Discovering culture significance in hygiene and social graces
One of my first instances of conforming to Czech culture due to necessity was learning to shower seated in the bathtub. I didn’t have time to reflect on how odd it was or how nice a stand-up shower would feel as I accidently doused the bathroom floor with water. I needed to change my habits and pronto. I sat down, pointed the nozzle into the tub and attempted to keep the water’s arc within the confines of the tub. The technique didn’t come naturally and even after practice there were still occasions when I had to sacrifice a clean towel to mop the mess.
It wasn’t until my parents’ first visit to Prague a few months later that I realized how aptly I’d adapted. They retold of a showering escapade that ended with my mom washing and rinsing my dad’s hair because he couldn’t handle the hose by himself. It all sounded like a scene from a romantic comedy, rather than an attempt to adapt to a different cultural norm.
Over the years of our relationship, Radek often jokes that he’s become Americanized, and I’m certain that I’m becoming more Czech each day too. This natural metamorphosis toward our partner’s culture often goes unnoticed until a break in routine or an outside observer points out the change. For the most part, I’d say we’ve done a good job rubbing off on each other evenly, although I think the Czech culture has an unfair advantage since it’s the culture we’re currently living in day-to-day.
Choosing when to shower was another cultural difference. Although Radek showered at night, often at the gym after working out, I couldn’t imagine waking up and going to work without first showering. After discussions with Czech friends, during which they revealed disdain for Americans, including me, who typically went to bed “dirty,” I wondered if they might be right. Although I couldn’t ever give up my morning shower, I did learn to shower in the evening, particularly when I’d been doing something outside or something physical. Radek also slowly transitioned in the other direction, showering again in the morning to “wake up” before heading to work.
Once we synchronized our pre-bed hygiene routine, we still had to deal with getting into bed and covering ourselves. In the beginning days of marriage, when we lived in the US, Radek used to complain about the twisted mess the sheets and blankets were each morning. Having grown up sleeping with a down duvet for each person, Radek didn’t like the thin cotton sheets we used under the blankets in the US. He didn’t like sharing his covers much either. On this topic, I was ambivalent and quickly converted to a duvet with cover; however, I suggested that we share one large duvet, and Radek conceded. Now when we end up with one or two wriggly, cover-stealing children in our bed come morning, I wonder if I shouldn’t have stuck with separate duvets.
After moving back to Prague, we always set up our guest bed with covers customary for the guest’s culture. I bought a set of flat sheets and a blanket for my parents and we used a spare duvet for Radek’s family. Both families seemed to appreciate the effort, and I was happy not to hear any stories in the morning about sleep troubles due to foreign bedding.
Table manners were another daily routine I hadn’t previously associated with culture, but I realized how “Czech” I’d become when I returned home one holiday and began to eat holding my fork in one hand and my knife in the other. It seemed only natural to use both utensils simultaneously. However, I looked around to see the rest of my family eating with only their fork. I know eating with both fork and knife is a European style, not just Czech, but I hadn’t considered that in the States it might be impolite to hold both utensils at once, unless cutting.
Cleaning my plate was another habit that I picked up while living abroad. Although it wasn’t unusual for guests at my parents’ house to leave uneaten food on their plates, in fact, my mother rarely manages to clean her own plate. When I tried to leave a few bites on my plate during a dinner with Radek’s family, I became subject to an inquisition. It was simply easier to insist on receiving a portion that I was certain I could finish, so that I could have a clean plate like everyone else. Recently, while eating lunch at a Czech friend’s house, my friend made a point to me in particular, that I didn’t have to feel compelled to finish everything. She didn’t say “because you’re American” but it was implied.
It wasn’t until an inquisitive waitress in the village of Slavnoníce asked a group of my girlfriends how Americans indicate they’re finished with their meals that I realized that the common habit of setting fork and knife together in the middle of a plate doesn’t really exist in the US either. As much as I could remember, people put a napkin over their plate to show the waitress the plate could be taken away, but the habit didn’t seem to be a nationwide signal, like putting silverware together is in the Czech Republic. I had often sat at a dinner party here and wondered why my plate was the only one still on the table. Finally I looked down and realized my knife and fork were resting at angles on either side of the plate with their tips touching, signaling to everyone else that I was perhaps still planning on eating more.
During dinner parties, I’ve also noticed that our Czech guests tend to use far fewer napkins than my American friends and family. At Anna Lee’s first Czech preschool, I always wondered why she often returned home with her lunch down the front of her shirt. When I asked her why she didn’t use a napkin she simply replied, because there weren’t any. At the preschool where Anna currently goes, there are napkins set on each table during lunch time, although I’ve looked in the toilet room and found that the toilet paper is sitting on a shelf too high for many of the kids to reach. When I asked Anna about it, she said that none of her friends ask for the paper unless they have to poo-poo, something that I know she’s trained herself to avoid doing at school whenever possible.
Saving paper at the table and in the toilet is an ingrained part of Czech culture that my American grandparents can probably well-relate to. Although I grew up in a culture where paper and plastic products were prevalent, and included specialty paper products for birthday and holiday celebrations, I have only recently noticed these products readily available in the Czech Republic. When we had our neighborhood pig-roost, my neighbors bought paper plates for the meat, agreed that we’d drink beer from real ½ liter beer glasses, and I don’t think we even bothered with napkins.
How we shower, make our beds, set our table and clean our plates aren’t habits that our family takes note of on a daily basis. However, whenever we visit families whose cultural habits are different than our own, the children are always the first ones to mention it. Over time, living with someone who was raised in a different culture has made me more conscious of how and why I do certain things. I also feel though that it is helping me teach our children that just because they learn to do something one way, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a different, equally good way of doing the same thing in a different culture.