Jimbo and his friend from Boston encounter cross-cultural challenges in Portland.
When I was in Peace Corps during training before we were assigned to our posts, we were given some instruction
dealing with cross-cultural issues we might have in a country on the other side of the planet from where we grew up. We were told that we would experience a cycle of adjustment
, which included initial euphoria, an equal portion of culture shock, followed by decreasing cycles of adjustment and shock. I’ve found that training helped adjust to new workplaces, new homes with roomates, and of course moving to new cities.
We can assume my initial euphoria with being in a new place has ended by now. I have my ups and downs on a weekly basis but having lived here in Portland in 1995 has probably lessened the extremes somewhat. The cultural training also helped me observe differences between coastal cultures as well, which sometimes helps when I find myself frustrated with people here. I’m not saying I’m angry all the time, but little interactions come up on occasion where I find myself confused about how people work here. But I’m learning.
I went on a date (yes I go on dates now!) a month ago with a guy who used to live in Boston, which is a bit more extreme east coast culture than DC. But we both agreed to having some struggle with the way things go in Portland. I tried to frame how we see things here this way in a conversation with him: people from the larger cities on the east coast consciously or unconsciously learn to mind other people’s space, because there is less space for people in the densely populated cities of the east coast. If nobody in New York City minded other peoples’ space, there would be even more cranky people in New York. New York works because people learn to mind each others’ space.
Take for example a crowded locker room in a city gym. On the east coast people will keep their stuff in a smaller pile on the bench, so other people can put their stuff down too. They don’t think about it, they just do it. At my new gym in an even smaller locker room, one guy will spread all his stuff on the bench, and I’m pretty sure he’s completely unaware that nobody else can put their stuff on the bench and not on the nasty floor. And even with three other people in the locker room who need the bench to change clothes, the one guy doesn’t move his stuff to accomodate other people. It happens on a regular basis.
This applies to all sorts of things, like training your dog not to bark all the time or cleaning after the dog on the sidewalk. And resolving conflicts. People here don’t communicate well when they perceive a conflict, so they avoid conflict altogether. On the east coast they are better at voicing something that bothers them, which can be perceived on the west coast as “rude.” In more compact living environments, people learn to resolve conflicts by communicating. They haven’t learned that here in Portland. And I’ve probably been perceived as “rude” already.
There may be a politeness factor involved this close to Canada. Maybe people are too polite to voice conflicts. I think it’s from differences in population density. Just a theory.
I perceive drivers here as too polite, often to the point of endangering themselves in order to drive politely. If I’m at an intersection on foot where a driver has no stop sign and he has the right of way, they’ll often stop for the pedestrian even if the pedestrian does not have a crosswalk. I perceive this as potentially dangerous for the driver. But I will learn to expect this and just cross to be polite to the driver I guess.
When I’m out and chatting with people I’ve heard some interesting west coast perceptions of people from DC. The conversations went like this:
Me: I just moved here in September from DC.
Him: Oh, did you work for the government?
Him: Oh but you can’t talk about it. (smirks)
Well I can talk about it, but I won’t bore you about how I did public outreach on an equine STD eradication team. Or that I wrote Q&A documents on invasive fruit flies. It leads to too many awkward conversations about equine STD treatments or the science of how ripening fruit rots. You don’t really want to hear that, do you?
For the record, anyone from DC who tells you they can’t talk about what they do probably spend their time photocopying or filing and don’t want to talk about it. Those who truly can’t talk about what they do have a short pitch like “I do policy work.”
The other strange perception is of gays in DC. When I mention I moved from DC people here have said, “Oh, are all the gays closeted conservative Republicans?” No. Most of them are flaming liberal Democrats, but there are some Republicans, but not all of them are closeted. There are a few flaming gay conservatives who are out, but most of the people I knew were out all over the place. Of course there are a few deeply closeted cases, or semi-closeted gays who work for deeply conservative politicians, but I knew some guys who were out and still worked for these people. I guess there are all kinds of gays in DC, but they’re not all closeted Republicans for the record.
I think I did pick up a few east coast cultural habits without knowing it and brought them here to Portland with me. One strange one I see that makes me stick out a bit is public singing. In the neighborhoods I lived in, or in the deeply African-American Prince George’s County where I commuted and worked in for many years, people were unafraid of singing or humming aloud on the street or in the Metro. Mostly hip-hop but other styles of music too while they were listening to their headphones or iPods. It rarely bothered me, and at some point I guess I started doing it myself. I get strange looks here when I break out a verse in the gym or on the street, and notice that no one else here seems to sing publicly. This is one habit I think I will try to maintain despite cultural differences.