Summer 1994 (2.2)
Western Logic - Eastern Passions
by Galib Mammadov
I know I should introduce my essay in the Western style - that is, by introducing my subject in the very first sentence and then proceeding to support my ideas. But if I may seek the pardon of my readers, I'd like to take exception and break the rule because I'd like to address the subject of differences, of cultural stereotypes, view points and expectations, many of which have become so obvious to me now that I've been living in the US for nearly a year.
The world appears so different to me now. That's not to say that it really isn't the same but simply that I'm viewing it from another perspective. For example, when Americans write letters, they go from major to minor, from generalities to specifics. They immediately state what they're planning to speak about and then proceed to fill in the details.
Azerbaijanis approach from the opposite direction-developing ideas from minor to major. The point we want to emphasize always comes at the end-like an accumulative whole. American letters puzzle Azerbaijanis. We wonder why anyone would want to write two or three pages if they've already said everything in the first sentence? Even more amazing is the tradition of business letters that begin with the abbreviation: "Re:" (Regarding) which often explains in a simple phrase the contents of the entire letter. Why bother explaining anything further?
And Western newspapers-upon reading their headlines and titles, you're thrust immediately into the course of events that are happening all over the globe. But if the title exposes the content, is there really any necessity to develop the idea more broadly?
Let me suggest another example. An Azerbaijani visiting someone would never knock at the door, enter the house and within two or three minutes introduce the reason for his coming. Everybody would be shocked. First you enter and share their hospitality. Tea will be served immediately even without asking. The conversation will open gently and you'll get the chance to warm up to each other gradually as you recollect past experiences that you've shared. It's not imperative that you explain anything at that time unless you feel it's necessary. And it's not proper for hosts to request the reason for your visit; and they would never dare ask you to tell them how long you planned to stay even if it extended to weeks or even months. All of these things would eventually become known-all in their own time.
The question arises: "Who is right?"and "Who is wrong?" Azerbai-janis or Westerners? I would propose that neither is wrong. It's merely a question of perspective and of traditional cultural patterns.
My first impression upon arriving in the US was that it was a country that fostered individualism. People, in general it seems, prefer not to be bothered or imposed upon.
In Azerbaijan, we're more used to interacting with others. I'm not so sure this practice stems from the Soviet period, I rather suppose we've lived this way for hundreds and thousands of years. And so, it is with a great sense of loss for an Azerbaijani like myself to be in this strange new world of individuals. I feel rather like a fish out of water, suffocating and gasping for my own familiar environment. The only difference is that a human being has the capacity to adapt and survive. And so that's what I try to do.
A year ago, approximately a month after I arrived in the United States, I returned to my apartment on the 18th floor late one evening only to realize I had misplaced my keys. It was 1 AM. I didn't know what to do. Finally, I remembered that my neighbor's balcony connected with mine. It would be easy to crawl over the panel separating our balconies and enter my apartment. I was so happy that I had figured out how to solve my dilemma so easily. I rushed up to my neighbor's apartment when it suddenly dawned on me that I was in America, not Azerbaijan, and that one probably shouldn't knock on a neighbor's door (whom you've never met before) in the wee hours of the morning to propose climbing over his balcony!
I was to learn later that if you lost your keys, you should contact the apartment manager who would then call a technician who would eventually come, open the door and charge $20 for his services. In the meantime, you might sit in the lobby while your neighbors passed by and looked at you and, no doubt, even exchanged smiles. Nobody would probably ever ask you why you were sitting there.
But in Azerbaijan if you lost your keys, you could be sure that even at 1 AM your neighbor would help you though first he would try to persuade you to spend the night in his apartment. (We have an expression, "The evil in the morning is always better than an angel at night"). He would immediately spread a table for tea (and sweets). You might end up talking for hours before trying to get into your apartment or before dozing off to sleep in his. Let me tell you another difference I've found. In Azerbaijan, if you ever happen to need anything, such as salt, sugar, bread, or the like - you don't rush to a supermarket, you always knock on your neighbor's door. This is the way we've done it for centuries. We would never hesitate to ask our neighbors for some bread if we forgot to buy some on our way home. And this simple gesture is symbolic of the sense of community we feel. It has always provided us with a safety net.
It reminds me of the time I came home from work and was busy in the kitchen when the someone knocked on my door. That day had been particularly bad, a depression had burdened me and I felt very heavy. I remember especially missing my parents. Suddenly, a knock came at the door, and when I opened it, a middle-aged lady, my neighbor, whom I had never met before, rather apologetically asked to borrow some baking soda. For a moment, I lost myself. It seemed I had not heard her correctly but once I figured it out, that heavy veil of depression vanished. I flew into the kitchen and came back with the whole box, not just the spoonful that she wanted. I urged her to keep it all and with that simple gesture, which this stranger had offered so hesitatingly, I began to feel as if I were back home in Azerbaijan.
Another example of differences. Two months after arriving here, I enrolled in a course at Georgetown University. It had been a year since I had attended university classes back home but I expected the experience to be similar. The first day, I arrived early and sat in the back of the room watching. I'm glad I did. Students came in and took their seats. Some came alone. Others tagged along with a friend. But it was so strange to me as the students didn't show any interest in the person they sat beside.
Had I arrived late, I would definitely have done something everyone would have thought very strange. I would have gone around shaking hands and meeting everyone in the class. That's the way we do it back home. When we enter a room, we greet everyone and shake their hands. And if we accidentally overlook someone, we immediately apologize as this would be considered a great insult. Likewise, when we leave, we make the rounds and say good-bye to every single person. We never just disappear or simply thank the host and hostess.
Ironically, when I lived in Azerbaijan, I always dreamed about being completely independent and having my own individual lifestyle separate from my family's. But now I'm feeling a great disappointment as I find myself here in the middle of my deepest wishes. I feel torn between these two extremes-this individualism and independence on the one hand; and incredibly strong ties to so many people on the other.
My own roots never quite allow me to forget myself and embrace something absolutely new.
When I return to Azerbaijan, I will not be the person who came here a year ago. I will be different. I hope I will carry back with me some of the best customs and practices that I've seen here. I'll become a synthesis of these two worlds-best characterized, I think, by an Eastern soul combined with a Western brain.
Life in these two very different worlds has already taught me an incredibly important lesson, that is, respect for the traditional cultural patterns that have been shaped and molded over many centuries and millennia. And it is this respect that will enable all of us to open our hearts and minds to those who approach things differently than we do.
From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.