The only household chore that I hadn’t undertaken before this morning was washing dishes in the little kitchen.
See, the house has two kitchens: the little one that the family uses just for themselves, and the big kitchen that is used when entertaining large numbers of guests. The family bathroom is off of the small kitchen, and that’s the nearest place to the small kitchen with running water (sometimes), and so that’s where the family usually washes their dishes.
I decided early on that I would cheerfully help in every other household chore, but washing dishes next to the pit toilet was simply something I couldn’t bring myself to want to do. And since Ama has never asked me to do it, I never have. In the big kitchen, where there’s running water in the sink, I’ve done the dishes many times. I may never have done laundry by hand before coming to Morocco, but I’ve handwashed dishes a thousand times.
But I’ve never done it without running water.
And this morning, when Ama wasn’t feeling well, I decided to do the dishes for her. We were in the small kitchen, but there were buckets of clean water around, so I didn’t need to go into the bathroom. I put the teacups into the water to soak, and started scrubbing the bigger plates and pots. The plates have chipped enamel and dried-on food from dinner, which makes it hard to know uneven bits can be profitably scrubbed at, but I was giving it my all.
I was making decent progress, I think, but Xalti kept coming and going from the kitchen, and every time she passed by, she pointed out something I was doing wrong. Her tone was always so harshly accusatory that I got increasingly nervous whenever she entered the kitchen, and when she sat against the wall and just stared at me, my nerves were tight as a drum. I kept thinking to myself, “I’m doing fine. I’m sure I’m not doing it the way you’d do it, but that doesn’t make it wrong, just different. The dishes are getting clean, so can you please stop staring with that basilisk glare, storing up details of the tarumit’s idiocy that you can share with your neighbors? I know I’m your favorite topic of conversation – the fact that everyone in town was asking about my homesickness after the one time I cried in the living room is proof enough of that – but I’d really not be branded as the town idiot just because I’ve never washed dishes in a bucket before.”
But my telepathy didn’t work, and she kept staring, with obviously increasing levels of frustration. Finally, she shouted, “No, no, no!! You’re doing it wrong! Stop!” I looked at her, waiting for something constructive. Nothing came. I said, “OK, how should I be washing them?” She responded with a shouted stream of language that she must have known I wouldn’t understand, since I rarely understand her anyway, and never when she talks fast. I kept staring at her for a second, wondering if I was going to get information I could use, and when it was clear that I wasn’t, I turned back to the dishes. I changed my approach, but apparently not enough, because Xalti stormed over, pulled the bucket away, and took over the job. She was finished in moments – I uncharitably took credit for that on the fact that everything had been scrubbed or soaked already – and said, more or less, “See? It’s easy. Sheesh.”
Apparently my huge flaw was in using the bucket of clean water like it was a sink, instead of using it as the rinse-water. (I’d been intending to get more water to rinse the dishes with, but Xalti couldn’t have known that.) Her method is to pile up the dishes, let the wash water from each one drip down onto the one beneath it, down to the floor, and thereby keep all the scrubbed-off foodstuffs out of the clean water, which is used only as the final resting place of the cleaned dishes, before they’re dried.
So yes, by her lights, I was doing it All Wrong. But her contemptuous criticism still stung, as does the knowledge that Kawtar’s incompetence will be talked of over teapots for the next week.
This is part of the imbalance between goals 2 and 3 of the Peace Corps (which deal with improving American understanding of Moroccan culture and Moroccan understanding of American culture). When I see things that seem “wrong” to me, I can appreciate the context in which they arose, and make allowances. But when I do things that seem “wrong” to Moroccans, I just look egregiously stupid. Like last night, with the plate incident...