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: Peter Humphrey, EWC Research Fellow
FIELD/AREA OF STUDY: Oceanography (MA), then Marine Geology & Geophysics
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: USA
CURRENT COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE: USA
A Rude Introduction to Capitalism
I was a research fellow at the East-West Center just before the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed under Gorbachev, things had lightened up enough to allow for a bit more academic exchange, which accounts for the arrival of Irina at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics just across the street.
Irina hailed from Sakhalin Island–Russia’s easternmost edge, the most Pacific entity in country and somewhat of a backwater. That didn’t stop the young graduate student from acquiring a first class education and enviable professional credentials in the earth sciences. As a novice Russian speaker and fellow marine geophysicist, I became Irina’s guardian angel by default–showing her how to survive in Gringolandia. A little silly really since her English was superb.
Early on, I took Irina to the Manoa shopping center behind the EWC and UH. With the exception of a few weeks in Japan on her way to Hawaii, she had never spent time out of her country before. She stereotypically marveled at the hugeness and diversity of goods available in the grocery store. I grabbed the weekly sale circular and–starving graduate student that I was–perused every element in search of fiscal parsimony.
“Piotr! What is that?!?!?!?” Irina queried.
“It’s the weekly sales circular showing this week’s bargains.”
“What?” she exclaimed “You mean the prices change every week?!?!?!? How do you plan? How do you survive???” (This from someone Fresh-off-the-Boat from a planned socialist economy.)
“No Irina, these are prices going down this week.”
“You mean the prices go DOWN every week? That is impossible!”
“Well some things go down this week and then bounce back next week. The game is to catch the low priced items during their special week and stock up.”
“And do you know when the special weeks are?”
“No, not really–we don’t know until the week begins–its kind of a surprise, which is why they publish this colorful newspaper every week.”
Irina was flabbergasted and seized the circular with the same intensity as the textbooks that had brought her academic success. Ever locked in graduate student parsimony mode, I went to the checkout counter with a few coupons in hand as we departed.
“What are those papers Peter?”
“Ummmmm–discount coupons. I get a little break on some of these things.”
“How so? Where do you get them? From the government? Or the University?”
“No, they’re not any sort of ration tickets–just promotions. They come from the newspapers for the most part, especially on Sundays.”
Irina read the coupons’ small print and studied the documents intensely before allowing me to pass them on to the checkout clerk.
A couple of weeks later, I went to Irina’s residence–a room in a house a few blocks from the EWC–to grab her for some social function. There, on every conceivable surface (bureau, bookcase, table and bed) were clipped coupons ready to be seized for her next shopping trip. I did a stunningly poor job of containing my mirth, but I knew for certain that here was one little Soviet student ready for the onslaught of capitalism a couple of years later.
Peter Humphrey, International Affairs Professor
National Defense University, Washington D.C.