Cultural letter #15  Values

Dear friends,

Here's the promised cultural letter...

Many of you are somewhat "new" to this email list since I've started sending cultural letters a few years ago.  For the "old timers", If I repeat something, please forgive me.

When a missionary from the USA or Canada goes to a culture like Poland, it is easy to think that everything is the same as in his/her home culture, since the people look the same.  It is important that we remember there are basic differences in the thought processes, value system, and general upbringing in many of the people.  They aren't "the same" in many ways.  I wanted to give you a few "funny differences" to us.

* You have to have a basket if you go into some stores.

When we first came, it was prevalent, virtually everywhere, but thankfully this tradition has somewhat faded away. However, before this last Christmas, I tried to walk into the toy wholesale store without a basket, and the girl who was standing around watching people told me to get a basket. I told her that I was going to buy "more" and needed a regular "push cart type basket", and not just a plastic hand held one. She said, OK.  They apparently are pretty strict. When we were first in Poland, I tried to walk into a large supermarket without a basket as I had forgotten one thing and wanted to run really quickly and get it, and the guard standing on duty wouldn't let me in the store without a basket.  Talk about control! (I didn't like it, and still don't like it.)  When our friends, the twins, as some of you may recognize them, first went to the states to go to BJU, my sister, Rachael, took them to a BigK as she needed a card of some kind. She was amused how upset they were that she didn't stop to get a basket. To her that was really strange..."get a basket when all I wanted was a card?"   No one has explained why they have this rule, except possibly as "crowd control" and the hopes that if you are busy pushing a basket, or holding one, you have fewer fingers available to shoplift.  ??? 

*Drinking cold drinks in the wintertime is strange, and giving cold drinks to small children is negligence and will certainly cause sickness!

The first time I took Daniel (he was young 2), to an older Polish lady's apartment, she offered him some juice. I said, "Sure, that would be great," and she pulled it out of the 'fridge and apologized because it had just come from the refrigerator.  I thought that this was very strange indeed since I thought the refrigerator was where the juice was SUPPOSED to be kept.  Since then, I've seen that many of them keep the opened juice container on the counter if they have small children in the house.  They are convinced the child will get sick if they drink cold things, but especially during the winter. Of course this is humorous to us, because our kids would be constantly sick if this were true.  What isn't humorous is when I see people actually yelling at their children if they drink something cold and telling them rather loudly..."Look, now you'll get sick!"  etc if their kid drinks a cold soda pop.  I think the younger generation prefers cold, as my children said that the soft drink machines at school are pretty busy even now, when the temps are below freezing.

*When a couple gets married, there isn't an urgency to get their own place.

Many, many young couples, when they get married, move into the room of the one who had the better place and don't find their own place, apart from mom or dad.  You may read this, and say, "Oh, but it is financial."  Well, yes and no.  The truth is, the sacrifices to pay the rent, food, car, have money left over to buy cds, just isn't enough and most don't want to "go downhill" in their standard of living that they had while living with mom and dad.  The young people here are similar to the young people in the states, in that they want to "have it all" just like when living with mom and dad before marriage...go on vacations, stereos, car (and gasoline is expensive!), etc. and the chances are they are making even less than in the states. So, as a result, the most obvious and easy answer is to live with mom and dad in one tiny room.

The ones who desire more privacy may actually arrange things or remodel things so as to have their own entrance, bathroom, kitchen, etc, but many share everything...except they both move into the husband's (or wife's) previous bedroom.  This can get a little crowded when a little one is added.  I say that with many it just isn't priority to get their own it is more comfortable (and definitely cheaper).  I have an English student who just bought a brand new car with cash, new expensive digital camera and all the trappings, is shopping for a new laptop and never seems to have to take time to "recover" financially before buying the next thing. But, he and his wife and son live at his parent's house.  I asked him why didn't get his own place..and frankly, he doesn't seem to even desire it.  Strange, huh?  To us, it is.  Why? I'm not sure. I don't think he pays for any of the "house expenses" or maybe part of the electricity, etc..but not like insurances, taxes, etc, from his comments.  I know he is only one, but others who have been here longer than I have said similar things. They'd rather have their money "to play" than to have their own privacy and ensuing responsibility.

Of course, this isn't 100%, and there will be some who will strongly desire to be on their own more than have the conveniences of  mom. Our neighbor across the street told me one day that it was better living where they are now..with no indoor toilet, than living with her mother-in-law in a nice house with everything.  She definitely prefers it. It isn't unusual to find 3 generations under one roof, and sometimes those generations are all living "under grandma's conditions".  In the states, you may find a grandma or grandpa living with child but usually it is child who is the one "helping out" grandma, either because of finances, but often because of the need to be close because of physical needs.  Here, it seems like no one has moved out so of course, grandma still "rules."  Interesting.  It would be tough, I think. As a result, in many cases, "grandma" still rules and controls kids and grandkids.  This leads to the next point.

*Many people call this a matriarchal society.

