22 May 2008


by Cecily
Sometimes it's hard to figure which rules I'm supposed to be following around here. (well. For me, it's always kind of hard. I'm not very good at even IDENTIFYING cultural norms, let alone obeying them with a facial expression conveying the appropriate attitude. A True Story: through most of high school I thought the expression "toe the line" referred to a situation where some authority figure drew a line and then the person subject to the authority refused to stay on their side, and instead kept toeing the line. Like "oooh look, I'm on your side! Now I'm not!" As in what you would do to your younger sibling in the back seat of the car. I thought when people praised someone for being willing to toe the line, they were admiring the independent streak in a willful disobeyer of silly rules. I was totally insulted when my mother said something about how I had never been willing to toe the line, at which point we got the whole thing straightened out. Down with line toers!)

Oh, my, that was a long and tedious digression. Let's start all over again.

Sometimes it's hard to figure out which rules I'm supposed to be following around here. Just about silly minor things, I mean. Like how many times you are supposed to kiss somebody on the cheek when you meet them (three) or whether I am supposed to hug or shake hands with what age of children (I do not know).

Here is one example: We're working in a big, just-built building at the school that houses a chapel and an auditorium-type-room. We're in the auditorium. This building wasn't even built four years ago, and had some external stuff left two years ago. But now it is up and running, and has electric lights.

We hadn't been using the lights, because we're only at the school between 2 and 4 in the afternoon and there's plenty of sun to run the camera. Also, I'm not positive, but my understanding is that the school has a generator that they can only afford to run three hours a day or so, which is kept for meals and dorm rooms after it gets dark (at six pm).

So, but, the other day it was very rainy. And surprisingly dark. And one of the teachers turned on the lights for us. This was good, and we would not have been able to film anything without it, but I had (and still have) no idea how big a deal this was. Maybe it was nothing. But I don't know enough about what kind of politeness expressions are expected to understand how to navigate this situation. If I am offered something, am I supposed to accept it? Or reject it? Is one rude and one not? Should I have rejected the lights? Did I use up all the kids' bedtime hanging out energy?

Often people will just do whatever I ask, because I asked for it and I'm from America. Even when I'm not trying to ask FOR something, I'm trying to ask IF something. If we turn on the lights, will that have a negative impact later? Too late, now the lights are on.

For another example, my parents were away (they will both be back today I think. Dad was in Capetown for some USAID thing and Nancy was at an EGPAF staff retreat) for the past few days. Lindsay and I were trying to figure out how to offer to Sam the Housekeeper that he take a day or two off if he wanted.

We talked about different ways to approach the subject but ended up just not doing or saying anything, because it seemed like any way we brought it up would get interpreted by Sam to mean that we were requesting that he not come. Which we weren't. Or that he would feel obligated to take time off whether or not he wanted to, because we had suggested it. This is why I don't like studying discourse: it's uncomfortable! I don't want that kind of power in a conversation! I'd rather just not think about it at all; that way I can pretend that everyone is equal and happy and loves each other.

It's kind of relaxing, to have my automatic main role out and about be OHMYGODTHEREISAWHITEGIRLRIGHTOVERTHERE!!!!! (in Kinyarwanda: Muzungu muzungu muzungu!!!!) and as such,not really be expected to know any of the local mores. I clearly don't belong to this country plus I keep waving my hands around all the time instead of talking: who knows WHAT I'll do next. But also that means no one will tell me what the mores are, even if I ask. I always get responses to questions in French, when I ask for translations to Kinyarwanda. No meta-discussion allowed!


(tangential other story about this topic: Laura and Lindsay were in France one time and after drinking a bottle of wine together at a cafe, decided to have one more glass before they left. The waiter was taken aback, but, you know, these crazy Americans, who knows why they ever do anything, so he took their glasses away and wrapped them up for taking home. Because they accidentally asked for the glasses themselves, not "glass" as a quantifier of wine.)


Lindsay and I have taken to yelling "Muzungu muzungu" whenever we see white people, too, now. That's what the LOCALS do! We're just trying to fit in!

1 comment:

  1. I had the same frustration in Kenya where Kenyans would do things for me, as an exception, because I'm American. I wasn't sure how to approach that matter, because if I didn't accept their gesture, would they be offended? If I did, would they "hate" me for expecting things my way simply because I'm American?