"We were not supposed to leave. We have to go back [to the island]!"

-Jack Shepard

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cultural Sensitivity and Other Things I Fail At

Although in total I’ve spent over a year of my life in this country, the sporadic barrage of new cultural experiences and life lessons just keeps startling the crap out of me. Phases of monotony tend to lull me into a false sense of integration when suddenly – WOOSH – some hawk-like reminder that I am indeed an outsider comes swooping in to destroy my illusions.

Here are a few examples of some of the cultural idiosyncrasies that have blindsided me:
• Nose picking – Commonly done in public. A nervous habit for students when I call on them in class.
• Nail clipping – Also commonly done in public. And in front of guests. And in other people’s living rooms. And at my kitchen table…while I am eating.
• Cell phone answering – During class, during meetings, during church services… The concept of “letting it go to voicemail” is blasphemous here.
• Plan flaking – The whole nothing-starts-on-time culture is reasonable, but making me rearrange my schedule for plans days ahead of time, then casually cancelling at the last minute or just not showing up? Or the opposite problem:
• Improvised hosting – Randomly arriving at my door and expecting me to stop what I’m doing to feed and entertain. Really?
• Insisting that I’m Chinese – I realize that many Americans are culturally-aware to a fault, but it never ceases to astonish me that, despite the racial diversity among the Malagasy people and the popularity of superstars from Beyonce to Jennifer Lopez, people here can’t grasp the fact that not all Americans are white. When I tell someone I’m from the United States, they invariably reply, “But you look Chinese!” as they pull back the corners of their eyes.

These observations are more or less inconsequential, and most days I just laugh at them if I even notice them at all. One aspect of Malagasy life that I haven’t gotten used to is the asking culture. People here are not shy at all about asking others (especially foreigners) to give them things. One minute kids will be laughing and playing with me on the beach, and the next they’re putting on their I’m-a-starving-African-child tourist act and crying, “Jess, I’m sooooo hungry!” *stomach grab* “Give me money.” Or a woman will walk and chat with me like she’s my best friend, then throw in a “Oh your earrings are so beautiful! Give them to me.” Bitch please. Technically, I guess it’s less of an asking culture and more of a demanding culture. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they do it, and I know very well that they mean no offense (and half the time probably don’t actually expect you to fork anything over), but asking for (or demanding) gifts, money, anything is just so against everything American culture teaches us is socially acceptable. This is the one cultural difference that I know I’ll never mentally adjust to. And maybe the nail-clipping during meals.

My everyday life comes with various struggles and successes. My biggest and most constant struggle is the language. My abilities have without a doubt declined since training. I absolutely refuse to use Malagasy in the classroom because most of my students are at a high enough level that they can handle the total immersion technique. Outside the classroom, the demand to learn English is so high in Fort Dauphin that everyone jumps at the chance to practice with a native speaker. When I do actually speak Malagasy, it rarely goes beyond the same 10 conversations that I’ve had hundreds of times. One triumph: With the Malagasy I do know, I’ve gained the ability to switch between 3 dialects as well as French, which is probably more than most PCVs can say.

A completely unrelated triumph: I’ve taught myself to burn trash. Certainly not the most difficult skill to acquire, but my fear of setting the entire neighborhood on fire kept me from attempting it during the first three months at site. Gone are the days in which I sneakily toss my garbage bag in the communal trash pit (public sanitation systems/trash collection don’t exist here) and hope someone else takes care of it.

Another random triumph: I’ve learned rock-and-roll dancing and am slowly picking up other styles of ballroom. That’s right, Fort Dauphin has a small underground dance scene. Who would’ve guessed I’d learn Western-style dance in Africa…

Living on this island has made me realize what sissies Americans are about certain things. Having “nothing” in the house to eat, for example, or being stuck in traffic in the shelter of a climate-controlled car. Physical appearance is another thing. We as Americans constantly complain that the media puts so much pressure on us to be physically perfect. Screw the media. Try living in a society where friends, family, and random people on the street are ruthlessly blunt about the way you look. Take acne, for instance. It’s generally accepted by Americans that most people get the occasional zit or break-out. Apparently, these facial imperfections are rare to nonexistent here in Madagascar, as whenever I have one, everyone I speak with feels compelled to inquire, “What’s that thing on your face? It looks bad!” Of course, they only mean the zit itself looks bad, not my entire face, but that hasn’t stopped me from muttering curses about their not-so-perfect features under my breath.

Now, let’s consider one’s weight. Lack of cooking skills, air conditioning, and motorized transportation have kept me relatively small at site. However, lazy vacation time significantly altered my daily routine. Upon arriving back in Fort Dauphin, one of my good friends wasted no time in joyously exclaiming, “Wow, you got FAT in Tana!” Granted, I had put on a few holiday pounds, and, granted, being called “fat” is considered a compliment in this country, but the American in me nearly clawed his eyes out. Nonetheless, the experience has taught me much more about the human psyche (or maybe just my own). In America, when we see images of “perfect” models and actors, no one is telling us directly that we need to look like them; the conflict is internal – we’re really telling ourselves. Thus, weight-loss (or whatever your goal may be) is directed more by self-motivation, which, in general, is extremely difficult to conjure up. When comments are directed at us personally, however, one must either develop really thick skin or… Well, let me just say, there is no greater impetus for change than when one’s “flaws” are candidly and verbally expressed by those close to them. I was back to my normal weight in a week. My advice to those who whine about the cruelty of the American media’s pressure to be thin: Just suck it up. (No pun intended.)

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