03 December 2009

Assimilation in progress!

Encountering a different culture as a tourist doesn’t require true commitment to adaptation. A person on vacation eats in foreigner-friendly places, shops for souvenirs in stores where staff do not view the customer as a “bother,” and learns polite words (please, thank you, etc.) in the language of the country visited, but little else.

Not so for the expatriate who has come to a foreign country to live and work. We are more than guests of our new home country and are expected to assimilate as much as possible. In some countries, going to the grocery store is often more of a nightmare than an adventure. When I was in Russia, where I had no prior language training, I would only purchase things that were visible in the package or that had a picture I recognized. The writing was not only Russian, but in the Cyrillic alphabet, and completely unintelligible to me.

Once, an American co-worker, also a non-Russian speaker, and I decided to lunch in a particular restaurant because they had an English menu. Most restaurants will have a line item in the local language followed by a translation immediately below it in other languages. This establishment, however, had two separate menus, one in Russian and one in English. Our server spoke no English, so my friend and I found what we wanted on the English menu and then located items in the same positions on the Russian menu and pointed out our choices. Ah, you see what’s coming, don’t you? It’s true; the meals we ordered were not at all what we were served. It never occurred to us that the two menus, other than being in different languages, would not be exact duplicates of each other.

I’ve been in the Czech Republic for five weeks now and I’m learning to assimilate. At least the Czech language uses the Roman alphabet and I had seven weeks of language training to give me the bare necessities of communication.

I was in the butcher shop a few days ago and asked, in Czech, for the items I wanted. The lady behind the counter understood me and began preparing my order. I burst with pride when the woman standing next to me turned and said something in a long Czech sentence that I did not understand, but I knew she spoke to me because she thought I could understand. I smiled and nodded, to what I do not know, and she was satisfied.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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