effort, hard work, preparation and presentation but void of satisfaction.

It's not always like this. I've received a kind word and a pat on the back before. There have been compliments accompanied by smiles. There have been warm greetings and fond farewells from genuine people. Still, encouragement seldom arrives when I need it most.

Nor do I suppose that America is the land of the carefree or home of the praise. Dreams built up by well-intentioned mentors in elementary school are often dashed by early adulthood. The number of people making a living off of the down-and-out tells us that discouragement is easy to find in the U.S.

But I’ve observed that discouragement is the number one reason why Americans leave Croatia. "No one said 'thank-you' for what I did...” one colleague once told me, "...never, in the two years I was here". Others have offered similar sentiments. Discouragement. Or even more accurately - lack of encouragement.

Having a wife who had pre-existing friendships in the town where we live helped tremendously when I moved here. It's a luxury most Americans don't have when they get off the boat, and a major factor in our decision to live here. I felt welcome immediately. And I still feel welcome.

But it's not the same as being encouraged. Isn't that what we're so used to as Americans?

"Good try!" I offer after one of my baseball players strikes out. I receive a glare. He had just learned that with two strikes, he should swing at anything close to the zone. The compliment seemed as empty as his swing because he had failed. Croats are not accustomed to receiving praise for anything - certainly not effort.  Nor are they penalized for lack of effort though: the results are all that matter.

So when the results are hard to find, the hard work often seems like a waste of time.

Complaining certainly doesn't help. In this case, neither does adaptation. Of course, shades of both are normal reactions to culture shock. But thriving in a second culture doesn't depend on everyone agreeing with how you do things. In dealing with culture shock I've learned that it's important to embrace the positives of my own culture without expecting those around me to do the same. It's a matter of valuing what you bring to the cultural table without devaluing what's already there. I've found that lower expectations bring less disappointment when things are bad and greater joy when they're good.

Of course, effort should be valued and hard work should be encouraged. For those of us with a deep love for Eastern Europe - despite the fact that we are foreigners - this is one of those things we have to offer that can make a difference. It's just that when we require others’ hard work and encouragement for our own happiness, we will often be disappointed.

Sometimes culture shock turns up in the form of a pig at your door on New Years or a dog at your feet during a funeral. But more often, in this part of the world, it settles in underneath the sights, sounds and smells that are familiar. Expectations often determine how difficult the shock will be and how long it will last. What I’ve found is that when those expectations are kept in check, Croatia has a lot of pleasant surprises. In fact, it can become more than just a nice place to vacation. It can become home.