One of the first things that Hannah and I decided was the the phenomenon known as culture shock is mislabelled. Most people use this term to describe the immediate culture stress experienced when you land in a new country/place. It’s generally a reaction to extreme differences between wherever you are and wherever you’re used to, whether it’s a different country or even just moving from a small town to the big city. However, I learned this year that culture shock is actually a 9 month give or take process of adjusting to a new culture (thus we thought the word shock was misused, but hey, why argue with years of study and experts). You can Wikipedia it and it gives you a pretty succinct explanation of the whole ordeal.
I was forewarned that culture shock usually hits between 4-6 months and with Hannah’s departure at that point to just be extra aware that I would probably be particularly vulnerable to it. However, with my friend Krista arriving and the oft mentioned guys around, the transition was actually fairly smooth since I was so busy travelling 2944 km around East Africa (yes, I calculated). Then came August. I found myself living alone and not just visiting or staying for awhile. No longer was navigating this country and customs a team effort with a built in bridge in the form of our host family. I’m cooking for one, buying my own groceries and figuring out my own way around town. Suddenly getting on the wrong matatu isn’t an adventure it’s a little nerve racking. I’ve moved from “negotiation” to “adjustment” stage of being in a new culture.
I’ve always considered my mixed Chinese/ Vietnamese/ Canadian culture a bit of a hindrance. I had a foot in different doors which made me feel like I didn’t quite belong. That has proved to be a formidable tool here though. Juggling my parents’ immigrant Asian mindset with my own Canadian upbringing has afforded me more patience in understanding what Kenyan culture is like, or even just letting go of differences which I don’t understand.
For example, there were some ladies who really enjoyed commenting on Hannah’s and my appearance every day. Didn’t matter what it was, whether we were or weren’t wearing make up or that clothing was too tight or too loose or that we had gained or lost weight since the previous time they commented. This is really blunt compared to Western ways but thanks to my Chinese mom, I’m used to people saying things without the subtlety that is expected in my home culture. Even growing up multi-lingual (my dad speaks 5 languages and 3 were commonly used around the house) made it easier to pick up basic kiswahili then some of my other counterparts who have been here longer. I’m used to translating everything I say for my parents and older relatives and thanks to the 9 different tones in Cantonese can hear out pronunciation a little better.
Just the same as a new immigrant may struggle in North American with the pace of life or the language, I find myself here not understanding so much of what I experience. Once, a short termer told me that some kids from their compound were stealing fruit off of their kitchen counter. This person then outlined how they’d had trouble with this and were trying to teach the children if they wanted some to just ask. Later, I was sharing this story to some full time missionaries who told me that actually it was more a case that if it’s on the table and out in the open it was seen as communal; meant for everyone. The number of times I’ve had the experience of thinking one thing was happening and then being informed that in actually it was something else is enough to humble me and my quickness to assume I understand.
The longer I am here the more I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface of trying to understand generation upon generation of complex layers of culture. The traditional tribal beliefs still hold strong in some parts of the country and yet, here in Nairobi they can clash with the progressive and modern. Honestly, I don’t think it’s even possible for an outsider to fully understand the cultural roots that run so deeply here.
So when the dust settles and culture shock rears its confusing head, the reality of living vs visiting somewhere is left exposed and genuine. It’s taught me to be humble and slow to assume because chances are there is more at play than what you see. It’s certainly taught me the next time I’m frustrated with someone or something to take a minute and consider their perspective.
Would you look at that? I’m growing up and getting all mature and stuff.