Outside In: New Cultures
My husband and I describe culture to our kids as:“The way we do things around here.” We explain to them that each family has its own culture, its own way of doing things. Some people eat dinner in front of the TV, some families are strict about doing chores, some have noisy households, and some are quiet and reserved. Each one of us takes on bits of culture from our family, our social class, and our country.
Here in Maadi, whether we are expats or Egyptians, we are acutely aware of culture. Many of us encounter different cultures multiple times a day. Canadians say,“Sorry” a lot; Brits wait patiently in lines; the Japanese like to keep their emotions to themselves, Egyptians like to express them. We have stereotypes for different nationalities, but many of them are borne out of truth. Cultural behaviours are deeply embedded into who we are, so much so that we often don’t realise that they’re there.
Recently, I have been thinking about new cultures and wondering how conscious we are of their development. The mobile phone is a classic example. This small digital device that barely existed in our lives 20 years ago now dominates every sphere of life. For young people, it isculturally acceptable to be together but together on your phone – in the house, on the street, even in a restaurant. But, there are other cultural behaviours springing up.
Uber is one of those. When we first arrived in Egypt, Uber didn’t exist. Now there is the ‘Uber pose.’ Drivers are used to spotting their customers at a distance. They can be seen at the side of the road looking anxiously between the map on their phone and at the number plates of passing cars. So easy are you to spot in this pose that I even had a wily driver take a chance and try to pick me as I waited for my friend to drive by…’Uber?’ Nice try! There is also ‘Uber stress.’ This is when you are trying to round up your children before your waiting driver calls you up, wondering where you are. We were leaving football practise the other week to witness a mother scoop up her fallen daughter and drag her out of the gate without stopping to attend to her grazed knee. Initially, we were puzzled, then we watched her check her phone and get into the back of a car. That explained it, Uber stress.
Dishwashers have been around for quite a long time now, and a host of dishwasher cultures have developed. Each family has its own unique approach to the dishwasher. Do you rinse before you put it in? Do you put in your sharp knives? Everyone stacks differently. Everyone runs it at different times of the day.Do you unload it all at once, or do you take dishes out when you need them? I have long experienced dishwasher anxiety when I am staying in someone else’s house. Am I putting the things in the right way? Does this dish go in, or will it get damaged? Will this bowl get clean if I put it in this way? I was amused to realise the number of adult children who have fun winding their parents up over the dishwasher. I had one friend say to me, “I love going home over the summer and loading the dishwasher up incorrectly just to watch my dad redo it.” We think that dishwashers have entered our lives to make them easier, but they bring with them a fresh set of challenges. Some friends of mine found it necessary to develop a system to communicate whether the dishwasher has been runor not. They stick a piece of paper to the machine – one side with a tick, one with a cross – to indicate whether the dishes inside have been cleaned.
These examples of ‘new cultures’ are things that have stood out to me and amused me recently, and I am sure that we are developing new habits and behaviours all the time to help us adjust to the changing world around us. Our children are often a mirror, reflecting these new behaviours back to us. I think of the times my kids have used pieces of card – or empty juice boxes – to be mobile phones, first to talk into, then to take pictures with and now to take selfies.
Culture is the way that we do things around here – but those things aren’t static. They are ever-changing, which is both fascinating and baffling at the same time!We do well to recognise our own cultural habits, to step out of our comfort zone to understand the culture of others – and maybe observe with amusement how these new cultures are created.