Not my cup of tea

Posted by Marion de Groot on November 30, 2011
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A quote from my Bulgarian language course book:

“Although traditionally in Bulgaria you only drank tea (without milk) when you were unwell, you can find all kinds of tea, including tea made from a variety of different herbs. Remember, though, that if you do want a traditional ‘cuppa’, you will probably be presented with a cup or, more likely, a glass of hot water, some sugar and a tea bag. You will be expected to brew up yourself at the table. And if you want milk, you will have to ask for it!”*

Needless to say, the course book is written by a British guy. Brewing your own tea at the table! Ridiculous! And having to ask for milk! Has the author never been anywhere else but the UK and Bulgaria? Or is he taking into account that the audience is not well-traveled? Either way, he is consistent. Another quote:

“Bulgarian has almost the equivalents of the English words for [the] subject pronouns, but there are two small differences. First, the Bulgarian аз, I is written with a small letter and, second, Bulgarian has two different words for you: ти for the singular, familiar form and вие for the plural.”*

Again, nothing new to me here. English is the only language I know (and I know a few) that writes I with a capital, and that doesn’t make a difference between singular and plural in pronouns. It’s hard to imagine that the Bulgarian language would be the first encounter of a native English speaker with the outside world.

I find it very funny to see how the background of the speaker so strongly reflects in the texts. I always prefer to buy English books for studying languages and culture, because these are often cheaper and easier to find than Dutch ones, and the language is not a problem for me. However, all too often the perspective of the author (American or British) is clearly influencing the story, which makes me long for a Dutch version.

If only it was for a proper explanation on the conjugation of verbs…

*Quotes from Teach Yourself Bulgarian, by Michael Holman and Mira Kovatcheva, 2009

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Shuffling feet

Posted by Kirsten on May 25, 2010
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When working for Epson in Munich, the staff comprised 14 nationalities. That was fun because you would hear different languages the whole day. Of course I had lots of Japanese colleagues and quickly learned the notedly polite way of communicating and the concept of “maintaining face”.

But one thing bothered me the whole time: My Japanese colleagues would shuffle their feet, thereby causing an annoying sound on the floor. To me it seemed rude. After weeks of amazement why one would choose to scuff one’s feet, I asked a colleague I had befriended. She explained that some Japanese regard lifting their feet too far from the earth as a sign of arrogance. So it was a gesture of respect or humbleness! I liked that a lot and was fascinated of how cultures interpret behaviour so differently and of course the sound never annoyed me again…

Supermarket politeness

Posted by Marion de Groot on May 24, 2009
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Almost every cashier girl at our supermarket here in Amsterdam is of foreign, non-western descent. I put my groceries on the conveyor belt and as soon as the girl starts scanning my products, she says Hello, while hardly looking at me. When it's time to pay, she softly mentions the amount, as if talking to herself, while her staring eyes tell me it must have been a rough day. As she hands me the receipt, her attention is already at the next groceries to scan. I used to think this all was because these girls were unmotivated teenagers.

Once the general manager of that supermarket must have wanted to improve their service level. Two blond Dutch girls were hired, who were very cheerful and always made eye contact when they said 'Good afternoon' with a smile. I was very surprised, because I wasn't even used to making eye contact with the cashier girls anymore.

Later I was at a Turkish supermarket. There, the people at the counter were an adult Turkish man and woman. But they also made very little eye contact, and only said the 'compulsory' Hello, the amount to pay, Thank you and Bye.

Then I thought, maybe it is a cultural difference. Maybe these people find it correct not to make eye contact. Or is it because I'm not 'one of them'? At the supermarkets in China the cashiers would not even say hello, even to Chinese people. They just do their job. Period.

Is it typical Dutch/western to expect a cashier to make eye contact, smile and say hello? And why should they, if they do their job right…

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Posted by Marion de Groot on April 10, 2009
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I often hear that the lunches in the Netherlands are quite typical. I used to work as a volunteer for AFS, an organization for intercultural exchange programs for highschool students. We organized a camp where the new students from abroad came to straight from the airport, where they had a few days to acclimatize before they were picked up by their host families. Every time at lunch I had to explain the students at the table how to eat a Dutch lunch (and not insult/annoy your host family).
* Take one (1) slice of bread
* Pick one (1) kind of topping, and take one (1) slice.
* Put the topping on one half of the bread
* Cut the bread in half, and put the empty half on top of the other one.
* Eat it
* Repeat from step one if still hungry.

