Cross-Cultural Storytelling: Week 1

Cross Cultural Storytelling:  The Lighter Side of the East West Center is a project that hopes to be a repository of notable East West Center impressions.  When different cultures meet, poignant, humorous, and uplifting experiences create treasured memory recalls that last, and are quite simply, unforgettable.  A new story will be published each week.

Submission guidelines are available at:


SUBMITTED BY: Estrella Besinga Sybinsky/Peter Andrew Sybinsky
FIELD/AREA OF STUDY: Open Grants/Political Science
YEARS AT THE EWC: January 1970-December 1971/ June1969-December 1972

What made the East-West Center environment fascinating and richly innovative was that unlike our standard understanding of the slowly evolving  “melting pot concept” where people from different backgrounds were born, grew up and lived for decades in a multi-ethnic state or country, adult participants at the East-West Center were primarily Asian, Pacific and American professionals thrust together in a short term, highly intensive communication experience.  I was relatively naïve and sheltered in Cebu City, Philippines before joining the East-West Center community.

It was really interesting how people from different cultures spoke the same language but attached different meanings to those same words.  My cultural background gave me traditions and habits, images and expectations about myself and the world in which I lived, and like a traffic code for behavior, it told me what was good and bad, right and wrong, when to stop and when to move forward.  Imagine therefore a theater where all these images and perceptions were turned upside down.

Well, the East-West Center was and is such a world.


At Hale Kuahini was where I first encountered the transforming magic of bleach.  In Cebu, household helpers did the laundry and bleached white clothes for an entire day with generous doses of soap and water.  Then the wet items were hung on clotheslines outside, to be whitened by the sun.  One day, I watched one of my unit mates soak stained white underwear in bleach.  In a matter of seconds, the undergarment turned snowy white!  I was so thrilled by the magical power of that strong smelling liquid that for many days after that, I would hang around the bathroom basin soaking clothes just for the sake of seeing them turn a different color!  Dingy yellow to white!  Blue to pinkish violet! It was a whole new world!  My unit mates must have thought I was strange, ingesting all that bleach toxic smell and I may have looked a bit dazed and catatonic.  But hey, this modern marvel called “bleach” was, well, modern!


In Cebu City where I grew up, when you meet friends and acquaintances along the way, the usual greeting was:  “How are you?”  followed quickly by “Where are you going?”  The response expectation was:  a friendly but a short perfunctory answer to both questions.  In Cebu, everyone seemed to know where his or her friends were, so the question was not perceived as a violation of privacy.  My friendly and outgoing American roommate was on the receiving end to many of these salutary greetings from yours truly.  I could still picture her standing there, unable to respond especially to my second greeting, looking a bit confused.

After a month or so, she finally had the courage to ask me why I wanted to know where she was going.  I never even thought about it, but my mainland U.S. friend interpreted my cultural expression of welcome as nosy.  On the other hand, I thought, “How rude.  I was just trying to be polite and friendly and all I got was this quizzical disapproving look.”  Without intending to, my greeting was for her, like asking an intrusive personal question that did not deserve a possible answer.

Sort of like asking a centipede:  “Which leg were you going to move next?”  Imagine the centipede and my roommate, immobilized, paralyzed and lost in thought, trying to figure out a satisfactory answer from their particular point of views.  Yes, “lost in thought” is the image of my roommate that remained in my mind’s eye, to this day.


Another cross-cultural experience that I found very interesting was the concept of “touching” the hand of your same gender friend.  In the Philippines as in most of Asia and the Pacific, holding any girl companion’s hand while walking or crossing the street was accepted as normal.  So, that was a culture shock when I automatically reached for the hand of my American girl acquaintances and they showed their displeasure and embarrassment by immediately avoiding my touch.

My American husband experienced a worse form of culture shock shortly after he arrived at the EWC. He had the habit of wearing golf shorts everywhere (understand, the tropical weather was a far cry from his Northeast origin) and he was generously endowed with blond curly hair on his legs.  Once, he had a casual conversation with a couple of Asian grantees at his Hale Manoa unit.  Out of the blue, an Asian hand curiously rubbed his exposed leg, finding his blond curls amazing and mesmerizing indeed!  Another was slightly less impetuous, “Can I touch your leg?”  Upon seeing my husband’s shocked expression, the request was quickly withdrawn and they all had a good laugh.  To the respectable and happily married hairless Asian guy, the Caucasian’s exposed white legs and thick blondish curly hair was perhaps fascinating, like a pile of Silas Marner’s gold, glittering by the lighted fireplace! Nothing to it and the conversation resumed, though it took my husband a bit longer than myself to recover from the “touching” culture shock.


Shortly after I settled into my dorm, a sign was posted in our unit and on the bulletin board at the entrance of Hale Kuahini.  Someone was leaving and the announcement welcomed grantees to help themselves to the freebies placed outside the door of the departing dorm mate.

