A Brief Note on Cross- Cultural Communication (Powells.com)

Yesterday I mentioned that I was at a wedding in Michigan recently. While I
was there, I met a lot of new people and found myself telling many of the old
stories again. That can get tiring, even when I’m talking to interesting
characters. That’s why, as a foreigner, I am always looking for something
current to link me to a new place. You can coast on stories about where you’
ve come from for only so long. You need some common, shared experience
with the locals. In Russia I found that the cockroach was the main way in.

Let me explain: in Scotland it is too cold for cockroaches to thrive, so it was
quite a shock when I came home to my grubby flat in Moscow and found the
things crawling all over my bread and sugar. Then I located a nest of them
behind fridge. Going into my workplace the next day I discovered that this
worked a lot better as an ice- breaker than my naïve efforts to open up a
conversation on all the literature I had been diligently reading.  Most
Russians don’t want to discuss Dostoevsky any more than the average
American wants to discuss Emily Dickinson. But I bonded with them over
roaches. No sooner had I told the tale than a girl started talking about the
day she awoke to find a horde of baby roaches dancing on the head of her
toothbrush. And forever after that people were keen to hear the latest
installment of my experiences with these dirty beasts. Friendships were
formed that endure to this day.

My favorite roach stories have an erotic element. One morning I awoke and a
little rascal was jogging up the bed to kiss me. I wasn’t in the mood for insect
love, however, and tossed the cover back, sending the thing flying. The next
day, however, I awoke to find one lying between my thighs, dead. Had it
expired from an excess of passion? No, I had rolled over and crushed it in the
night, before it could consummate its foul desire. After that, I knew it was time
to move.

I also got some mileage out of cockroaches when I lived in Kazakhstan. My
digs there were cleaner, but every now and then something vile reared its
antennae. One day I was stopped in my tracks by an albino roach that was
crawling slowly across my carpet. I gazed at it, transfixed for a few moments,
and then killed it, of course. It exploded in a puff of powder. I am mystified by
this to this day, though it could be explained by the fact that Kazakhstan is a
highly radioactive zone

In America my experience of cockroaches is growing deeper and broader. In
Texas, where I am currently based, I recently had an encounter. It happened
like this:

I was watching a program on tattoos on TV and once it was over I
commenced flicking idly through the channels. I reached PBS and lo! A
helicopter was flying over the River Forth in Scotland, accompanied by wispy
Celtic music and pish narration by a Scottish actor. Within seconds the
camera was hovering over Dunfermline Abbey, the main religious building of
my hometown, a dilapidated ruin from the Middle Ages. The narrator waffled
on about centuries of turmoil leaving the 'essential spirituality' of the place
'undiminished'. I chuckled. But then, as if on cue, a giant cockroach
appeared from behind the TV and scampered up the wall. It was the biggest
bad boy I had ever seen, a real Texas- size specimen. I ran around with a
shoe trying to crush it while the camera moved north to pan over Saint
Andrews and Dundee. It was only while the narrator was dreamily reciting 'My
hert's in the hielands' over imagery of stumpy green hill- mountains that I
finally managed to flatten the bastard.

This was a new kind of cockroach entirely- a mystical- satirical- symbolic
roach. And yet it was absolutely real. I am still digesting the full implications of
its appearance at that moment.

I told this tale at my friend’s wedding. I was trying to avoid talking about
books, as it bores me to do so. The story elicited an instant response- he
responded with an account of a roach that had tumbled from a lamp while he
was watching a porno movie as a teenager. His parents were out for the
night. This sudden visitor alarmed him so much that he gave up watching and
went to bed. I suggested that it was a messenger from above, keeping him on
the path of purity and righteousness. At the end of the night he gave me his
card and invited me to visit him at his home in Alabama.

The cockroach anecdote does it again.
From Powells.com (19/10/06)