What they did if I didn’t tell them anything
* One slice of bread
* Take all different toppings on the table in fairly large amounts
* Stack all the toppings on top of each other, no matter what kind, sweet, salty, everything
* Take another slice of bread and put it on top.
* Do your best to hold the whole sandwich and eat it without things falling out.

I used to explain them that we, the Dutch, don’t eat sandwiches. We eat bread with cheese. Or with ham. Or with chocolate sprinkles. It probably came across as very stingy. But many of the host families would otherwise have just thought that they were stuck with this greedy, malmannered teenager for a year.

Although I must say that good bread doesn’t need much. I haven’t had truly good bread outside the Netherlands.

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Happy Birthday!

Posted by Marion de Groot on November 15, 2008
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I've often heard Dutch people say that we, the Dutch, don't have a true culture, don't have rituals. But when you pay close attention to what people do on the basic milestones in life (birth, birthday, marriage, death), you can see the rituals. It's interesting to compare these rituals with the equivalents abroad. I've been to quite some international birthday parties. Here's a comparison.

In Russia, I went to the birthday party of a friend of a friend. He turned 18, a special age in Russia. We skipped dinner before we went, and when we arrived, I knew why. The guy's parents had spent two days preparing all kinds of food, grilled chicken, salads, everything. But the parents weren't at the party; no, they left the house so their son could celebrate. The standard present was a bottle of vodka, and all bottles were consumed immediately. This eat-and-drink-all-you-can feast went on until early morning.

In Norway my Norwegian friend and I first went to the supermarket to buy our (alcoholic) drinks, before we went to the party. It was a dinner party. On the table were mainly salads. Everyone had brought a bag with their own drinks. Some people had a stack of cans next to their plate. You could see exactly what people were planning to drink that night. No sharing or exchanging of drinks. On another party, which was a barbecue party, everybody even brought their own meat! And not that you then share it with everyone, no, you eat what you bring. Because my friend didn't have much money, we brought a pack of 10 hotdog sausages, so we were eating just that all night. One girl had a plate full of slices of tomato and mozarella, right in front of her, with a twinkle of 'Mine. Mine!' in her eyes. I must add that meat and alcoholic drinks are very expensive in Norway, but still, sharing what you bring would be natural to me.

In Thailand, people originally don't celebrate their birthdays, although some people do now, because of western influence. On their birthday, they traditionally go 'tam bun' or 'do good'. From Buddhism they believe that you get credits for a better next life, every time you do something for others. So when my host sister had her birthday, we took a pickup truck full with clothing and food to a poor village, and gave it to the children there. I actually enjoyed this way of celebrating. When they do celebrate their birthday 'the western way', presents are given, but not unwrapped until after the party.

In Argentina, parties don't start until after midnight, and go on until 6 in the morning. The party I went to in Cordoba was held in the back yard of a students apartment. There was music, drinks and some snacks. People brought bottles of wine or Fernet (some alcoholic drink, to mix with coke) and these bottles were put on a central table. Everyone was dancing, especially the guys.

In China, we met in a restaurant for a friends birthday. We had a good dinner and drinks, and he paid the bill. Some presents were given and unwrapped. After dinner, we took a cab to a karaoke club, where we rented a room to sing some songs. A bottle of whiskey was ordered along with a bottle of green ice-tea, to mix. Later I found out that my friend's real birthday wasn't until the week after. He said it was common to celebrate your birthday before the actual date, but definitely not after.

Compared to these different party styles, I can very clearly distinguish the Dutch birthday ritual. On the average Dutch birthday party, we invite some friends over at home, on the first weekend day after the actual date, at around 9 pm. Guests are first offered coffee or tea and one slice of pie, and after that they are offered alcoholic drinks and small snacks like peanuts. People tend to just sit on the couch or around the table, and talk. Some soft music is playing on the background. Presents are given, unwrapped immediately and shown to everyone. When money is given, this is done in an envelope, and the receiver doesn't open it (or sneakpeeks into it).

My ideal birthday party would be a combination of these. There should be dinner and drinks, and people shouldn't sit on the couch all night. And of course it's always good to do something good for the society.

How are birthdays celebrated in your country? And what is your ideal birthday party like?

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