Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cultural Misunderstanding #567

To My Most Amiable Readers,

Here I thought I was being helpful. A servant. I was actually being very rude and inhospitable. Here, in Chile, at least.

The meal is drawing to a close. The guests are scooping the last bits of rice on to their forks, sipping the remainder of their drinks, nibbling on bread and mopping up their plates with it. There is the nice satisfied air of filled bellies, contented hearts, and meandering conversation. A relaxing time, a restful time.

Unless you're Irish-Norweigian-North American. Then you've probably skipped ahead to your next "hospitality" task. You mentally calculate about how many plates you can stack, what you'll put all the silverware, napkins, and bones into for easier kitchen-transport, whether or not to leave the cups on (and if you do, how to remove the soiled table cloth beneath it without causing a commotion), and you're probably already mentally cutting the cake and serving coffee. One sugar or two?

This is all fine and good thinking in about any home I've visited in the States or Canada in the entirety of my young life. The first one to start the plate-stacking, chicken-bone/napkin organizing was the honored one, the humble servant of all (an exalted position in our Judeo-Christian understanding). They took the burden of the work from the others, allowing them to happily sit and talk and digest. This was the heart of hospitality....work yourself crazy so your guests could contentedly enjoy a work-free evening of delights. And you know, I loved it. There's definitely joy in serving others.

But what if service means something different in your new culture?

After having our Chilean friends over for a father's day lunch together, the wife approached me in the kitchen as I was washing dishes (I had already done the chicken bone/napkin disposal). She's a good friend, probably my closest Chilean friend. She, in love, shared with me that I was making a cultural blunder. She explained that when you eat a meal together, you are to allow the plates, cups, bones...everything, to go untouched for at least an hour as you sit and talk at the table. It's allowing the "conversation of the table" to flow. It extends hospitality to the guests, invites them to stay and enjoy one another in peace. If you start gathering up everything right away, people feel unwelcome, as though you were pushing them out the door.

Oh. I had no idea. I actually thought these two years that the reason no one jumped up to clear was that no one wanted to do the dishes. I thought we were sitting in awkwardness, waiting for someone to "get things going". I shamefully thought that they were a bit "lazy". So, I'd take the initiative, ignoring the protests of the contented diners and start clearing the dishes and working up a froth of bubbles at the sink. I honestly didn't have a clue. My "service" was "rudeness" here. What they must have thought! Oh my head.

I'm so grateful to friends that have the courage to tell us when we're being idiots. I'm so glad for the grace that's been extended to me by many as I've learned and blundered my way through cultural adaptation. It humbles me to think of it. A good thing, that.

Your Most Devoted, Sarah

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sea Lion Bonanza

To My Most Amiable Readers,

I just returned from a most eventful afternoon of rowing. We're in the middle of icy winter right now; a time when sea lions seem to prefer to congregate in large...herds(?). Anyways, on arriving at the boathouse the trainer actually gave us the option of not rowing as there were MANY sea lions in the canal. Deb, my fearless friend, gave in and stayed doing weights. Me and Gerardo headed out and oh, what a time we had.

They were everywhere. They came out of nowhere, their toothy maws, beady eyes, and steaming nostrils appearing suddenly just feet from my boat, making me laugh hysterically (many of you know this laugh). Some would show off a bit, rearing up in the water until just their feet?...er flippers?...were yet in the water, staring at me before diving at my boat while I screamed and laughed and tried to out distance them. They're so curious, and they love to pursue pregnant, panicky, laughing rowers apparently. One time about six of them cut between Gerardo and I, and he took off yelling, "Seeya! I'm out of here!" So, I had to row right through them, which they thought was great fun and chased me all the way back to the boathouse.

But I forgot to talk about the beauty! We row at sunset, so the colors are always changing. Both volcanoes were clear and completely snow-covered, looking like jagged teeth raking the blue and pink sky. This was mirrored on the placid water, disturbed only by the widening circles from my oars. Scenes like that, the sounds of the birds, the stillness...awesome. I feel so peaceful and at rest when I can pause in the midst of all that beauty and just soak it up.

Night had descended when Deb and I started the cold walk home. I bought empanadas to keep my hands warm : ). We have a work day at the rowing club on Saturday; please pray that our family could be a blessing and a witness to the others who are coming to help out.

Your Most Devoted, Sarah

Tuesday, June 05, 2007