Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"No, Really! I'm OK" and Other Cultural Misunderstandings

I mentioned earlier that most Kenyans I know are extremely generous people. Due to the issues they face, both agricultural, urban, and ethnic, they tend to be more community minded. In fact, the motto of Kenya is Harambee or "Let's pull together" and this became the rallying cry for the start of self-help groups and business cooperatives that formed post-independence under Kenyatta's regime. I find it wonderful. However, at times, it takes getting used to.

Like food. When I stayed in rural Kenya, I got fed a LOT. Of course, I could never finish my plate, which would provoke concern about my "fear of eating" (of course, any American who knows me knows that this is patently untrue). Or statements about how skinny I am, which, due to some body image hangups from my childhood, I find more than a little bit annoying (at least they're not like some Americans who told me my body would break if I attempted to have children. Don't worry, Dante and I had a talk. They're going to the twelfth circle). It's really sweet but sometimes, it feels a little forceful. "No, really! Eat more! Can I add you? Why not?" I swear, they give the Italians a run for their money (and I thought we were food pushers). Or when people offer to buy you a soda or milk. When you refuse, they always tell you it's no issue and that Africans are big on generosity. It doesn't occur to them that you really don't want either and are cool with your water. You still are made to feel bad if you say no thank you. Or you have to go into an explanation about how your doctors told you NOT to drink soda or whole milk and, even if it's true, you still feel like it's just an excuse.

Or compliments. In America, you tell someone you like their shoes and it's just a compliment, a way of saying, "You look nice today." In Kenya, you tell someone you like their shoes and they take them off and give them to you. Or they buy you a pair. It's awkward because you weren't asking for the shoes, you just wanted to be nice. And, if you wanted them, it wouldn't have been an issue to just buy them yourself. At the same time, it's rude to refuse, like you're rejecting their generosity. I've had to learn to not say, "I want xyz" or "wow, that's a really nice xyz" just so I wouldn't be put in that position.

Or needing to pamper the mzungu, especially if she's a woman. "Wow, are you sure you're OK with walking this far?" as we walk the five blocks from one matatu stage to another. "Dude, I walk much further in the U.S.!" Or worrying about me because my pants got stained in muck. "Look, it's a STAIN! I'll be FINE!" Or the need to escort me all the way to my hotel room (which feels even more awkward because, to me, it looks very improper if I'm not "with you" with you). I'll admit, this one isn't just awkward or a little strange, it's frustrating. I have always prided myself on my independence, on my ability to carry heavy things, take care of myself, bring myself home, walk long distances (by the way, I'm in VERY good shape, if I do say so myself) and never wanted to be treated differently because I have boobs. I do appreciate concern if I seriously need it. But worrying about me because I get a little dirty or have to walk from a sidewalk to a door ten feet away? After paying my own rent, doing 30 hours of manual labor a week while going to school full time (and still making awesome grades), not to mention flying here by myself, I think I'll be OK with a little shit on my shoe (yes, it's actual shit, not making that one up).

Really, I do like the generosity and I find a lot of kindness in my friends here, a willingness to share that puts me to shame. At the same time, I'm really not used to it. I've been such an independent individualist all of my life that I'm just not used to being helped with the tiniest things. And, in America, if someone offers you something, you're supposed to say no out of courtesy. So I'm not used to people insisting so much on treating you to things. It's just not what I'm used to. And yes, some of it does annoy me, simply because I don't like being babied and I never have.

Nevertheless, everyone can use some cultural awkwardness. It's good for the soul. It means you've learned something about someone and about yourself. So, even though it does frustrate me at times, I'm glad because it means I'm learning.

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