One of the strange feelings about living in another culture is that I get to experience American news and culture from afar just like everyone else in the world. And now I understand how strange ideas and negative feelings about Americans can develop.
A couple of weeks ago when I went into my regular fruit store, the owner began yelling about airplanes and America and pointing at the TV. He was trying to find out if I knew about the guy who flew the plane into the IRS office. The store was full of people. I said I had heard (everyone at work told me) and he wanted to know why an American would do something like this. I said that I didn’t know and that there are many crazy people in the world. The customers’ opinions were that no one in their country would ever do something like this.
They may have a point. There is very little crime or violence here. I am sure crime happens in my town of about 350,000—I just don’t know anyone who has been a victim. (Someone at work asked me, if this man had lived, would he have been sent to Guantanamo to be with the other people who wanted to destroy the American government!)
When I read about the financial crisis that happened shortly after I left for Azerbaijan and then read a month later people were stampeding each other to death at Wal-mart on Black Friday, I first wondered what is wrong with people. Then I realized that in America, there are crazy people, but my friends and family are mostly normal and so is most of America. Naturally, though, people who don’t know Americans can think this behavior is normal in America. For those who remember the Bobbitt story, just image what foreigners thought of American women when they heard about Lorena Bobbitt!
Of course, it’s not just Americans who can be thought of poorly. The same week, I was walking home down a muddy, potholed street and it was getting dark. I slipped and fell. Two women behind me saw me fall and one woman remarked in Azerbaijani that the “Russian woman” must be drunk.
I popped up, irate, mud all over my coat, and told her that I am not Russian, I was not drunk, that I don’t drink and that I am American and clumsy. She apologized, but said that Russian woman are bad women and drink too much.
Among the American things that Azerbaijanis frown on are the ease of obtaining guns, the perceived sexual permissiveness, the fact that parents stop living with their children and supporting them in early adulthood, high divorce rates, the death penalty and the wars we start in other countries. But you have to know an Azerbaijani really well to find out any of their opinions on world events and issues.
One of my Peace Corps friends is staying an extra year, so she got to go home for a month. One of the “reverse culture shock” things she noticed while she was home is that Americans like people to know what they think about different issues and want to press their views on others in loud voices. She said she didn’t like this anymore and preferred to have people keep their opinions to themselves.
On the other hand, there is no word for “nosy” in Azerbaijani because nosiness is not considered a bad thing. So while Azerbaijanis don’t care to say what they think about issues, strangers still want to know how old you are, how much your house cost, do you think your ex-wife was fooling around on you while you were married, why you have no children, or if you do, could there be a chance your son will marry their daughter, how it feels to be fat or 25 and unmarried, how many of your teeth are real and why you have mud on your coat.