Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cultural differences

As an 18 year old in Romania, it has never occurred to me that cultural differences can doom a marriage. As a typical naive teenager, I truly believed that people were the same, no matter what country they came from. We laughed, cried, experienced emotion, hurt, love, and enjoyed the simple pleasures in life the same way. What can cultural differences possibly do to one's relationship with another human being of the opposite sex? Quite a lot, I found out along the way.

For starters, growing up with freedom and taking it for granted, made enduring the indignities of living under a dictatorship quite unbearable. As an American, one can enter pretty much any official or government building. Not so under communism. I was shocked the first time I was allowed to enter a U.S. air force base and move about without ever being asked who I was or what I was doing there. We had clearance and business to enter. In Romania we were not even allowed within miles and miles of a military base, a sort of area 51, no man's land. If you dared approach the forbidden area, you did so at your own risk, you would be shot. Government buildings were off limits to its citizens, but particularly to foreigners. My American husband could not understand why he was not allowed to enter government buildings. His frustration grew and grew with every new rule and regulation he encountered that stifled his freedom to move about, to be who he was, a free man. He took out his frustration on the nearest person who was always beside him, me.

Traveling through Romania was a challenge and quite expensive. Every time we spent the night in a hotel, we had to reserve two rooms, one for me, and one for him. It was not that we were going to have company or lavish parties. We could ill-afford to pay for two rooms when we were going to use only one. The law dictated, since I was a Romanian citizen, although married, I could not spend the night in the same room in a hotel with my American husband, a foreign national. We had to present our passports each time and receive reservations separately. Interestingly, room rates were double what Romanians were paying. This put a strain on our daily serenity and our budget. One hotel in Mamaia at the Black Sea was across the street from the police precinct. We were envisioning what would happen when the police came to arrest us since I was not spending the night in my room but in his. Only under communist tyranny, from their desire to control every aspect of the citizens' lives, such strife and discomfort would be created between husband and wife.

Food was always a bone of contention in our marriage. I approached grocery shopping as a list of things I wanted to cook for the week. He shopped for food based on perceived basic needs. Having been a farmer's son, an abundance of food came from the fields, canning, farm animals, and other farmer's markets. Luxuries came from the store. I grew up as a city girl and our food was scarce most of the time. On every grocery trip, I picked up extras, as if next time the shelves would be empty. This angered my husband as he thought these groceries unnecessary lavish spending.

Saving money was sacrosanct and was decided by the husband - generations of Smiths* have done so quite successfully. Women were not perceived as smart or worthy of going to college. Leaving finance up to women was derisive and degrading to a man since it indicated loss of control over his family. We were really poor in Romania and, if we had extra money, we were hard-pressed to save it in the only existing bank, the National Bank, knowing that the government could step in at any time and confiscate our savings. Shortages of most basic things meant that each family kept a lot of cash on hand in order to spend it on short notice on perceived future needs, not necessarily current ones. Hoarding was encouraged and desired as it provided a safety net for the very real possibility of famine. Thus our opposing views on saving became a source of distress at times. Living for the moment to me, as a survival mechanism, was more important than living for a distant time in the future.

My orthodox religion and faith were considered heathen, only baptists were the real children of God. My mother-in-law expected us to re-marry in the baptist faith in order for our children to be recognized as legitimate heirs. This prospect gave me great pause since we had already married twice, once in a civil ceremony for the sake of the government and once in the orthodox church, for the sake of our family and our faith. A third marriage to the same man? Impossible. Did it cause a lot of problems? Certainly, in many ways, not the least of which was the baptism of our two daughters. We compromised, after all, my husband was a descendant of the McNeil* clan, and he chose the Church of Scotland - both became Presbyterians as babies. I fully expected them to change their religious status as they matured and chose for themselves. There was a strain in our marriage that I could cut with a scimitar worthy of the Gordian knot.

My parents emphasized education as a way out of misery, poverty, and dire circumstances. The Smiths* believed that a woman's place was in the kitchen, barefoot, and pregnant. Trying to pursue a doctorate put a strain on our marriage since my husband wanted me to wait until we raised our children, he finished his education, and we had enough money to pay for it in cash. I knew that time was of the essence and I could be a mom, a student, and a wife. I had youth and boundless energy on my side. I proved it - I finished three degrees in the time it took him to complete his bachelor's. I mothered my children and took care of the house quite well. I slept very little but I was determined to succeed and prove him wrong. The only casualty to my success was our marriage. I received my doctorate by the time I was 29 but the victory was bitter and Pyrrhic. My doctorate euphoria bubble was burst quickly when, my well-intentioned uncle Gelu, mom's oldest brother, God rest his soul, announced to my Romanian family that I had printed the graduation invitation and commencement announcement in my kitchen. I could not convince them that young people in a free America could actually pursue and obtain doctorates in any fields. Communists had made it so difficult that only old people were accepted into doctoral study and they had to have the approval of the communist party. Non-members were not allowed to apply. The president's wife, Elena Ceausescu, a woman with only elementary education to her name, in her delusional megalomania, had given herself a Ph.D. in Chemistry.

Child rearing was also vastly different in our two cultures. The Smiths* were strict disciplinarians and punished their children severely for minor offenses. I, on the other hand, rarely spanked my children. If I grounded them, I would soon forget and not follow through with the entire length of the grounding sentence. My husband took beatings from his dad with a belt and he understood that to be the only way to keep children compliant. I disagreed vehemently and forbade him to punish our small daughters in such a cruel way. As an only child, that was all my parents could afford to feed, I was cherished by my parents. Mike* thought such coddling would raise a spoiled, bratty child.

Our values in general were so different that I could not fathom why I had married him in the first place. He loved country life in the middle of nowhere, preferably a desert, with no noisy or nosey neighbors. I loved people, grew up in a bustling city that slept through curfews and lots of neighbors and loud kids. The thought of having to spend another day on a lonely, deserted farm brought me to tears and depression. Violent storms scared me to death, tornadoes and straight winds were a part of everyday southern life. Uprooted trees and totally demolished homes were unnatural and frightening to me. Creatures that I had not seen before became part of my nomenclature of dangerous animals to avoid - poisonous snakes, alligators, poisonous spiders and, the nuisance of them all, the huge cockroaches or Palmetto bugs. Stifling humid heat made everything feel like a hot oven - I could not breathe outside for several months until my blood adjusted and thinned. The misery index escalated with the soft water that was so soapy, it was impossible to rinse. I was grateful to have water all the time though, without interruptions from the government.

Dinners were strange and ritualistic, with the oldest male presiding over the meal and dishing out insults to women, foreigners, and pretty much anyone who was not Scottish. I am not sure the insults were intentional or malicious, it was just an accepted way of life. We ate with real sterling silver, a luxury which I found ludicrous and out of place. This was at a time when a complete silver setting cost as much as $3,000. No to mention that it had to be shined weekly. I was so happy to have plenty to eat that I would have used plastic cutlery or even my fingers all the time. Sometimes the favorite dogs from the twenty plus big mutts milling about the farm would circle the dinner table for scraps. I never owned dogs before and found this habit to be unsanitary - we kept dogs outside for protection not as pets. Food was very different in appearance and taste and my in-laws were very impatient with me - I was supposed to like everything overnight and not have any preferences whatsoever. To decline something to eat was a personal insult to them. I had an arduous road ahead of me if I was to survive in this culture, this family, and keep my identity and sanity.
* Not their real names

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