UNO, or Cultural Exchange, or How I Almost Lost it at a 12 Yr Old

The kids here love UNO. They got in trouble for leaving it out overnight at camp. The only thing they had to do was apologize for leaving it out and they could get it back. It took 24 hrs, but someone (most likely unconnected to the leaving it out issue) apologized because they wanted it back. Over the weekend between two camps, I watched Sammi (featured right) who was staying for both camps. He ended up stealing my heart. Gosh I miss that kid! He loved to play me UNO, one of the few requests who could get out in English. He’d scrunch up his face and blink a million times, trying to work the words out of his mouth. “Uh. Eh. Um. Ee. Uno?” He breathed a sigh of relief when I understood his request and we played about 10 rounds straight.

Last week, in Plovdiv, I spent most of my time with Abi, a precocious 12 year old girl with nearly flawless English. She took me around the city and to her favorite cafe, an upscale, New York feel cafe called ArtsNewsCafe. Black walls, cushions on the floor, copies of Frieze and Art Review on the shelves. And games. She picked UNO to play.

It had been a long day.

Let’s make that a long few weeks. I’m still getting my feet wet here. That process will likely take most of the year if not longer. I’ve made several offensive mistakes. My friend Joe (worked at camp this year, was Peace Corps here) observed that there is opportunity to offend or miscommunicate every few minutes. “You have to learn to be okay with it.”

UNO was one of those things.

Did you know there are cultural rules to UNO? That some people have rules about the zeros and the 7s and what time you have to say UNO when you get to that final card? I didn’t. I had no idea there were other rules. And Bulgaria has some particular ones.

When I played with Abi, I kept losing because I violated some rule I didn’t even know about. I tried to explain my rules. Her bright, 12 yr old self just looked at me with wide eyes and refused to admit that there could be other ways of playing the game. 4 cards here. 2 cards here. She wins by almost a whole hand. We argue animatedly about when you have to say UNO. Somehow, I’m always the one who has to concede the rules. She’s a stubborn one.

I got pissed. Fast. I don’t like losing. I especially don’t like losing on technicalities in a game that should require next to no thought.

I got so pissed that I nearly started crying. We had to end the game and I turned to an arts journal for a while before we started a game of chess. What was wrong with me? I’m twice her age. Literally. Why is losing to her so painful and frustrating?

UNO was the culmination of cultural miscommunications. The small rules that you can’t know until you break them. I’m punished by that horrified look on my host’s face when I don’t take my shoes off right away, or worse, walk into a bedroom with them on. I’m punished by a lecture after I don’t greet my “elders” at the hotel for breakfast. I say that in the PA, not addressing strangers can be respectful because you are acknowledging their right to be alone, that not making eye contact as you walk down the street is perfectly okay, that we’re all just trying to get somewhere out of the cold. I’m rebutted by a comment about the “satanic” influence of self reliant values.

I didn’t know. Sorry.

Punished is a strong word. I just don’t like being “wrong” so getting consequences for things totally foreign to me feels like unjust punishment.

But that’s how it works. The rules are slightly different. I learn. No one has hated me yet for not knowing these rules yet. I’m the one who walks around tired and frustrated that not everyone plays UNO like my boring American family played it growing up. It’s a small thing, this game of UNO. But it shows how much pride I have in following the rules. I have a lot to give up before I can say that I’ve loved this place as I should. I think of Paul here and re-know his statement in a letter, “To the Jews I am a Jew. To the Greeks, Greek.” What an astounding thing! So unnatural! So divine!

I gotta learn to be a good loser. Because it isn’t losing. It’s a game of UNO, a small cultural difference that ultimately doesn’t matter. I can give this up, must give this up, to love.

Let it go. There’s more to find here.

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1 Response
  1. I love this. Thank you.

    Cambodians around me are much more subtle about correcting us. Maybe because there are so many of us to correct that they just resign themselves to our ways, maybe because they're from such a non-confrontational culture. I would've had a much tougher time if they'd openly scolded me instead of quietly cringing. I hope the scoldings soon become much less frequent and feel much less personal.