Always a sucker for bargains especially free giveaways, I was excited about what I would find.  It was rather disappointing, as the items had been picked over.  But wait, hidden among a pile of slightly used shampoos, conditioners and body lotions, I spotted an unopened attractive bottle with subtle colored content.  I read the label quickly and noticed that among the ingredients was vinegar.  I love vinegar.  In my country, we use it to sauté pork or chicken adobo, as a food sauce accompaniment, for medicinal purpose, etc… The bottle described the content as a feminine cleanser, and I thought, “Yeah, that would be vinegar all right.”  I interpreted the unused bottle to be some type of astringent, and I surmised that what is good for food must also be good for skin care on your face.  In my strictly conservative point of view, how could it be any other way?

When I returned to my room, my roommate was studying at her desk and I unobtrusively decided that a nap would do me good as I was feeling tired.  I placed the bottle on top of my neatly arranged desk.  Shortly thereafter, the best friend of my roommate knocked on the door and came inside.  Soon, they were both giggling, obviously amused, and I heard them say:  “What is she going to do with that?”  From my end of the room, I was petrified thinking,  “What the heck did I pick up?”  They both silently left the room presuming that I was asleep.

I quickly got out of bed, snatched the “vinegar” bottle and returned it to the pile of free items.  Without my two unit mates, I would probably be happily cleansing my face everyday with that complimentary bottle with vinegar content.  After a year in my host country, I learned that vinegar is indeed a universal ingredient, especially useful throughout the lower feminine body.


I had recently moved into a new unit in Hale Manoa, and did not yet know all of the grantees living in my unit.  Our bathroom facility had two toilet stalls in addition to the urinals and shower rooms.  After a few days of using the facility, I began to notice a bothersome pattern displayed on the toilet seats.  Someone was leaving distinct slipper prints right on top of the seats!  I thought it was such an unsanitary practice.  However, in the interest of intercultural harmony and seeing myself as a relatively tolerant guy, I patiently tried to ignore what I honestly thought was an inconsiderate action by unknown fellow grantees, wiped the seat carefully and proceeded with my business.  I was trying to figure out how I could solve the issue diplomatically; especially since I may have been the only one bothered by the stranger who squatted with slippers on, instead of sitting on the seat.

One day, while I was inside the bathroom facility, a newly arrived Afghani member of the unit pointed to the slipper imprints on the toilet and proclaimed the habit as “gross” behavior.  That was the cue I needed and as the incoming “host” American grantee with high ideals for cross cultural interchange, I was going to come up with an equitable solution that would be culturally sensitive and maybe even educationally informative, for entering foreign students.  I was convinced that my thoughtful solution would be the appropriate resolution to the current slipper dilemma.  In bold letters, I composed a sign and taped it to the bathroom toilet doors:  “Some of us sit and some of us squat.  Those who squat should please wipe your slipper prints off the seat after usage.”  I was proud of myself.

When I got back from class at the end of the day, my curiosity immediately led me to the bathroom to see whether what I perceived as a wise solution was acted out according to my expectation.  It was not.

The sign that I had placed earlier was replaced by two practical signs:
Toilet door # 1 read:  “For Sitters.”  Toilet door #2 read: “For Squatters.”  Case resolved.


Dr. Peter Andrew Sybinsky is currently affiliated with the State of Maryland’s Health and Mental Hygiene Department as Chief of Staff for Public Health Services.  Previously, he served as CEO for the non-profit Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs in Washington D.C., was a Secretary of Family and Social Services for the State of Indiana, Assistant Commissioner for Tenn Care in Tennessee and Senior VP and Chief Operating Officer for the California Medical Association.  He was the Director and Deputy Director of the State Department of Health for the State of Hawaii, immediately before moving to the U.S. mainland in 1995.

Estrella Besinga Sybinsky, MA, ABD, is a Retired Professor in Political Science from the University of Hawaii, Windward campus.  She also served as Acting Assistant Dean for the latter campus.  After 1995, Estrella taught as Assistant Professor at Sonoma State University in Northern California, Associate Faculty for Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana and Indiana University Purdue University Columbus in Indiana.  She is currently a member of the Maryland Writers Association and the Howard County chapter of AAUW.  She has published a book of poetry for which she has done readings and book signings (Borders, TN,  L.A. Times Festival of Books at UCLA , etc.), and a textbook reader for her class at SSU.  She also writes children’s stories and articles.

Peter and Estrella have two daughters, Cristina and Andrea.  Estrella, Peter and Andrea (site co-editors) are members of the East-West Center Alumni Association, Washington D.C. chapter.  The family lives at 9777 Longview Drive, Ellicott City Maryland 21042.


3 thoughts on “Cross-Cultural Storytelling: Week 1

  1. Interesting observations! This is what makes life a daily adventure….new things, events, and practices to be discovered.

    On illness – hospitalization, it is normal for a patient in the Philippines to have a “watcher” who can attend to the immediate needs of the patient. Usually this is a close relative.

    In Zamboanga City – the “watchers” fill the hospital room – not just one but four or five. Same thing when visiting a doctor…for those coming from the islands.
    One patient, five accompanying people.

    And in honoring invitations to special festive affairs – the invitation is extended to those who have the time and are willing to come along.

  2. Pingback: Storytelling Entrepreneurial, The Moth, Transmedia, Cross Cultural & More

  3. Can you recommend any books that deal with using storytelling as a means of cross-cultural communication/

Comments are closed.