Thursday, September 24, 2009

Things Not to Say

Occasionally, there are things that I'm glad I don't know how to say in French, because it prevents me from saying things I later regret. Like: My god, you're a sexist pig. How does your wife put up with you?

For the past three weeks, I've been living with my host mother and another lodger, a middle-aged Algerian man, who, from time to time, drives me crazy.

He's incapable of cooking and only eats bread and Camembert cheese, sitting at the table and leaving breadcrumbs all over, which he then doesn't wipe up afterwards. He also makes coffee in the morning, which he drinks and then leaves the cup sitting in the sink, despite the fact that the dishwasher is less than a yard away. What drove me even crazier about this is that he does all of this with a cheerful admittance of his ignorance, insisting that in Algeria, his wife simply chases him out of the kitchen.

However, this isn't Algeria, and his wife isn't around. Too often, I'm the one who crumbs the table, puts the placemats away, rinses out his coffee cup and puts in the dishwasher, because I don't want my host mother to be burdened.

This is something I've been struggling with. Cultural tolerance is something we've been taught is a good thing. Everybody likes being different and we're supposed to celebrate our differences. But is there a point where "cultural differences" aren't an excuse anymore?

Obviously, this is a small example. Having to put someone else's dishes away is not a big deal. However, what about larger issues? In my Philosophy of Feminism class last year, we talked about female genital mutilation (FGM) and my professor, trying to spark a debate, brought up the issue of cultural differences. FGM is a rite of passage in some places. Can we still condemn it or is it another cultural difference?

This is a tricky subject to talk about, because as soon as you start to judge another culture, you risk sound Eurocentric, ethnocentric, or just plain biased, but I feel like it's a conversation we need to have. At what point does something become just plain "wrong"? (Also, to avoid sounding like I think American culture is always right, allow me to list a few phenomena in our culture that I don't particularly care for: binge drinking, the death penalty, political spin, and McDonald's. And yes, I know there's a huge difference in degree between FGM and McDonald's.)

I don't know where that line is, in the grand political scheme or in my host mother's host. If I lose my temper and tell the other lodger that he can put his own d*** dishes in the dishwasher because it's really not that hard, am I being an obnoxious American? Or I am simply standing up for myself and expecting him to do the right thing and bear his part of the housekeeping?


  1. Has nothing to do with cultures. You're not his wife. Should tell him to man up and pull his weight.

  2. I think everyone should clean up after themselves, it is a skill I teach Stella everyday....