A Mexican woman and a Russian man work to overcome a cultural misunderstanding.
The international team of architectural students that built Pacific Rim Park in San Diego developed a special relationship with "Mama Hanni". Lera, from Vladivostok, felt as if Hanni was only there for the students, for the group. In reality Hanni, from Guadalajara, felt more alive and connected than in any other time in her life. From early-morning until late into the evening there was always something to do or someone to be with. The relationships that were formed were warm and close, even by Mexican standards. This warmth was displayed in many ways, the intensity of conversations, the freedom with which people expressed their thoughts, and the physical closeness that was evidenced by a diminished need for personal space. Faces came closer in conversation, a kind of intimacy that grew out of the attempts to give and receive communication despite obvious language barriers.
Hanni was often at the center of activities and the door to her dorm suite, which she shared with three other women, was labeled Hanni's Caf
There was a day, however, when an invisible boundary was crossed by one of the Russian students. Alexei Parnyakov bounded into "Hanni's Caf with his normal good cheer. He was the first there for breakfast so the path from the door to Hanni was open. He walked into the kitchen to say hi and found her looking into the refrigerator as he came up from behind. Since she was bent forward, face first, into the refrigerator. He patted her in an affectionate show of camaraderie, but Hanni spun around with a look of shock and pushed him away. "Why did you do that?"
His was confused and hurt by her sudden rejection. It showed on his face and in his words and behavior almost as visibly as if she had slapped him.
"What? What to do? What's wrong?" He honestly didn't know that he had crossed a boundary. He was puzzled and worried. He had obviously offended Hanni.
Hanni could not believe that he had acted so disrespectfully. No Mexican friend would do something so "rude and nasty". It had scared her.
They kept a distance for the rest of the morning. Hanni had things to do and Alexey certainly did not want to upset her more. He waited by the balcony window for the others to arrive.
When she looked across the room she knew her response had hurt one of the sweetest guys in the group, but she felt wounded too and didn't know what to do.
Through the day Alexei and Hanni kept a distance between them at the construction site. An invisible barrier prevented them from communicating. They could not imagine how they could speak without hurting each other more. Although they both regretted the experience of the morning, they needed outside help to open their hearts to each other again. They needed someone who could help them listen to each other.
When she could no longer stand to see her friend in pain Hanni spoke to Anna, Alexei's best friend and explained her confusion. Alexei's actions had crossed deeply over the border of acceptable behavior in her eyes and yet Alexey seemed to be suffering and puzzled. Hanni was uncomfortable enough that morning without having to deal with feeling that she was causing a friend to feel rejected,
She became more perplexed when Anna explained that in Russia Alexey's behavior was considered just friendly teasing behavior between friends of either sex. She reminded Hanni of the playful way Alexey had with everyone, and his willingness to listen and work to understand if something was wrong.
Hanni knew that Anna was right about Alexey's personality. She thought about the quiet withdrawn way he stood at the opposite end of the room. It appeared to be an indication of his regret at having provoked such a strong negative response. He had not tried to talk his way out. He walked away, rather than risk upsetting her more.
After listening to Hanni's story, Anna invited Alexey to come and sit with them on the grass next to the work site, looking out at the Pacific. They each reviewed the events of the morning, by relating their thoughts to Anna rather than each other. They were too vulnerable to speak directly. As one spoke the other listened without feeling any pressure to change their positions or be different. They were only trying to understand each other.
Hanni heard that there was truly never any disrespect intended. Alexey heard that his behavior seemed threatening because it was considered disrespectful in her world. They understood that even the friendliest gesture can be misinterpreted through different cultural lenses. Without their commitment to friendship this lesson would have gone unlearned.
They were both grateful to Anna for not judging either of them.