If you are one of the brave, gracious people who is willing to accept us as we are, shortcomings, frustrations and all, then this post is for you!
Whoever said knowing is half the battle? I don't know if they were correct. For instance, I am fully aware that I should not be addicted to chocolate. I have a significant amount of common sense and education that tells me that is not good. But does it help to stop me from hiding in the kitchen eating Nutella straight from the jar with a spoon? Not a chance. To carry that thought through to our present circumstances, let's talk about (drumroll please) CULTURE SCHOCK. (Actually, in order to follow through on my previous promise of honesty, I am obliged to make you aware that the first situation, the Nutella one, is actually also a present circumstance. Don't be hatin'. My husband says its overindulging. I say, oh well.)
I came into this deal with a pretty good resume for the job. (Weird? check! After all, isn't that a primary requirement for missionaries? Come on; you know you've had that thought.) However, I also knew that every place is different, season in your life is different, and even I myself am different. So I knew coming into this that even though I had done something similar-ish before, I should be prepared for the same challenges I had the first time, and maybe some different new ones. You'd think that being mentally prepared would have been enough. I don't know. Do you ever tell yourself that you shouldn't feel a certain way, and that just makes you feel more that way? I should not be experiencing culture shock. I really shouldn't. Here are my logical reasons why I should have been able to skip the culture shock phase
- There is English everywhere you go. At least in the city.
- I am in a (dare I say modern?) city with restaurants, grocery stores, malls, and I've even heard there are movie theaters and an ice skating rink. Ice skating! Here!
- We are part of a solid team here. There are about 5 other expat families within walking distance of our house. I can call somebody whenever I need to with any question, and somebody will come to my aid. People brought us supper and took me to the grocery store when we got here.
- Technology is such that, here in the city, I can communicate with my family basically whenever I want, being careful of the time change, and being patient with the slight delay. We have given people FaceTime tours of our house.
- The weather in Nairobi is very manageable, and even gets quite cool in the cold season. Nothing like your "typical" Africa. If there is such a thing. Which there isn't.
- And again: I've done this before!!!!!!
So why, pray tell, have I broken down in tears at random moments, such as at the checkout line in the grocery store? Why have I had days when I just did not want to leave the safety and privacy of our house? Why have I gotten so frustrated with language study (already) that I wanted to beat my head against the wall? I think it bears repeating, doing this with a family is just such a completely different story. The weight of that responsibility is quite heavy, both in practical things like keeping everyone safe, fed, and clean, (Ok, scratch the clean. Surely you knew I was just kidding? There's no such thing as clean African MK. I bet when you see them next, sharing the requisite Swahili praise song in our presentation, they will still be dirty. Just look at their feet.) and then in matters of the heart, emotional peace and stability, personal identity, all that fun stuff. It needs to be noted that frustrations that come with cross cultural living and communication are not indicative of negative, judgmental, or condescending opinions. It doesn't matter where you come from or where you go. It is always hard to switch cultures. Just watch "The Good Lie."
- The ants. Oh my. Please tell me there is a purpose for ants, other than to teach us how to work hard. I have never seen ants like this, in all my travels. They are the most persistent things I have ever seen. Every morning, the first thing I do when I come downstairs is find the ant trails, spray them with some really strong chemical, and wipe them up. Then I can make my coffee. (I have recently been thinking that the ants are less harmful to our health than the spray. We should just accept them.) I have a 20 second video of what they did to a half-eaten hardboiled egg, after it sat on the counter for no more than 30 minutes. I used to think they were only after sweet things. Oh no. These ants are equal opportunity invaders. They get into things with screwed on lids. They get into snap on tupperware. They get into everything. Its crazy the stuff I keep in the fridge now. They will even come for just water.
