Still in culture shock

Language acquisition and culture shock are funny things. In one sense, as the first increases, the second diminishes. But in another sense (or at least so I’ve been experiencing in recent months) as the first increases, so does the second. Although I continue to make progress in Wolof comprehension and speaking, I’ve felt a new wave of culture shock and feel further from understanding the West African culture in which I live. A year ago, when I still wasn’t understanding the majority of what was being said around me, I could write off confusing or surprising situations, thinking to myself, “I don’t understand what they were saying, and I couldn’t make myself understood. So that’s why I feel confused.” Before an outsider can understand much of a new language, it’s easy to assume that there exists an explanation for certain cultural differences, and that one just needs to be able to communicate in and decipher more of the language.

But surprise! Some things become even more confounding as I realize I’m understanding most everything in terms of the words being communicated, and yet I’m left scratching my head. Wondering how worlds can be so starkly different.

Or, I’m able to communicate my basic thoughts (more or less) with someone in their language, and close to their style, and yet they don’t understand me. In those moments, growing in my capability to communicate in the local language seems to only show me how very different my cultural background is. How different I am.

These experiences can be “shocking” in a positive or a negative way. But they’re always confounding. Let me share a few instances, slices of “normal life” from the past couple months.

I was riding on the highway with my colleague (a fellow expat) and our friend in her car. We were taking our friend back to her house, and my colleague had offered her a couple unused small water tanks, which were strapped to the roof of the car. We were enjoying the lack of traffic and flying down the auto-route. Suddenly we heard a noise behind us; we looked back to see one of the water tanks on the narrow shoulder, bouncing behind us from where it had fallen from the car roof. We looked at each other in dismay, asking each other what we should do now. The shoulder wasn’t wide enough to safely pull over right away and back up to where it was. There wasn’t an immediate exit, and getting off at the next one would then require us to somehow weave our way through the traffic in the opposite direction and figure out which ramp we needed to take to get back on the auto-route behind where the water tank had fallen. So my colleague continued driving, though much more slowly, as we sought a solution. Meanwhile, drivers passing by us honked, waved at us, and motioned behind. I thought to myself, feeling slightly perturbed, “Yes, thank you, we are aware of the fact that something flew off the roof. We’re trying to figure out what to do.” Eventually we decided to pull off as far as we safely could onto the shoulder to at least check that the other water tank wouldn’t also fly off. As my colleague and I checked, a taxi pulled up behind us, also stopping. The driver got out and began talking to our friend in Wolof. He explained that someone had stopped and gotten the water tank and was bringing it to us; he said he’d wanted to let us know so we’d stop and wait for it before going further. Before we’d even had time to be surprised at this news, sure enough, a man on his motorcycle, grinning from ear to ear and somehow wielding the fallen water tank, pulled off the road beside the taxi. Super-motorcycle-Man told us he’d seen it fly off and had been determined to catch up to us with it to return it. Needless to say, we tried to get over our shock enough to thank him profusely. We then were back on our way (with the water tanks more safely stowed). My colleague and I laughed and scratched our heads together, wondering if that would have ever happened on an American capital city’s highway.

Another day, I was taking a taxi in the capital, from the SIL office to my colleagues’ home for a meeting. I’d had to do quite a bit of haggling in Wolof with that particular driver to get the price down to normal fare. What he’d finally accepted was even slightly more than I’d paid before to go to the same place. But it was during Ramadan so I wasn’t surprised. For much of the trip, the driver pointed out to me that he was an old man, that I should have compassion towards him and pay him more. I in turn pointed out to him that I was a woman with no husband, that he should have compassion towards me and charge me less. Upon hearing that, Old Man Taxi Driver assured me that he’d pray for me to have a good husband with lots of money. I thanked him (one can’t do otherwise here!). And then he said that if he prayed for me, I should repay him monetarily for the favor. That whole exchange in Wolof would have been enough to leave me scratching my head about the kinds of taxi conversations one has in this culture. Little did I know when I got out at my destination that my encounter with Old Man Taxi Driver was far from over. Upon arrival at my colleagues’ house, I realized that my cell phone wasn’t where I usually keep it. I looked through both my bags in search for it, then had my colleague call it, then retraced my steps in their house — all to no avail. I’d lost my cell phone. This was the first time since my arrival in country. A wave of worry overtook me as I thought about all the contacts in my phone that I need on a daily basis that I don’t have stored anywhere else. How would I get them back? I was supposed to call several people in that hour even, to set up a rendezvous for a Christian women’s gathering, to visit a friend that evening. What would I do now? I remembered checking my phone during the taxi ride, so all I could think was that I’d left it in the taxi. My colleagues did their best to reassure me; they said they’d keep calling it in hopes that the taxi driver (or whoever had it) would answer and we could arrange something for getting it back. On what seemed like the tenth try, someone answered. My colleague passed the phone to me. “Tonton?” I asked (“uncle,” the respectful and familial way of referring to someone, and convenient when one doesn’t know the name). Sure enough, it was Old Man Taxi Driver. I expressed my relief and thanks to him for answering; I asked where he was. His answer was evasive, saying he was in the capital. I asked if he remembered where I’d gotten out and could bring the phone back there where I’d meet him. He said no problem, he was still in the capital. He said we’d just need to discuss gas money. Not surprising considering the topic of our conversation in the taxi. I asked how much he’d need. He said an amount that was more than three times what I’d paid him earlier, and easily twice the amount of what a taxi ride would cost for the furthest distance in the capital. I was slightly shocked. But we both knew I was in no place to negotiate. I agreed. At first, I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling shocked at paying that much. After all, I could afford it, especially for the sake of recuperating all my valuable contacts. Old Man Taxi Driver could have kept the phone or sold it for a profit. And it wasn’t the first time I was paying more than the actual gas used for a trip. Upon reflection, I realized maybe my “shock” stemmed from my cultural background where the line between a favor and a business transaction are rarely blurred. In general, if someone has already decided to help you out, they don’t require payment. But here in this culture and in this economy, a favor can become a potential business opportunity. An hour later, I was greatly relieved to have my phone back, and Old Man Taxi Driver was a little richer. I couldn’t help but wonder if his rate for the “rich-husband prayer” on my behalf was built into the “gas money.”

