First year of college or university is challenging enough especially when you travel miles way from home to study abroad in an alien country, let alone having to deal with roommate conflicts. However, such conflicts are inevitable. That being said, conflict does not necessarily mean a terrible thing because in the end, you will grow and I am speaking from my own experience. This is because through dealing with roommate conflicts, you will learn the skill and knowledge of how to deal with such issues in the future.
My story starts with me having a roommate from Indonesia. Even though I am a Malaysian with Chinese heritage, we speak similar languages and there are some similarities when it comes to our culture (between Malaysian and Indonesian culture). Because of that, I thought we could live together peacefully without any conflicts but I guess I was wrong. I always consider myself someone who is self-disciplined. After cooking and finishing my meal, I have the habit of cleaning up cookware and kitchen utensils that I used. Yet, my roommate tends to leave his plates and stuffs in the basin after finishing his meal and sometimes do not even wash it after a couple of days. At first, when I saw unwashed and oily silverware used by my roommate, I would help him wash it up. However, he seemed to take it for granted and did not seem to take the hint. Sometimes he would even leave leftover food and cockroaches would appear. Even worse, the sink would be filled with giant bowls filled with remnants of drenched leftovers that smell so bad especially in the summer. However, I decided that I should just leave it there and hence, every time I see unwashed and oily silverware or dishes, I would just leave them in the basin. Sometimes, he would also use my cup because his cup was in the basin. In fact, even though I secretly hate him for not washing his dishes and the fact that he used my cup and he just left in in the basin without washing it, I kind of turned numb to such a scene because I had this stereotype in the first place which Indonesians are lack of awareness of cleanliness. I thought I would put up with him and I chose not to confront him about such issue. Until one day, it was about 9 in the night when I was studying in my room.
My roommate knocked on my door and came in. Out of the blue, he confronted me and asked me why I did not help him wash his dishes for the past week. At that moment, I felt that it was absurdly ridiculous. I felt that just because I helped him wash his dishes in the beginning did not mean that I had the obligation to wash his dishes and I told him what I thought. I also told him that we, Malaysians, usually have our own cup and do not share our cup with other people. The next thing I know is his reply enraged me. This is what he said. “Currently, we are living together so you have to be aware of your surroundings, even if those are my dishes you have to wash it if you see them because dishwashing is a team effort. Also, it is common for Indonesians to share our cups and dishes. In Indonesia, no one will want to be your roommate if you are so calculative and fuss over such trivial things. Some more, it is common for us Indonesians to not wash up our dishes and leave them in the sink until the sink is full” Hearing his explanation, I was left dumbfounded. I was so angry but at the same time, I did not want our conflict to be a destructive one. An embarrassing silence ensued. It made me stop and think.
In Malaysia, we are taught to be self-disciplined and washing our own dishes is in fact common sense. Similar to the value what Japanese people are instilled since they are young, which is usually translated as “Do not bother or give any troubles to the people around you”. I also hold on to this value and since we are now studying in Japan, I also expected him to know about this. However, this was not the case. I told him about we, Malaysians, tend to be more considerate to others and do not like to give other people troubles. Moreover, we Malaysians think that sharing our cups with the other person is like sharing a toothbrush, so it is due to hygienic reasons that we think that it not appropriate.
At that moment, I was actually quite worried if he would be provoked because this was clearly a value conflict as the way of how I told him was actually quite harsh and I was slightly enraged so words coming out from me might be unpleasant. I thought he would be offended but instead of losing his temper, he apologized and said sorry. He then explained that in Indonesia, it is common for someone to leave their used dishes in the sink and they do not consider it dirty or unhygienic. They have the habit to only wash the dishes up when the sink is full. Moreover, it is also common for another people under the same roof to wash another person’s dishes if he or she sees them filling the sink and hence he took it for granted and expected me to do the same but he was unaware that in Malaysian culture, we are taught to wash our own dishes and it is impolite to let other people wash our dishes. He apologized again and then told me that he would change his habit and be more aware as in he would not use my cup again and would not leave the dishes in the sink for more than one day. I also apologized as I did not tell him about this beforehand which I ended up talking lesser to him and our friendship drifted apart day by day because I was secretly being angry. I also told him that I felt bad because in my mind I associated him with my stereotype that Indonesians are dirty. I also told him that in the future, I would remind him if he forgot to wash his dishes again. We reached a consensus that it was merely a cultural difference and we both let out a grin and could not stop laughing for the next three minutes.
Now our friendship became stronger and we eventually built stronger bonds. After this incident, I did some soul searching. First of all, stereotype is the preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group. Speaking of the reason I had this stereotype that Indonesians are dirty might be because when few years ago, I went to the Batam Islands of Indonesia with my family during the holiday and I remembered the streets being dirty and a lot of people were poorly groomed and seemed shaggy. Also, the toilets were stinky and dirty as far as I could remember and such a sight left me bad impression and further shaped my stereotype towards Indonesians. However, I was wrong because stereotype ignore individual differences and stereotype acts as assumptions that a certain culture-specific information applies to every member of that particular cultural group. I also realized that concept of hygiene is also culturally influenced. It might be common for Indonesians to share their cups and it is perfectly fine for them to leave their dishes in the basin but I came to realize that such cultural pattern is not inherently right or wrong, and this is known as the relativity of cultural behavior.
On top of that, instead of avoiding and enduring the problem, I think I should have approached him earlier. This was because I always tried to avoid problems that might lead to conflicts, which is known as the avoiding style, or it could be explained that I had a low concern for myself and others and hence tend to withdraw or deny conflicts. However, unexpectedly but fortunately, the whole thing ended up in the best way it could ever be as we both went with the compromising style, which both of us try to find a mutually acceptable decision.
Why is this important? It is because all of us should develop a sense of social justice, “as members of an increasingly interdependent global community, intercultural communication students have a responsibility to educate themselves, not just about interesting cultural differences but also intercultural conflicts, the impacts of stereotyping and prejudice, and the larger systems that can oppress and deny basic human rights” – and to apply this knowledge to the communities in which they live and interact. In the future, if I am faced with a similar situation, instead of attempting to avoid the problem, I would initiate to talk with the other party about the problem and I guess that is the reason why I wanted to learn intercultural communications in the first place.
I believe that learning how to identify conflicts will come in handy in a way which enables me to deal with conflicts not just in my daily life but also perhaps, in the business world. Furthermore, identifying the two orientations to conflict are also vital. Conflicts are in fact a double-edged sword because if it is handled well, conflicts could become an opportunity to grow and a way to improve relationship but if handled badly, it could be destructive to a relationship.
Last but not least, simply understanding intercultural communication may not end conflicts between cultural groups, but the importance of the need to learn more about other groups because ultimately people, not countries, negotiate peace. Interpersonal communication is important, but we also have to remember that all individuals are influenced by conflicts in the societies we are born into as well.