A Brief Note on Cross- Cultural Communication

Yesterday I mentioned that I was at a wedding in Michigan recently. While I was there, I met a lot of new people and found myself telling many of the old stories again. That can get tiring, even when I’m talking to interesting characters. That’s why, as a foreigner, I am always looking for something current to link me to a new place. You can coast on stories about where you’ve come from for only so long. You need some common, shared experience with the locals. In Russia I found that the cockroach was the main way in.

Let me explain: in Scotland it is too cold for cockroaches to thrive, so it was quite a shock when I came home to my grubby flat in Moscow and found the things crawling all over my bread and sugar. Then I located a nest of them behind fridge. Going into my workplace the next day I discovered that this worked a lot better as an ice-breaker than my naïve efforts to open up a conversation on all the literature I had been diligently reading.  Most Russians don’t want to discuss Dostoevsky any more than the average American wants to discuss Emily Dickinson. But I bonded with them over roaches. No sooner had I told the tale than a girl started talking about the day she awoke to find a horde of baby roaches dancing on the head of her toothbrush. And forever after that people were keen to hear the latest installment of my experiences with these dirty beasts. Friendships were formed that endure to this day.

My favorite roach stories have an erotic element. One morning I awoke and a little rascal was jogging up the bed to kiss me. I wasn’t in the mood for insect love, however, and tossed the cover back, sending the thing flying. The next day, however, I awoke to find one lying between my thighs, dead. Had it expired from an excess of passion? No, I had rolled over and crushed it in the night, before it could consummate its foul desire. After that, I knew it was time to move.

I also got some mileage out of cockroaches when I lived in Kazakhstan. My digs there were cleaner, but every now and then something vile reared its antennae. One day I was stopped in my tracks by an albino roach that was crawling slowly across my carpet. I gazed at it, transfixed for a few moments, and then killed it, of course. It exploded in a puff of powder. I am mystified by this to this day, though it could be explained by the fact that Kazakhstan is a highly radioactive zone

In America my experience of cockroaches is growing deeper and broader. In Texas, where I am currently based, I recently had an encounter. It happened like this:

I was watching a program on tattoos on TV and once it was over I commenced flicking idly through the channels. I reached PBS and lo! A helicopter was flying over the River Forth in Scotland, accompanied by wispy Celtic music and pish narration by a Scottish actor. Within seconds the camera was hovering over Dunfermline Abbey, the main religious building of my hometown, a dilapidated ruin from the Middle Ages. The narrator waffled on about centuries of turmoil leaving the ‘essential spirituality’ of the place ‘undiminished’. I chuckled. But then, as if on cue, a giant cockroach appeared from behind the TV and scampered up the wall. It was the biggest bad boy I had ever seen, a real Texas-size specimen. I ran around with a shoe trying to crush it while the camera moved north to pan over Saint Andrews and Dundee. It was only while the narrator was dreamily reciting ‘My hert’s in the hielands’ over imagery of stumpy green hill-mountains that I finally managed to flatten the bastard.

This was a new kind of cockroach entirely—a mystical-satirical-symbolic roach. And yet it was absolutely real. I am still digesting the full implications of its appearance at that moment.

I told this tale at my friend’s wedding. I was trying to avoid talking about books, as it bores me to do so. The story elicited an instant response—he responded with an account of a roach that had tumbled from a lamp while he was watching a porno movie as a teenager. His parents were out for the night. This sudden visitor alarmed him so much that he gave up watching and went to bed. I suggested that it was a messenger from above, keeping him on the path of purity and righteousness. At the end of the night he gave me his card and invited me to visit him at his home in Alabama.

The cockroach anecdote does it again.

From Powells.com (19/10/06)

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