Keeping Tabs

Hopelessly idealistic, I never feared cultural differences in a relationship. I believed the rhetoric that ‘we’re all the same,’ so when I found myself in a two-year, long distance romance with a Russian whom I had met overseas, I never questioned that we could make a marriage work. After all, we’d spent extended time with each other in both countries and had weathered it well.

One day my husband told me that he found the expression “I owe you one” so American, that Russians would never say such a thing. He pointed out that Americans keep a running tally sheet.

As much as I wanted to refute his observation, to say it was just colloquial speech, I knew he was right. Americans, in my experience, don’t like to feel indebted. If someone lends us a hand – a ride to the airport, a day of moving assistance, childcare, whatever – we want to repay the favor to even the tally. If we were the one to provide assistance first, we know we won’t feel awkward asking for aid when our turn comes. And while I never consciously think this way, I can’t deny that if I end up in the giving column repeatedly, I start to feel uncomfortable with a friend.

In 1980s Communist Russia, day-to-day life functioned on neighbor helping neighbor and family members operating as a unit, even when separated by thousands of miles. My husband told me that when his oldest sister came across some boys’ shoes for sale, she snatched them up immediately even though she only had a teenage daughter. It was hard to find shoes and her younger sister had two boys. While her sister’s family lived days away by train, the older sister knew it would somehow be easier to get the shoes to them than for her sister to find some locally. Necessity bred this kind of bond beyond familial love.

Stories like this were common. As a college student in Moscow, my husband had only two friends with cars. Both were regularly called upon by a wide circle of acquaintances to make airport runs a good hour outside the city. There was never any indication that either found the requests extraordinary or that they expected any means of repayment. This was simply how life functioned. But as the American, when I came to visit I wanted to repay the friend who had collected me from the airport, and I felt at odds until I found a way. I couldn’t slide into the Russian way of thinking.

One of the advantages of marrying outside your culture is the unique perspective an outsider can offer. After my husband pointed out the American tendency, I tried to keep the tally sheet out of our marriage, to erase my cultural upbringing, but I don’t think I ever fully succeeded. While what ended our marriage resided beyond this one issue, my ears still perk up when I hear, “I owe you one,” and I wonder how often relationships – romantic and not – fall victim to this principle.

As my son gets older, I ask more of him around the house. And in his typical teenage perspective, he often feels very put out. He’s entirely unaware of the tally card, noting left and right what he’s done to help and completely overlooking how much of my day revolves around facilitating his life. As it should. I am the parent.

But in not wanting to breed a selfish child, I point out what I do for him, and without intent introduce the concept of the tally sheet. And I don’t know how to feel about that. Being part of a family – and in a relationship – requires give and take. I just wish we weren’t so aware of keeping track.

Ironically, now that my ex and all his transplanted Russian friends have lived in the U.S. for roughly fifteen years, their bonds of friendship have weakened. They still gather and come to each other’s rescue, but if one friend ends up in the need category for too long, the talk begins. Gone are the days when they were an indestructible unit, when they’d throw all their clothes into one giant pile and head off to the laundry only to return home and hold up a pair of clean underwear and ask, “Whose are these?” And if they didn’t know, they never really cared.

In a land where we need one another – yet don’t rely upon each other the way my ex and his friends once did – I wonder how to quiet the mathematical calculator in our minds. Or should we? Does this tally sheet really indicate we’re less caring in our relationships? Or does it just show that everything in life requires balance, that we use this as a way of monitoring friendships to keep them healthy?

I believe I’m as much there for my friends as those Russians I spent a summer observing through the ins and outs of their lives. And while Americans might say, “I owe you one,” – and mean it – what counts is that we continue to show up for our friends and allow them to show up for us, scorecard and all.


Anonymous said...

You don't know how many times this "tally card" issue has come up between me and my Russian-born wife. I've always found the Russian community much more open about giving of themselves. On the other hand, Americans are more forgiving of someone saying "no."

Unknown said...

Along the same lines, I wonder at (what I consider to be) the loss of community in societies like those in the US and Australia.

The keeping score/karma concept is ultimately an individualistic thing, which is not necessarily bad, just the way it is.

Very enjoyable read, DZ.

Girlplustwo said...

i love this post...it's so hard to seperate our cultural biases from the core of who we are...and how easily we can be swayed by the norm...how fun for you to get a chance to explore that in your own relationship as well.

Anonymous said...

I had a step mother who kept such tabs that I'm hyper sensitive to it, when put in this situation as an adult. But how it will play out with my child, especially as she gets older remains to be seen. As usual, I love your perspective.

Rachel said...

I love the cultural differences you describe, it is a minefield to get through.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. It is sometimes so hard for me to let go of that "what have you done for me lately" attitude when it comes to some of my closest relationships. Sad, but true.

Emily said...

Such an interesting perspective. And having just moved, I know I used the tally system to figure out who to ask to help or how I could offer assistance in return. Your ending ties it together perfectly...everyone can get behind that.