An opportunity for cultures to get cozy

  • Article by: JAN SHERBIN
  • Updated: February 6, 2014 - 6:51 PM

If we’re puzzled, for instance, by the lack of privacy in Russian restrooms, we should remember that our habits seem odd as well.

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In this photo taken Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, two female toilets sit side-by-side at the security screening facility outside the Main Press Center at the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, Russia. Side-by-side toilets in a single bathroom caused a social-media sensation last month when they were discovered at the biathlon course of the Sochi Olympics, swiftly becoming a national joke in Russia.

Photo: Associated Press,

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We’re the ones who demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” So why are we making such a fuss about the two-toilet-no-wall men’s room at Sochi’s biathlon center, photographed and tweeted two weeks ago by a BBC journalist?

An AP journalist on Saturday encountered a similar setup at Sochi’s media center. Maybe they’re builders’ errors. Maybe not. The Russians aren’t telling.

In any case, Russians don’t expect as much privacy as Americans. They love to steam and socialize naked at the banya (gender-separated, to note). “Men to the right, women to the left,” a bus driver will announce when stopping at a rural “rest area” — bushes.

What’s the big deal, Yankees?

A big deal in one culture may be of little concern in another. Sometimes we just don’t understand each other. Cross-cultural crossed wires can be fun on the potty level, though not fun on the geopolitical level.

Things have changed greatly since the Soviet Union’s seven decades of isolation. In Soviet times, I asked for bottled water in a restaurant and received water in a bottle of questionable cleanliness, with silt at the bottom. I didn’t know that Russians didn’t drink water with meals, and they likely wondered why this daft American wanted dirty water poured into a bottle and placed on her dinner table.

For two decades, Russians have worked hard to catch up with the West. They aim to impress during their two weeks of Olympics glory.

Pooh-pooh this, you might. But consider that Russians visiting our natural habitat don’t necessarily find us paragons of civilization. We eat cold lunches and shove them in quickly. When a herd of us attends a reception, we eat standing up. Our “comfortable” clothing can make Russians uncomfortable, as can our excess weight. While we’re circulating photos of the Sochi toilets around the Internet, they’re writing home about America’s obese women wearing elastic-waist stretch pants with baggy T-shirts and white gym shoes.

Intellectually, Russians often find Americans shallow. Why, they wonder, do we fixate on toilet stalls when we could elevate our thoughts to literature and the arts? Why do we multi-task rather than do one thing well? Why do we focus on “fun” rather than on education and culture?

Sure, we can amuse ourselves in other countries by noticing what strikes us as strange. Foreign visitors do the same in our country. Here’s to some good laughs on both sides and to enjoying the Olympics without any walls.

 

Jan Sherbin works with Russians participating in educational programs. She lives in Cincinnati.

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