High-context chopsticks

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between Catalina and me – our cultures, our upbringings, our experiences. So I wrote this piece for Intersect.com about Catalina’s first pair of chopsticks:

Catalina had never used chopsticks before. The closest she’d come was the time I used two forks like chopsticks to prove it was possible to eat that way. That didn’t turn out well for either of us.

But Catalina’s chopstick-less existance makes sense when you realize she has never been outside of Moldova, which is about the size of Maryland. In fact, she’s never been outside of northern Moldova, which is about the size of Conecticut. But while her knowledge for the world is not broad, it is deep. She knows her corner of the world imtimately. Like most Moldovans, she can tell you how much money someone has, how large their family is, what they do – all with one quick glance.

Anthropologists call this “high-context culture,” where one has to read the thick layer of context hidden over every interaction in order to understand it fully. The U.S. is a very low-context culture. I couldn’t look at someone in Seattle or Dallas and guess correctly if they have an accent. Here, Catalina can.

But when I say or do things that challenge the rules governing life for this small sliver, Catalina tends not to believe me. Hence the chopsticks. Surely, no one really eats this way, she seems to think, because I’ve never seen it.

Sometimes, this high-context worldview seriously gets on my nerves, like when I try to tell Catalina that I’ve eaten/done/seen something and she flat-out does not believe me. When I tell her I used to do my own laundry using a washer and dryer, she gives me a thin-lipped smile and patronizing head nod that mean, That’s right, Lindsay, keep telling yourself that.

So maybe it wasn’t with the purest of intentions that I wanted to prove chopsticks are actual, viable utensils. After all, they say a third of the world eats with chopsticks, with another third using forks and knives and the other third using their hands.

Maybe it’s the American in me that wants to teach Catalina all the ways of the world (and prove myself right.) After all, I spend my life capitalizing on the contradictions possible in a low-context culture. I love being the only Southern Debutaunte at a noise show, or the only feminist activist in a college sorority. But I find fewer chances for paradox in a culture where, for example, 96 percent of people claim the same religious background.

But I have to remember, Catalina has taught me things, too, like how to slow down and appreciate the people around me. She once told me proudly, “I have never hurried in my life.” Very un-American.

So far, Catalina can pick up sliced fruits and veggies with her chopsticks, and we are waiting for Valentina to make rice or noodles or something else we can pick up. I tried it with oatmeal, and that was just a mess. I guess we’ll both just have to keep working on it.

One response to “High-context chopsticks

  1. Pingback: Summer in Moldova | Lindsay in Moldova

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