You are talking to a friend from a different country. And suddenly, he mentions something about your country that makes your jaw drop.
Your friend seems sensible enough in all other areas of his life. You wonder to yourself: maybe just this one time, I would let it slip.
Some days pass, you meet again, and he does that again. You get curious but still not mad enough to confront him yet. You let it pass. Well, surprise, surprise! He does it again! What would you do?
Say, they do this not every few weeks, but with every conversation they have with you. What would you do then?
Let’s add another little twist. Your friend pays you so he can insult you and your country. How far would you let him go without flinching (assuming that you still mean to be friends)?
Just take this scenario and marinate it in a little Chekhov humor, Voila! –In a Foreign Land
Nobody likes French mustard, except maybe the French.
This excerpt is from Chekhov’s short story In a Foreign Land. The story is a hilarious take on cultural differences in Russia and France, captured through the means of a dialogue, bordering on a monologue, between a Russian landowner and his French employee/tutor.
The story is one of his earlier works and was published way back in 1885. It is also available as part of a short story collection called Fifty Two Stories published by Alfred A Knopf, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
In a Foreign Land: Summary and Plot Analysis
The story opens in a dining room at lunch with what seems like a monologue between a landowner called Kamyshev and a French tutor in his employ, Shampooing.
The duties of a former tutor are not complicated. He has to dress decently, the smell of perfume, listen to Kamyshev’s idle talk, eat, drink, sleep – and that it seems, is all. In return, he receives room, board, and an unspecified salary.
What seemingly begins as a generic conversation between two adults from a different cultural setting, seems to convert into a ruthless racial slurring episode quickly.
Kamyshev goes on to insult everything French – their food, their land, their bookish intelligence, their morality, their family values, everything! The guy leaves nothing on the table. Nothing!
Nobody likes French mustard, except maybe the French. But a Frenchman will eat anything you give him: frogs, rats,cockroaches-brr!
Well, what is France, honestly speaking? A little scrap of land! Send our policemen there, and a month later, he will ask to be transferred: there’s no room to turn around.
I remember reading somewhere that you all have an intelligence acquired from books, while ours is inborn.
With us, whoever marries, cleaves to his wife and there’s no more talking, but with you devil knows what goes on. The husband sits in a cafe all day, and his wife infests his house with Frenchmen and cancans away with them.
One must be impartial. Pigs are pigs.
Shampooing takes offense, and understandably so. He asks Kamyshev to relieve him of his duties and let him leave Russia to go to France. He goes and packs up his belongings.
Even an enemy couldn’t have come up with a worse insult to my feelings than you have just done! All is finished!
At this time, dinner is served, Kamyshev is eating alone and is overcome with a thirst for idle talk. He doesn’t have Shampooing to have a conversation with. He enquires the servant of his whereabouts and being told that he is all set to leave, goes to pay Shampooing a visit.
Kamyshev jokes about having lost Shampooing’s passport. Shampooing expresses his pain at France being insulted that way but admits to being attached to their family and Russia.
Kamyshev, hooking on to that bait, succeeds in making up with him.
Why on earth should you be offended if I denounce the French? We denounce all sorts of people – should they all be offended? Take my other tenant. I call him this and that, Yid and Kike, pull him by the whiskers.. He doesn’t get offended. (Philosophical fallacy)
It doesn’t even take a meal before Kamyshev repeats the same behavior he apologized for.
The first course is eaten in silence. After the second, the same story begins, and so Shampooing’s sufferings never end.
In a Foreign Land: Review and My Thoughts
Now, what begins as a seemingly harmless and playful conversation doesn’t take long before taking a turn for the worse. Kamyshev is obviously aware that his behavior hurts the Frenchman, but doesn’t do anything to address his discomfort. If anything, he adds on more.
He obviously cares enough not to let him go and risk losing his only listener. Maybe making fun of other people doesn’t satisfy the quota of sadistic pleasure he derives from torturing people less well off than him.
Poor Shampooing (I wonder if the naming was deliberate here!) seems like a prisoner of his circumstances. He makes a pretty decent living doing nothing but accompanying Kamyshev on his meals and listening to his idle banter or his insults. Is money fair compensation for the constant insults thrown his way? Does comfort mean more to him than his ego? Or is he really attached to his captor?
I don’t know; I wasn’t able to decide.
What I do know is that, unfortunately, this was not just an 1885 problem when the story was written. It’s a much bigger problem now.
With more and more immigrants calling a new country their home with every passing year, the problem is exponentially magnified. And Kamyshev has taken many forms – the governments, the employers, the citizens.
Hidden in this fantastic story is a great lesson:
Don’t be a Kamyshev because in this day and era of frequent international turbulence, the day you could be Shampooing may not be far.