Cultural letter #2  Pros and cons


Dear friends,


Well, this letter has been "brewing" for a long time.


As I mentioned in my last cultural letter some time ago, there are pros and cons of each people group/country.  If I seem to dwell on the pros or cons, I don't mean to. If I talk about us Americans in a negative light, it isn't that I am looking at all of us in a negative light, either us as Americans or the people here in this Slavic culture. So, here are some "tidbits" from my viewpoint.  It is possible that others here wouldn't agree with me but you will have to ask them.


Maybe it would be helpful if you knew a little of my background.  I was born in FL but we lived in very rural America (Montana) when I was quite young, for a year, then 8 years in WA state in Tacoma, WA, and then we moved back to FL, when I was going into 9th grade.  My parents always seemed to have sufficient money but we grew up in a different era than is now in the states. We went out to eat far less than the average family does now. As I remember, we ate out once or twice a year unless we were on vacation, and then we ate at McDonalds. I'd say we were quite conservative in just about every area--my mom's maiden name was Gruetzmacher, which is German, and my dad is Swedish. So, basically, my "roots" are from very close to Poland. :) I never remember a time growing up without a telephone, color photographs or a car. My dad pastored small churches, and I have no Roman Catholicism in my background. Both of my parents came out of mainline denominations into ind. Baptist background through the influence of their schooling at BJU in Greenville, SC.  My dad has always emphasized to us that it is more important that we be "biblicists" than anything else, no matter what any person/any organization says or does.  So, now you know a little bit more of my background.


I'm sure that these things do influence my thinking.


1.  Poland is very, very "tradition-minded."  Sometimes it is difficult to watch people who seem, almost as if by a chain, bound to traditions.  It is sometimes reflected in the non-Catholic church, though, of course, certainly not to the extent that it is among dedicated Catholics.  One area that it is reflected in is the area of weddings.  At weddings here, tradition has it, that after the long ceremony, there is to be a feast--all at the expense of the young couple.  This particular tradition has been very difficult for most of the Americans to understand. Most of these couples are struggling to just have a place to live and set up housekeeping. To put on a dinner/feast that costs about $20 per person in attendance seems so very impractical to our practical, "willing-to-break-with tradition" minds.  From what I have observed, it is possible that many of the couples themselves would be willing to forego that expensive dinner, but the relatives/guests expect it and there is much pressure put on them to do this.  So, while among the church right here in Anin, there have been a couple of weddings that have defied that tradition, the pressure is intense.  I am so thankful that in America, we were allowed the freedom to serve brownies, cake, nuts and m&m's.  Of course, the fact that they have receptions several hours long does not help.  To our minds, the idea that the very poor couple has to come up with this much money just to feed the guests smacks of "selfishness" (of the guests/relatives who expect it). To them, I think, it is just "tradition." 


(Side note:  It could be that in years past under communism, when food wasn't as expensive, that this "feast" didn't cause the hardship that it does now. From what I have been told, food has become proportionately "very expensive" for the people in relation to their wages.  So, under communism, while food was hard to find, my guess is that the proportion of money that people had to spend for food was less than now, where prices are rising to a more realistic/free economy level.)


2.  The Polish people and other Slavic peoples put us Americans to shame for our wastefulness/lack of ingenuity.  (This is a broad generalization, I realize.)  Some of the ideas that I read in the "Tightwad Gazette," a newsletter geared to encourage thriftiness and to promote ideas and good attitudes in America, have long been in place here.  Many, many people here have gardens, even those in the city, many put up food in season, share tools with friends/relatives so that they don't all buy one, and that kind of thing.  Not too long ago I was talking with a couple of "early 20's" about the American idea if someone borrows something over and over and over again, it is likely that the loaner will just give it to that person, figuring that they need it worse than he does. The 2 (brother and sister) laughed at this, saying that here people will borrow again and again, but the owner would not say, "Just keep it."