I had another taxi adventure, this time in the town where I live and on the day of the rainy season’s first (and greatly anticipated) rainfall. Some drivers won’t make runs in the rain or in the flooded aftermath. Therefore, one can expect to pay up to twice the normal fare. I knew this as I left my Wolof lesson and flagged down a taxi to get home. I warned him I didn’t have exact change, and he said we’d stop somewhere along the way for change. We hadn’t gone far down the road when he spotted a woman and a young boy also waiting for a taxi. One isn’t normally obligated to share a taxi, but a hard rain constitutes special circumstances. The driver pulled over, and they got in. There was no mention of taxi fare or where she needed to go (which is usually stated or negotiated when one gets in). The woman lost little time in starting to converse in Wolof with the driver, amicably scolding him every time he drove through pools of rainwater and causing it to splash, saying he and other taxi drivers take advantage of the rain to make extra money, not even driving carefully enough to avoid splashing pedestrians who are desperately trying to get to a dry place. She also amicably ordered him around, showing him where to stop at her first destination, where she needed to give someone something. She got back in, and we continued on. This was breaking taxi “etiquette,” as the first passenger *normally* gets taken to his or her destination first. Most drivers would also refuse to take a passenger to multiple destinations for a single fare. As I listened and observed from the back of the taxi, the driver didn’t seem perturbed and chuckled at her scolding. Madame Diva Passenger was likely not much older than the driver, but she was talking to him as if she were his mother. I thought to myself, “Maybe this is how a woman in this culture has to act in order to be respected by a man. A woman resorts to bossing around and even shaming a man a little to avoid being taken advantage of.” The woman chatted with me briefly, until we pulled into a gas station where the driver said he’d look for change to break my bill. He said something to the woman that I didn’t catch. Madame Diva Passenger told him, “It’s no problem, if you take me somewhere I pay you.” She then turned to me and said we’d have to part ways, that the driver was making her get out or she’d have to pay. I thought to myself that there was nothing unreasonable about that on the part of the driver. So she got out with the young boy and started walking away. The driver honked, then got out of the taxi and called out to Madame Diva Passenger, “Won’t you pay me?” The woman turned and walked towards him, starting to answer him while shaming him too. “Oh you expect me to pay you, do you? I have to go out after the rain and just want a little help. You refuse to help a woman out and then ask for payment?” A couple men had been observing the exchange from the gas station parking lot. At this point, one of them stepped in and even offered to pay the driver for the woman, telling the driver that it wasn’t worth making a scene over, that he should just put up with the woman and let it slide. To that, the driver responded with the Wolof equivalent to, “I’ve put up with her, but I’ve had it up to here with her orders.” I certainly sympathized. Madame Diva Passenger threw a bill at the driver through his open taxi window, along with a spat “Here, take your payment.” I noticed that it was the “non-rain” fare and not even what one would normally pay. As I rode the rest of the distance to where I live, I was feeling shocked and slightly indignant at what had just happened, though I wasn’t sure at first why. I felt no personal lack of fairness; I was in no hurry, and I’ve learned not to always expect transportation “etiquette” and “rules” to be followed. I saw injustice towards the taxi driver (and it’s rare that I feel bad for them), I think primarily because of my cultural background, where a worker getting the wages that he or she earned is a high value. In the situation that I’d just witnessed, all I could see was that the taxi driver was just working his job, trying to make an honest living. But when he asked for his due payment, not only did Madame Diva Passenger shame him publicly for doing so, an uninvolved observer also practically shamed him by saying he’d made a scene and by offering to appease him, nearly giving the woman the taxi ride for free. However, that was my American analysis, and I’m guessing that none of the other people (even the taxi driver) in the situation would agree that my analysis captured what had actually happened. Although in that moment, I wanted to criticize the culture and make sweeping generalizations about their sense of fairness and handicaps that I saw in their society, all I could do was shake my head in confusion and think, “I’m not in my own culture, and there’s a lot I may never understand.”

