Cultural Differences May Come As A Shock



I popped a circuit breaker the other day and had to go outside to reset it. If anyone had observed me while I was doing it, he might have thought I had lost my marbles. I was giggling like a fool.

Why? I got to thinking about something that happened back when I was out in Pakistan.

I was setting up a new passenger terminal at Mauripur Air Base. We needed a small air-conditioned place for our passengers; nothing special, just a cozy little spot out of the heat.

I needed some electrical work done, so I had Hasan, our clerk, contact an electrician.

The electrician arrived, a Pathan from up north around the Khyber Pass. He was hatless, barefoot, and wearing a big smile, a long blue shirt that reached almost to his knees, and paijamas, a Persian word from which we get our word pajamas ("pai" meaning leg, and "jamah" meaning garment).

The fuse box was in the office-away-from-the-office that I kept out there at Mauripur Air Base. So, I casually watched him as he started work. He placed a half-inch thick, 3-inch-wide, 2-foot-long piece of lath on the concrete floor, stood on it, opened the box and proceeded to grab a 220 volt line.

"Hey," I said, a little unnerved. "Hold on a minute, and I'll go out and shut off the main switch."

His response absolutely floored me. He waved his hand at me in the characteristic wig-wag way of the Orient and said, "Nay, Sahib. If you, an ordinary person, works on the electricity, you turn it off. But I am a professional; I work with the power on."

No amount of talking would change his mind. So, I just found something to do somewhere else while he balanced on that thin little piece of wood on the balls of his feet and rocked back and forth as he worked. I swear, his heels came within a paper's thickness of touching the concrete. I kept thinking, "two hundred twenty volts!" He'd have been fried if anything had gone wrong.

But there you have it. What I saw as total madness was a matter of pride with him. And he had every right to believe as he did, no matter how crazy it seemed to me.

Neither of us was more "correct" than the other. We were just different, that's all.

Cultural differences have a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect them. While in England, for example, I measured a place for some shelving in the garage of my home in a tiny little village called Cropredy. I strolled over to the village lumberyard, ordered some 2-by-4s, and went home to wait for them to be delivered.

When they arrived I was flabbergasted. I had to do a bit of remeasuring. They were two actual inches by four actual inches, not our much smaller size.

In Wiesbaden, Germany, I went into a store and asked for a sheet of hardboard on which I was going to do a painting for an enlisted man's club off-base. When asked what size I wanted, I replied, "A full sheet."

Oops. In Germany, a full sheet of hardboard is three meters by four meters.

That's about 9-by-12 feet instead of our 3-by-8 feet. Had to fall back and regroup that time, too.

When it comes to cultural differences, there's no real right or wrong; there are just ... well, differences. I suppose the best way to handle cultural differences is to follow the saying which is believed to derive from a letter that St. Ambrose sent to St. Augustine: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

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