Forward to next post: Request for assistance/advice regarding Marilee Layman’s effects
One of the constant challenges of living in a foreign country is the way that different cultures slice the epistemic cake of the world in different places. Sometimes it’s funny, like how the Dutch routinely put chocolate sprinkles on sandwiches but consider pancakes at breakfast laughably outlandish. Sometimes it’s not so funny, when one says or does something quite trivial and the whole room falls silent in shock. At times like that, I always think of Cordlia Vorkosigan, trying to figure out Barryaran social protocls around sex.
One could not mention sex to or in front of unmarried women or children. Young men, it appeared, were exempt from all rules when talking to each other, but not if a woman of any age or degree were present. The rules also changed bewilderingly with variations of the social status of those present. And married women, in groups free of male eavesdroppers, sometimes underwent the most astonishing transformations in apparent databases. Some subjects could be joked about but not discussed seriously. And some variations could not be mentioned at all. She had blighted more than one conversation beyond hope of recovery by what seemed to her a perfectly obvious and casual remark, and been taken aside by Aral for a quick debriefing.
She tried writing out a list of the rules she thought she had deduced, but found them so illogical and conflicting, especially in the area of what certain people were supposed to pretend not to know in front of certain other people, she gave up the effort. She did show the list to Aral, who read it in bed one night and nearly doubled over laughing.
—Barryar, Lois McMaster Bujold
But in my experience at least, the real trials of living abroad are not the great and terrible moments. The really difficult things, like the really wonderful things*, are the little everyday differences that remind one in quiet ways that one is not home (for whatever value of home one uses).
I first noticed this phenomenon when trying to buy sugar in my local supermarket, Albert Heijn, a few months after moving to the Netherlands.
When I was growing up in the US, sugar was always with the baking ingredients. Likewise, in the UK, there it was next to the flour, right where I expected it. But the first time I went looking for sugar here, I was baffled. Flour, baking mixes, raising agents, pancake mixes…no sugar. I searched the entire cooking ingredients quadrant of the store: Herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, long-life milk, pasta, eggs (not refrigerated, because foreign), meat, chicken, exotic ethnic foods like tortillas…no sugar.
By this point, I was convinced that I was just being stupid. I was also in that state that Martin and I call shop-glaze: the condition of being sufficiently overwhelmed by the myriad details of the store that all decision-making (and, indeed, object-perception) fuses have blown. Since it was not the time to ask shop staff for help in a language I didn’t speak very well, much less process an answer in that tongue, I left the shop without sugar.
Then I came back later, with more energy, and conducted a search. It turns out that the Dutch put the sugar next to the coffee, which was halfway across the store from the flour. That was very useful information for the next time I had to buy sugar.
But finding the pattern was even more useful, because I hit it again and again: times when something is impossible, or at least impossibly difficult, because I’m making some hidden assumption or category error. I’m slicing the cake of the world in the wrong place. And that’s not really a function of living in a foreign country, because we all leave the tiny household cultures where we grew up and move into a wider world, one where people do things differently. They all store some metaphorical sugar in the wrong place.
Thus, the sugar problem.
* I talk a lot about how difficult living abroad is, but it’s also really fun. There’s always some difference—or some similarity I took for granted when I was in my native culture—to delight me.