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Cultures blend in Mars simulation

It sounds like a reality-TV show: Seven strangers from different regions and countries come together to practice a mission to Mars.
/ Source: Mars Society

It’s a situation for a TV reality show, really. Seven strangers marooned on an Arctic isle, left to their own devices, having little contact with the outside world — having different cultural backgrounds, different musical tastes. What could happen?

THIS IS CREW 8, stationed on Devon Island. To spend the summer here in our simulated Mars habitat, we have come from Texas, South Carolina, Canada — Korea, Germany, Australia, Sweden. There is enough difference here to make supper-table conversations pretty interesting. As we sat down over Steve McDaniel’s enchiladas one night, listening to the Macarena, drinking German wine and Pepsi and talking about Bugs Bunny and the Nibelungenlied, I was struck with how pleasant it is to share tight living quarters with such an interesting bunch of people.

We all have a common language, English, but it is spoken with different accents. We are, as it’s been said, separated by a common language. Vocabulary is endlessly amusing. Jody Tinsley stumped Ella Carlsson recently by referring to the nekkid truth.

“What is this nekkid?” she asked.

“Naked,” I translated. “Except we say nekkid in South Carolina.”

“Which is right?” she pursued. “I have never heard of this nekkid.”

We surveyed the table. “Naked” was hands-down the winner, but when we asked Jan Osburg, a German married to a girl from Georgia, what he and his wife said, he brought the house down with his response: “I would say naked. My wife, however, is a true Southern lady. She would never say such a word!”

One morning Digby Tarvin and I were strapping on one of the shotguns to an all-terrain vehicle rack. “We need a yocky strap,” he said. “What’s that?” I asked, untangling a bungee cord. “That thing,” he said, pointing.

“I’ve never heard yocky — how’s it spelled?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I learned it in the Australian military.”

InsertArt(1965616)Peter Lee, whose wedding was in Korea the week before we all came here (!!!), has told us all about the Korean ceremonies and the traditions he and his new bride honored when they married. He has a lovely wedding picture of himself, his mom, and his new wife on his computer’s desktop, a reminder not only that his native Korean culture is lovely and bright, but that he has given up a lot to be here with us.

Digby, who has actually spent more time in Korea than Peter, pleases us all by sharing his Korean experiences. “Have you eaten this? What about that?” he asked Peter. Digby has seen vending machines “that you put your money in and a live crab comes out.” They compared notes on meals of wiggling squid (very nice with a spicy hot sauce, they say), and a Korean snack of peanut butter squid. The rest of us reserve judgment until we have a chance to try it for ourselves.


Cultural differences are a constant, and we have learned to treasure them. For example, we saw a cultural clash this morning at breakfast. While the others of us were splashing milk or sprinkling brown sugar on our oatmeal, Peter loaded up his bowl with oatmeal, got up, went to the cabinet, and came back with soy sauce. “This is a first,” I said. “I have never seen this.”

“I’ve never done it,” he said, “but it looks like a Korean rice porridge that’s good with soy sauce.” We all watched intently as he splattered it on. We all watched intently as he took a bite, then another.

“Well?” we said expectantly.

“It’s pretty bad,” he said wryly. He gamely, if slowly, ate the whole bowl before announcing that he wouldn’t mix oatmeal and soy sauce again.

A discussion of food would not be complete without a mention of the Southern specialty breakfast dish, grits. Jody and I packed four boxes of quick grits, which are supposed to cook in five minutes (not those nasty little instant packets), but we delay the culinary delight by cooking them slower, in milk, not just water, till they are creamy. The first pot was viewed with suspicion, but the crew trusts us more now, and the latest pot was gobbled up — even if certain crew members sprinkle on sugar and cinnamon. The proper way to eat grits, of course, is with butter, salt and pepper.

So we are finding our own way towards mutual cultural understanding and appreciation.


We can all sing to ABBA, though not every one likes it. Jan, our DJ, leans towards techno-pop, whereas Steve, a banjo player and singer for the Extremophiles, prefers Deep Forest. Jody and I like western swing, Bob Dylan, and Civil War songs; Jan plays Bee Gees disco. Digby likes Beethoven, Beatles, Blue Oyster Cult and Pink Floyd; Jan’s collection here at the Hab, however, includes Madonna’s version of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Peter wears headphones when he sits in the common room working at his laptop, so no one really knows what music he prefers.

But I have a feeling it’s not Barry Manilow, who has become a lightning rod for all musical discussions. “ARRRRgggghhhhh!” cries our commander at the opening chords of “Copa Cabana.” He holds his hands over his ears at the very mention of Barry Manilow. He can’t even tolerate the “Stars Wars” version: “Her name was Leia — she was a princess, with a Danish on each ear, and Darth Vader drawing near...” The crew sings “Copa Cabana,” of course, at every opportunity — over the radio on extravehicular activity when Steve works Hab com, or while requesting permission to enter the airlock. But we do find common ground: Recently Steve has begun teaching some of his Extremophiles songs to Jody (on guitar) and Ella (on keyboards).

Ella sings in her beautiful voice when she wants to cheer us up, or brings out her schnapps to share. “Prosit!” she says when I sneeze. I have tried to learn one Swedish word a day from her, but the only one I’m confident about so far is “isbjörn,” or “ice bear,” or polar bear. Jody puts her in stitches talking like the Swedish chef on the old “Muppet Show” and reading aloud from her Swedish science books in his best Swedish accents.


She, in turn, is fascinated by our Southern accents. She loves the way Jody and I say “pie.” I tried to explain to her that we speak slowly because we are Southern, but also because pies are to be savored, enjoyed — and that to rush through that word would be a sacrilege. Much nicer to say “p-i-i-i-e” than “pie.” Another word she loves is “y’all.” “Y’aaawllll,” she intones. “Y’aaawll.” She says “y’all” quite naturally now, and she’s working on one of my phrases, “Oh, my word.” “So nice!” she exclaims. She draws the words out, feeling them on her tongue: “Oh, my word. That’s good!”

But Ella’s favorite word, the one she cherishes the most, the best word above all others, is Latin: “syphilis.” Yep. Syphilis. She knows what it means, so it’s not that. It just sounds wonderful to her. She once dated a man who wore vertical, not horizontal, stripes on his shirt: “Syphilis!” she says.

We are all using it as an adjective now, as Ella does. “Those peaches! Did they come out of the syphilis can?” “Not that water! That’s syphilis!” Syphilis means gross, rusty, nasty, dirty, or bacteria-ridden. “Barry Manilow — syphilis!” cried Steve tonight. We get ourselves hysterical as we do linguistic gymnastics trying to apply syphilis to something new. “Those boots you have on — syphilis!!!” “Ooooohhh — that shower is syphilis!” “Are you sure those gloves aren’t syphilis?” We say it, and we laugh, a good belly laugh.

Through it all, laughter and language unite us, seven strangers, seven people marooned on an Arctic isle, seven researchers on an analog Mars station, and now seven friends.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to