CUSTOMS OF THE COUNTRY
Raising children overseas, in a country with a culture different for your own, poses questions every day. Often, as parents of third culture kids, we find ourselves in embarrassing situations as a result of the customs of the country. This morning, an Argentinian friend, married to an Italian, formerly residing in Indiana but now my neighbor in Israel, called me with some questions about American culture that I honestly couldn't answer. I told her to call our other American friend who spent four years in Africa before moving to Israel and previously worked in education in the States. Apparently, this Other American had told The Argentinian to call me. We got nowhere but laughed as we compared notes and concluded that often we do not know which customs of the country to follow because we're not sure which country should take precedence: the one we're living in, the one we're from, or the one represented in our children's school.
Let's say you're invited to a first time pool date for your five-year-old daughter.
Your host opens the door, and says to her own child, "Jimmy, say hello to Sofia and Mrs. Ortona."
Sofia frowns, tugs at your skirt, and charges past both of them without a word, eyeing the perfectly-ordered playroom, a sanctuary compared to my play pit at home where Legos are mixed with Duplo, all toys are without batteries, and dried-up playdough lines the linoleum. In defense of my ill-behaved daughter, I must conclude that perhaps she doesn't say hello because she is not sure how to: which customs of which country should she follow? You see, I'm Sheila to her four-year-old friends Frank, Stanley and Tessa. I'm only Mrs. Ortona to a bank teller or a police officer. I grew up being told I should address my parents' friends as Mrs. Curtis and Mrs. Taylor. But yet I'm raising my kids to call their friends' parents Katie, Mariana and Ingrid not Ms. Schut, Signora Mariana or Frau Ingrid. Does new little Jimmy really have to call me Mrs. Ortona? Isn't that my mother-in-law?
At the American preschool my kids attend here in Israel, kids are to call their teacher Miss First Name. So, logically, we have Miss Michele, and Miss Mini, for instance. But just when you thought you had that together, in second grade of the same school, my son is to call one teacher by her first name (Bonnie) and the other by a title-plus-last-name (Ms W). While the headmaster of the school goes by Mr. Last Name, the Elementary School Principal is Miss First Name.
Do you blame my kid for wanting to beeline to the Hot Wheels rather than wait to be judged by the protocol of the playdate receiving line? Isn't a silent high five just easiest?
In Israel, everyone introduces themselves by only their first name. Last names only come out, I am told, if there's something really important to announce, such as: "Are you sure, Sheila Ortona, that this is your gas mask?" Or, "Are you Sheila Ortona, the owner of the car double-parked in front of the fire hydrant?" In Italy, where I always thought form and manners would take priority, people rarely say their name at all when introduced. And, in America, first, middle and last name are coupled by a handshake or an odd hug where your boobs are body-pressed, followed by a firing squad of where-did-you-go-to-school and where-do-you-work interrogations.
So, once your daughter has stormed into the new friend's house unannounced and not called her hostess the way she insists you should be called by her son, it's time to strip and go swimming. This is Custom of the Country Code Alert Number 2. If you know the nationality of the play date's parents before the swim date, you can figure out what bathing suit to wear. Chances are that if the mom is American, she'll be in a one-piece, either from LLBean or J.Crew. But if the mom is European, chances are she'll be in a string bikini, the less it covers the better. If the mom is Israeli, the look could be a combo of the American and European -- a one-piece with an off-the-shoulder, way-above-the-knees cover-up or a bathing suit bikini with a skirt: somewhat practical, somewhat sexy. I find myself feeling like a prude if I wear a one-piece among the Europeans, and provacative if I wear a bikini among the Americans. With Israelis, it seems almost anything goes, a reflection of their melting pot composition.
Eventually, it'll be time to say goodbye: enter Custom of the Country Code Alert 3 (but bear in mind that all this relates to saying hello as well). If you're American, it's usually a hug. But sometimes that can turn into an awkward slap on the back or get merged with a kiss -- one or two? Who knows. If you're Italian, you kiss one cheek, and then the other, but I can never remember whether you're supposed to start on the right or the left. Whatever it is, it's the opposite of the French. And, oh, yes, you give the semblance of a kiss -- it's a no-no to actually plant lips on cheek skin. Horror. Hello, air kiss. If you're Portugese or Argentinian, you kiss once on the cheek. If you're Dutch, you kiss three times. If you're Belgian, you kiss four times. If you're Asian, it seems to me you bow. Should we really just be shaking hands, hugging or, better yet, standing in a straight jacket and wink? Who hasn't bumped noses and almost accidentally made out with a perfect stranger in moments when really all you wanted to do was say, "Nice to meet you"?
Call me Sheila, wear whatever bathing suit fits, and give me five.