Here it is common for people to turn out their lights every time you walk out the room (I know, we are supposed to!), sometimes stores don't even turn on their lights in the summer if it is a bright and sunny day. There have been times that we were in church and at 2 minutes after 10 someone finally goes and flips the lights on. (Mike said in the Ukraine drivers go around without their lights on even when it is necessary as apparently they don't have a law like we do here in Poland that they have to use them during the day in the winter.) Whereas we Americans tend to have a "look down our nose on leftovers" idea, often the people here will eat the exact same thing that they served for dinner, for the evening smaller meal, and even the next morning, for breakfast.


3.  As I look at the food groups chart on the side of the box of cereal, I wonder what the truly poor think about it (of course, the truly poor would be reading it on the store shelf, not on their kitchen table.). It does look as if it were written and designed by a wealthy people like the Americans.  Some people can't afford all those fruits and vegies and meat that are listed.  Sometimes people can only buy bread and white cheese, like a drained cottage cheese, and maybe some lard. For some people, fruit is a once-in-a-while luxury, not a daily expectation.


4. Another observation about food...I was once in a conference where a lady speaker was talking about menu planning.  She said something about making up 30 different menus for the month... The ladies, who were Russian, just burst out in laughter, albeit kind of quietly, though.  It was obvious that the idea of 30 different main dishes was quite funny to them.  To myself, I said, "Well there's an Americanism coming out that I never thought about before."  The truth is, many of them eat the same 3 or 4 things as their basic food--macaroni, potatoes, and barley.  If there is money, they will add some meat.  Here in Poland, they have a bit more money, on average, than people in Belarus and Ukraine, and as a result, their diet is more varied, but their backgrounds are similar and they eat similarly (according to a Polish friend of mine who now lives in Latvia, married to a Russian). 


5. People here are slow to accept change.  The younger generation is of course, happier to try new things.  Because of tv, radio and now, the internet, the world is growing closer. America has more influence on the world, in a general way, than I think any of the average American realizes.  A new mall opened up a while back, with a nice big supermarket and lots of other stores. (There is a Food Court with 4 American restaurant chains in it.) In America, it would have been mobbed with shoppers on the first day, even if just to look. Here, it will take this mall a while to "be accepted" and finally, shoppers will get used to going there (this is an observation from a Pole) and it will be as crowded as all the other malls/shopping centers.  In the meantime, we enjoy going there. Maybe by the time it is so crowded you can barely walk through on a Friday or Saturday, there will be another mall built. In the most successful malls here, the anchor stores are large supermarkets, not stores like Penneys or Belks. It is like a Walmart hypermarket or a huge Fred Meyer (for those out west) or Meier (for those from IN). 


6.  Sometimes it is difficult to remember, that even though everyone looks about the same as I do, they do not think the same.  There are plenty of people out in the streets of Poland remembering the "good ole days" when things were cheap, even if not available.  You and I tend to think that they are all rejoicing in their freedom.  I don't believe that this is true. Many in the older generation have little or no opportunities and no skills for the current marketplace.  The advertisments in the newspaper are sometimes openly "discriminating" sometimes even saying that they want a "young, attractive woman between the ages of 18 and 30" or something like that (for a legitimate job.).  Many, many time the ads give the ages of someone that they want to hire.  For an American reading it, we think, "Discrimination!"  However, for the employers here, it is what they want.


7. Since the time that we have been small, we have been taught to not discriminate/be prejudiced.  Many of the Poles are very prejudiced, especially against the Russians and against Jews.  Due to their history, this is only natural; however, for us Americans, it is difficult to hear it and think that noone is protesting.  However, what I must remember is, that I have come from a Protestant, free economy culture with the idea that each of us is to be judged on his/her own merits (at least that is the goal).  Here, a Russian has to just open his/her mouth and he/she is looked down on (this is not true among the Christians.).  I know that we as missionaries are supposed to begin to think/act like the nationals in the culture where we live, :) but so far, it has been impossible for me to think of the Russians as "lower" than anyone else. To me, the Russians (as a group) are a musically talented and a remarkably resilient, "determined to survive" people. .


I think that's enough for this time. I hope I've not worn you out.  I've shared a little bit more than simple observations by also giving you some possible prayer requests/insights into us personally.  Each of us has something to learn/something to give.  Continue to pray for us.  I love your emails to me/us and we do appreciate you all so much!


In Warsaw,

Becky Petersen