I'm not sure if I totally agree with this, but it does seem like there are more women judges, principals of schools, doctors, lawyers, than even men principals, etc. However, we have a man president and all the upper positions are held by men, like minister of this, and minister of that.  I've not heard of a woman holding these offices, and certainly women do not prevail there. However, Mike tells me that in the government offices who control visas, paperwork, etc, he more often deals with women than men. (Maybe it is because most of these jobs are seen to be more secretarial.) Whatever the case, the "grandma" often is the leader of the family...and definitely tells the "grandpa" what to do.  While there are exceptions, they are rare.  Polish people tell me this is true.

The "babcia" (grandma) often is a stern, unhappy person who is a busybody and is always checking on others and is the one most upset and verbal if the grandchild goes to another church, etc.  While I hate to stereotype "grandmas" in Poland, I'm not too far off. When I use the term "babcia", there are certain pictures that flash into my mind.  When I think of "grandma" or "granny", the picture is quite different. The typical grandma in my stereotypical picture is slightly plump, likes to make cookies, is friendly, loving, and generally happy, and concerned for the welfare of her kids and grandkids, buys things for them and tries to be uplifting.  The typical "babcia" here might be slightly plump, but she isn't particularly friendly, is very interested in everything and everyone going on around them, with the desire to set you straight if she feels the need. She is vocal and gives away her opinions freely. If you get fussed out, it is most often by a "babcia" than a "dziadek" (grandpa).  They are the ones who can grump at you in line and give you a piece of their mind.  The men are mostly quiet...and may even smile a little bit if you smile at them. Stay out of the way of an upset "babcia!"  Some of our missionary friends in Krakow said that they've heard more cussing from the mouth of a "babcia" who lives down the hall from them, than from anyone else.

*Many people who don't have work don't diligently look for it and if they have it, they are somewhat lazy.

I was surprised at this. It is like the fringe crowd, who isn't particularly trained, is waiting for "the wonderful job" that is going to await them somewhere, sometime.  They don't buy newspapers and look at the help wanted, they buy cigarettes.  They don't see if they can learn skills, they buy alcohol.  It is really a different mindset for me, and I'm wondering what they are waiting for...a beanstalk to climb into heaven with so that they can get all that gold that is "out there" somewhere?

Milena and Ania, the two girls who come on Sat. for Bible study explained it this way. They said during communist times, if a person went to a company and said, "I'm looking for work," basically the company had to find them a job...and all they had to do was to "be there" and it was pretty easy to bring home a paycheck.  Now, they have to actually perform at work, and many don't like it, nor do they want to go to the effort to "find work", because we all know that it is sometimes the hardest work of all...looking for work. They've not adjusted to the "new system" (which isn't new anymore).  Just as in the states, most young people want to start fresh out of school/college with a good paying job, and really don't want to start at the bottom, even if they have no experience.  I've been frustrated at times by the cigarette breaks people have to take, the slow way they work, etc.  Sometimes you feel like, while the per hour wage is small, the whole job would be done just as cheaply, or almost as cheaply as in the states with a much higher paid, but faster working person.  Of course, there are exceptions!  Please don't think that I think that all people are lazy...but it is more that their definition of "hard work" is definitely different from mine.  Their definition of "busy" is different from mine as well.  (I think Americans redefine "busy" and take it to new heights!)

*Vacations are high priority and almost anyone who can at all afford it, will take one.

A person with no water in their house, or bathroom, will save and save for a nice 2 week vacation. I'd rather have the bathroom than 2 weeks away.  Our values are somewhat different. Possibly for me, the difference is that I spend so much time at home. If a person works and spends most of their time away from home, that the lack of a bathroom means less to them than to me.  Also, if they are used to no bathroom, then it isn't really a "big deal", but rather, a "minor inconvenience."   It is more "normal" and a bathroom might be considered "rich".  That depends.  We have neighbors with an fact, two of them. 

During the winter, Polish people often take 2 weeks (1 week minimum) and go to the mountains to ski...the young people often go in groups and rent a  house especially geared for this.  During the summer, 2 weeks would be considered minimal...more often that, a vacation would be 3 weeks, or even one whole month, either July or August.  Of course, some do not travel all that time, but many do.  Tourist agencies run specials all over Europe (and some of them are very good deals, but any way you look at it, for 7 people, they get expensive).  People go down to the Mediterranean or to Spain, Africa, and London.  I'm glad for them and am glad that they can afford it.  I think that the government funds camps for poor kids so that they can get out of the city for at least 2 weeks.  I think for most people, vacations really just mean going somewhere and sitting around reading a book, painting, or a little sight is a very laid back time.

*If you bend a young baby in the middle, you will ruin his backbone for life and he will be deformed. 

I had a hard time being told this with Lydia (my fourth), as I felt like (but didn't) telling those well meaning but misinformed people to take a look at my 3 older children, Jeremiah, Timothy, and Abby, and tell me if their backbones were deformed.  I read in one prayer letter while we were on deputation, a missionary wife in the Ukraine who was told this, learned to say, "Oh, but that is for Russian babies...this is an American baby and they are different!"  :)  I thought that was great...wish I had thought of it.  I think it is the stupidity of it all that made it hard for me to tolerate.  I mean, if it were true, wouldn't my other kids be deformed?

(I've learned to keep my mouth shut, and just laugh...but with otherwise well-educated people, it was hard to be tolerant of their superstitions about various things.)

Gotta go. My youngest daughter has a school meeting.

From Warsaw,
Becky Petersen for us all