What Doesn’t Count

After ditching my airplane-reading detective thriller in the room in Vienna, I've been reading Anne Fadiman's excellent The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, about tragic cross-cultural misunderstanding in the case of an epileptic Hmong child in California. One of the book's central themes is the way in which the communications barriers between her parents and her doctors manage to infantilize all involved -- something I'm acutely conscious of in Hungary, a country with a non Indo-European language.

It's not that we're unable to communicate with Hungarians, but rather that we come across as idiots. We decided early on to do our best not to perpetuate the stereotype of ugly Americans who shout all the time, so we're humble, and polite, and wholly inarticulate. It's not just the language: we don't know the customs that even small children know, and thus we come across as infants. [Quite literally, I think: our most successful social interactions are making funny faces at the adorable children on the subway.]

For example, pretty much all my life, I've "learned" that when counting on my fingers, I should start with the forefinger for "one," add the middle finger for "two," and so on, throwing in the thumb only for "five." Well, in pretty much all of Eastern Europe, one starts with the thumb for "one," adding the forefinger for "two" and proceeding along the hand in order. This takes us a few days to notice -- until Sarah pieces together all the strange looks and loud sighs we've gotten every time we asked for "one" pastry or "one" bus ticket with some incomprehensible hand gesture.