One final slice of life which left me in culture shock revolved around a topic of conversation which is probably the most common (and perhaps my least favorite) when I’m interacting with West African acquaintances: marriage. I’d just finished my Wolof lesson and was waiting for the bus. There’s a blacksmith shop next door to my Wolof teacher’s house; the workers always offer me a seat in the shade while I wait. We chat, giving me exactly the kind of Wolof practice I need. The men are pleasant, respectful, and accustomed to talking with Wolof-learners. The topic of marriage has come up multiple times. They’ve asked me why I’m not married, what I’m waiting for, if I want an American or West African husband — the usual questions. But today, Diedhiou (the boss as far as I can tell) was determined to get past the formalities and give me his two-cents’ worth (and more) of what he thought about my marital status. I don’t even remember how it came up because before I had time to think and respond in normal fashion, Diedhiou Boss Man was asking me, “What are you waiting for? You’re not married yet and you’re just getting old. You’re probably over 30 aren’t you?” His tone was amicable but serious. I quickly recovered from the initial surprise at this new angle on my marital status and assured him, “Hey, I’m not yet 30, I’m still practically a child.” Diedhiou Boss Man hardly skipped a beat in his rant, continuing with, “Ah you’re not a child anymore! You’re getting old and you haven’t started having kids yet, what about the kids you’re supposed to have? You shouldn’t keep waiting around to get married. If you’re too old when you start having kids you won’t have the energy to raise them right.” Rather than trying to tell him what I really think about the whole thing (which rarely gets me anywhere), I tried to reason with him in a way he’d understand. I said, “Before one starts having kids, isn’t it best to wait until one finds a good husband?” “But there are good husbands around, what are you possibly looking for?” In response to that, I used my standard deviation which usually works fine in this culture, with its tendency towards fatalism and leaving things to God (or to people who have a special connection to God), rather than trying so hard to make something happen that one is taking the place of God. “God only knows!” I said. “I’m waiting for God to show me whom He wants me to marry.” But for some reason, on that day Diedhiou Boss Man was not taking that for an answer. “That’s not how it works. You can’t just sit back, not doing anything, and expect to find the husband that God wants for you. The real reason you don’t want to get married and have kids is that you’re studying and working and you don’t have time. Well you should be pouring yourself into finding a husband like you pour yourself into your studies and your work!” No one had ever said it quite that way. Our conversation continued for a while, Diedhiou Boss Man trying to work every angle to convince me to finally take up my chief responsibility in life of getting married and birthing children, as I drew on all my limited knowledge of the culture to respond in ways he would respect and somehow convince him that I shouldn’t be in a hurry. I even pulled out the Wolof proverb, “Mar naan taxul ma naan putit” (Being thirsty to drink doesn’t mean I’ll drink dirty rinse water), to remind him that desperation would not push me to marry the first available male. That strategy, as it does every time, at least stopped Diedhiou Boss Man’s soapbox talk on marriage mid-sentence and gained a bit of respect and chuckles from him and the other men listening in. However, he was soon continuing on with his admonishment for me to get my priorities right and get married and start having kids. I used my meeting with a colleague as an excuse to take my leave and walk away, even though the conversation had not come to the conclusion that Diedhiou Boss Man was wanting to hear from me. As I walked to my colleague’s house, all I could do was shake my head and marvel at how different this culture is from the one I left to come here. How blaring the difference is when it comes to marriage and gender roles. I felt frustrated that, although I was saying everything in Wolof, there was so much about the way I view marriage and my personhood as a woman that I could not make my listeners understand. Was it even worth trying to explain in Wolof, even using Wolof proverbs, to Diedhiou Boss Man why I wouldn’t drop everything and get married tomorrow? Or are our perspectives on the matter so opposed that even if we understand perfectly the words that the other is saying, we’re not even really hearing each other when we discuss it?

These slices of life are just a few recent examples that have left me feeling like I’m still very much in culture shock — and may never quite fully recover.

  1. William Johnson said:

    Wonderful slices of life!  That conversation at the blacksmith’s sounded exhausting.  The taxi diva exists in all cultures, I’m sure.

  2. Tom Stein said:

    Yikes. Thanks for sharing this. Sometimes wisdom is knowing how much you don’t know. Before, you didn’t know how much you didn’t know. Now you are learning. Improbably, I view that as progress!

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