Wednesday, May 4, 2011

cultural conundrums

During our SALT orientation last August, we had many lectures and discussions about all of the different cultural experiences upon which we were about to embark. We were warned of the different stages and the normal stress that overseas living would entail. And sure, I’ve experienced many similar ups and downs that anyone who has had cross-cultural exchanges would face. But more often than not, my interaction with new food, clothing or languages has looked more like a colorful SALT informational brochure where everything is new and diverse and exciting and everything on the surface is great because there is harmony in diversity.

But what about when a new cultural experience leaves me with a lot more confusion than it does warm fuzzies?

What about the things that I’ve had to suppress about my “culture” in order to be here (such my former vegetarianism or frequent wear of pants)?

What about when I profoundly disagree with the culture of my host country?

What about when I tend to make friends with English-speaking Mozambicans? Is that a cop-out because they’re just a little more relatable for me?

Do these things make me a bad person? Have I extended the table just a little less? Is one side getting the cheap end of the bargain in this transaction of cultural exchange?

I have no easy or compelling answers to these or any other cultural questions. But I do have two anecdotes that recently got me thinking about these questions. First, I was talking with a male Mozambican acquaintance a while back (in English, of course, because I’m a cheater at language submersion). During the course of our conversation, he explained that he was married but was looking for a girlfriend on the side and would be delighted and honored if I would consider the position. Charming, but…no.I then explained that I would be opposed to the whole arrangement because of the whole, you know, wife on the side thing. I politely gave my reasons for why this would be an awful idea, mostly because I view his marriage as an incredibly important relationship in which I have no business in interfering. He was quite taken aback, stating that this perfect trifecta is quite common in Mozambique and that if I expect to have acceptance into the culture or have Mozambican friends, I shouldn’t be so prudish or think that my culture is better than his. After we parted and I made a mental note not to continue our acquaintanceship, I found myself pondering his point. I have plenty of Mozambican friends to nullify his argument on that account, but is there some underlying truth that I’m being too critical on the culture? Who makes the rules when it comes to morality?

Another, more lighthearted time, I was speaking with a gregarious South African lady over breakfast at the guest house. We discovered that the conference she was just returning from in the United States was held in Grand Rapids, literally right down the road from where I went to college. While we were enjoying what a crazy small world we are living in, she was explaining her impressions of being in the United States, especially as this was her first time in Western Michigan. “You see,” she told me, “Africans don’t wear watches, but we have lots of time. Americans wear watches, but you have no time.” She had marveled at how one could spend an entire day’s errands without getting out of the car. She explained that eating, washing, banking, shopping can all be done from behind the steering wheel, yet despite all of the efficiency, no one seemed to save enough time to welcome her into their home, answer her questions or get to know her background. We laughed about the silliness of it all, but I vowed to not be one of those high-strung, Energizer bunny Americans drumming around Maputo without actually interacting with people. So a few weeks later when I was heading out the door to go to work, I intentionally was late so that I could stop and talk with my friend who was really discouraged and needed someone to listen to her. I intentionally take a long walk to a market or grocery store, passing others along the way, so that I can continue building a relationship with the store owners and vendors. It’s not efficient at all, but I’m starting to like how I’ve adopted “African time.” But is that really fair to my boss and coworkers who wait for me to stroll in late because I’m yacking it up on the street corner? Have I lowered my standards of excellence because I no longer expect restaurants to be quick or church to start within 20 minutes of the set time? Am I using “African time” as an excuse to put some people before others, or am I abusing this fun little cultural nuance I’ve adopted?

As always, I have more questions than answers. I hope that in time I’ll learn more about myself, the invisible baggage I carry around with me and what I do with it once I travel into the world. I thought of this when I saw the mural below the other day on one of my long, meandering and time consuming walks around Maputo. But I guess that’s beauty in the complexity of it all.