Dec 14, 2009

Being cranky

I admit it: I take advantage of being a foreigner. The villagers here think Americans are incredibly strange, so everything I do people are staring blatantly, five feet from me, or following me around. I can't resist the temptation to just be bizarre, like walking in circles or talking to myself in Spanish.

Another volunteer posted recently about her experience with cultural beliefs and "indirect communication:"
When I was staying with my host family, I engaged with an interesting, if exhausting, conversation with my host family father about my motivation for serving Peace Corps and why I was "serving" in South Africa.
I tried to explain that I was a volunteer, had left my life and family at a great personal sacrifice, all because it was a great honor to serve my country and a wonderful opportunity for a life experience. He seemed to think that I was doing it because the governement would make me very rich.

After I picked myself up off the floor from laughing so hard, I attempted to convince him otherwise. And here was my mistake: there is no convincing a South African national (who is of this mindset) of anything else other than all Americans are rich and Peace Corps volunteers come only for financial gain. Phew! I can't tell you how many times I've tried to engage in this futile conversation.

[...]

In the future, to spare myself this exhausting, frustrating experience, I'll just practice this practice of "indirect communication":
anyone: Your government will provide you with wealth and riches when you return.
me: Yes, my government will provide me with wealth and riches when I return, I am very rich and will be even richer.
This is absolutely true. Every South African I've met here in the village is absolutely convinced that I'm a multi-gajillionaire. I've long passed the point of being culturally sensitive about it, and I just get snarky:

PERSON: You have lots of money.
ME: Nope.
PERSON: Yes, all Americans are rich.
ME: [deadpan] You found me out. That's why I came here. Because I love money, and there's lots of it here.
PERSON: [blank stare]

At training, Peace Corps went over the whole "indirect communication" thing for a long time. Money especially was described as an incredibly sensitive topic, where two men would talk for twenty minutes about donkeys and how hot it is when the subtext is really that one owes the other some money. I don't doubt that's how it used to work, or how it might work sometimes between two Batswana. But here's how it tends to play out for me:

PERSON: Mpha madi! (give me money.)
ME: No.
PERSON: Legkowa, o na le madi! Mpha 2 rand! (White person, you have money. Give me 2 rand.)
ME: No. Tsamaya. (go away.)
PERSON: [angry muttering]

I feel like Christopher Hitchens sometimes, but it tends to pass. Suffice to say that my rather unrealistic ideas about cultural sensitivity quickly went out the door. Living here has coarsened me a bit and no mistake. Still, I don't think it's permanent. At least at this point I can turn it on and off at will.

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