I have a lot to learn

2 11 2009

I love Spanish. I could sit and listen to native speakers for hours. I love the way the words form on their tongues and then roll off their lips and drop effortlessly into the air. The sound of it captivates me.

And while I’m far from proficient, I also enjoy learning it. I understand the logic of the grammar and I appreciate the order and the rules. I get the language.

It’s different here. Sometimes, even though we are all technically speaking English, I’m pretty sure I don’t understand the “language” of Africa. The sounds aren’t always sweet, and the rules aren’t always straight. I have a lot to learn.

I’ve got some of it down, but most of the steps continue to elude me. I think I am beginning to grasp a given system and then the rules seem to shift without warning. And I’m left wondering if I’m supposed to hug and touch both cheeks, grab my right elbow with my left hand and bow, or do a shake-pound-shake routine when I greet someone. Seriously? I still can’t even say “Hello” right?

Today we made our way to the airport to pick up my boss (she’s in town for a few days). One of the first things she said to me was, “I’ve got a book for you to read.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard often in the past two years, and it usually means I’m about to gain new insight and my thinking is about to be challenged. And, not surprisingly, this time it involved learning more about the cultural language of Africa.

Just paging through it I’m already overwhelmed.

As it turns out, when people here ask for money and I say no, their default conclusion is that I’m simply not generous. (Great. So half the people I’ve met here think I’m a selfish tightwad.) It stems from the idea of communal living. If I have something you need, I’m expected to give it to you even if it means I won’t have any left for tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, someone else will in turn provide for me.

Then there is the issue of pride. It’s culturally acceptable to, literally, do anything you can to protect your pride. So much so that even saying “I’m sorry” after making a mistake is abnormal, because admitting you did something wrong means you might lose credibility (unfortunately I know people at home who emulate this mantra with a much lesser degree of dignity). So, in lieu of a formal apology, people will randomly leave you a gift and then that’s that. Case closed. No more discussion. They’re sorry, you should accept the apology, and your relationship should be restored.

And if someone has a problem with you, don’t expect to hear about it from them – that might disrupt the peace (apparently this one doesn’t apply to drunk men who think I’m taking their picture). They’ll have someone else talk to you about the issue and it’s expected that things will be worked out quietly through the chosen mediator – never face-to-face.

And then there are compliments. If you pay someone you are not intimately connected with a direct compliment they will automatically assume you are cursing them. (Again, I shudder to think what some people must think of me!) Compliments have to be given to acquaintances in a roundabout way. So, for example, if someone were to say, “I want you to give me your shirt,” that’s really their way of telling me they like it. And, while I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if I did, they don’t actually expect me to give it to them. So, again, if I simply say “No,” I am, of course, being rude. If I were to say, however, “If I take it off to give it to you I’d be cold,” then the compliment is considered accepted.

Oh man. I’m not even done paging through the introduction.

It’s definitely an interesting dance to partake in. It’s like your partner knows the routine but the only moves you’ve got are set to a totally different beat. And so when you make your way to the floor it seems like the steps are always changing and the tempo is totally off. It can be confusing. It can even be frustrating. And yet the unfamiliar tune has its own strange appeal. It’s a melodic reminder that my way is not right, it’s simply my way. And when I take the time to stop and listen, there is, in fact, goodness and wisdom in the rhythm and the motion – whether I can keep up with it or not. And even if I never get it, my life is richer for having stopped to pay attention to the sound and for stumbling through a step or two.




One response

3 11 2009

Oh, honey…you are wise beyond your years and I miss you so desperately!

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