Keep Calm and Appreciate the Misinterpretations

I put laundry soap in the dishwasher.

When I was unloading it, I couldn’t figure out why everything smelled so strongly. Why I could taste soap when I drank water out of my pink plastic bottle.

It took me a couple hours before I figured it out. Even then, I didn’t really believe it. I had grabbed one of those blue and green swirled tablets from underneath the sink, sometimes the cleaner leaves a few there for us because you can’t find them anywhere here in Nicaragua. Dishwashers aren’t commonplace. We assume the private community where we live imports them specially somehow for the cleaning staff. Anyway, I popped it into the square hole in the dishwasher, shut the lid, closed the door, and pressed start – excited for the rare occasion to have super clean dishes!

I’ll explain.

When we do have a few of the dishwasher tablets, we use them sparingly. Otherwise, we have to use the normal soap here – a solid mass in a circular plastic container that you have to scrape out with a sponge. We heard somewhere it’s meant for cold water. That would make sense since hot running water isn’t commonplace here either. And it’s definitely meant for hand washing. But the point is, Axion, “the real grease catcher,” doesn’t translate well to the dishwasher. So I had loaded the machine really full to get the most out of the soap that actually gets the dishes clean.

But that obviously didn’t go as planned.

It turns out, there are two kinds of soap tablets. The ones for the dishwasher are solid, like a brick of that powdered detergent pressed tightly together, and the ones for the washing machine are plastic and filled with squishy liquid. I’m not sure I knew the latter kind existed. I’d never bought either of them back home. But the squishy one was the first one I saw in the cupboard under the sink and, naturally, I didn’t think anything of it. Because that’s where the dish soap goes! And now most of my dishes make my food taste like soap. Yum!

But in all honestly, it’s kind of funny.

It has to be.

Because, as much as I’d love to say this is the only time something like this has happened, Nicaragua isn’t the first foreign country I’ve lived in. During a semester abroad in Belgium, I used a laundromat for the first time. Not an easy feat when the instructions are in Flemish! After about four months, I realized I had been putting the soap in the softener section the entire time. Does that mean my clothes were just sloshing around in water? Were they even clean? I choose not to think about it.

Or that time in Korea, when I found out that my go-to brand of bottled iced tea was for “man power,” as my teenage students politely, and embarrassingly, put it. Yes, they were referring to a uniquely male kind of stimulation. Of course, we all had quite the laugh.

I could go on, but the point is that as an expat, this kind of thing comes with the territory. And seeing the humour is necessary for survival. There are always words I don’t understand, conveniences I didn’t know I’d taken for granted, things that don’t go as planned, and cultural misinterpretations. So. Many. Misinterpretations. And there always will be.

But I’m okay with that. Because what it means is that I’m constantly learning – how to communicate across cultures, how to approach new (and old!) tasks, how to respond to unfamiliar situations. It goes on! Living in another country offers a unique opportunity to exercise creativity and to build mindfulness of things happening around you. Sure, a standard trip to the post office takes me three times as long as it would at home, but I wouldn’t trade challenges like that for all the new, exciting, educational, and funny experiences that go along with being abroad. Even if it’s as silly as washing dishes with laundry detergent! It’s those experiences, no matter how small, that help me truly appreciate other places, other people, and other ways of being.

Author Bio: Jamie Sterling @jamielsterling

Jamie has spent the better part of the past decade living, working, and traveling abroad as a student, a teacher, and now a digital nomad. Her passion for cross-cultural experiences lies in its ability to foster understanding and acceptance, and she genuinely believes travel can change the world. Combining this enthusiasm with her professional skills at Powerful Outreach, Jamie makes a difference by helping small travel businesses gain exposure through innovative and strategic outreach.

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