- The driving. I can't explain the driving. You could look it up on YouTube. Fun stuff. Its a combination of things that are very unfamiliar to me. The stick shift. The driving on the opposite side of the road, and the steering wheel on the opposite side of the car. The different traffic laws, the traffic circles instead of traffic lights. The pedestrians, motorcycles, and public van/bus things. The policemen who basically get their salary from bribes from motorists. The fact that I don't know where I'm going. It's just very overwhelming. On the other hand, I am an independent person, and highly value being able to go and do whatever I need to without having to call someone else for a ride. Taxis are too expensive. I'm not comfortable figuring out public transportation with 3 kids and no language skills. So, that means walking (also sometimes hazardous, especially with the kids. And every time we carry fruits and vegetables back from the market, one of my children drops someone on the ground and its ruined before we get home.) or waiting till the weekend so Patrick can drive me around.
- I did mention that nearly everyone in the city speaks English, at least those whose paths I would normally cross. But it is important to mention that although two people having a conversation can both understand the words being spoken, they can come away from it with two different meanings. Culture is stronger than language. And communicating is made up of more than combinations of letters. And alot of the time, I feel like I don't understand what's going on, even when I understand the individual words. Also, maybe in some businesses or offices its different, but everywhere I've gone, the English is only for me. Walking out in public, its a giant sea of Swahili. It slows down as I approach, gives way to the few English words needed to conduct business with me, and as I retreat, it is swallowed up in Swahili again. (KiSwahili actually, for what its worth.) So, as petty as this sounds, I never know if people are talking about me. Actually, I do know, because I definitely understand the word for white person. I just don't understand what comes after it. It is very challenging to stay relaxed and smiling in that kind of situation. It's hard to just continue to go out the gate and let it happen. If I don't willingly subject myself to that humiliating situation, every day if possible, it will never get better. And I desperately want it to get better. My previous language learning experience was totally different. I had all the time in the world to be completely immersed in it. And I had only one other person with whom to speak English. So it kind of just absorbed. (With a significant amount of studying and asking questions.) I have to force myself to speak Kiswahili instead of English, I have to find people patient enough to wait for me to spit out my few broken words, when they are busy with their shops or their children or their normal city lives. I can't get good prices on clothes, shoes, home goods, even food sometimes, while bargaining in English.
- This is my last, but its very significant: I second guess almost every single thing I do. Some of it is basic: I don't know what is normal or appropriate in this culture. Some of it is due to the fact that missionaries have gotten somewhat of a bad rap back in the day, for some things, and we have been trained to be more careful. How much of what I do is from my culture (everything!), and is all of that good? Could I let go of some of what is not critical, and embrace some new things in order to be a belonger in our community? Am I projecting an attitude of superiority or pride, even accidentally? What am I saying about myself when I do this, or don't do this. How serious of a cultural infraction is it when I yell at my kids, hold my husband's hand in public, or let my kids draw on the street with chalk? ('m not kidding. I actually got in trouble for that one. Apparently we've got quite the neighbourhood HOA.) What to do with the burning humiliation of when my kids, who are old enough to know better, refuse to greet people, because I guess they are tired of shaking hands, trying to understand Swahili, and tired of getting called over to talk to random people? It is a huge slight to ignore people in this culture, Kenya is very, very polite. To a fault. Sometimes I'm not even sure what people are getting at. To us, it may seem like nobody actually says what they mean.
Just a note of warning to others who are on similar paths: EVERYONE has culture shock sometimes. And even though I can step outside myself and acknowledge whats happening, even though I can picture many parts of my training that addressed this very thing, it can be hard to see that you are going to come out on the other side. Order will come out of chaos, given time. Unfamiliar can become familiar. But there is no rushing the process. It just takes time, and letting it happen. Trying to pull back from the process will only make it worse and take longer. So every day I go out of my gate, every day the kids and I try to meet new people and learn new words, and every night I come home and eat Nutella. (Just kidding. Wanted to see if you were still with me ;-) Thank God He is faithful. Unchanging. A solid Rock that never moves. This has been my encouragement recently.