On Cultural Stress

So for class (“Seminar on Living and Learning in Dakar,” which is equal parts wonderful group therapy and headdeskingly awful) I had to write about what cultural intensity factors (which used to be “stress” factors, but we don’t like that word) have been the biggest for me. The cultural intensity factors we were able to reference–things like language, cultural expectations, visibility/invisibility–are basically a pared-down list of Why Field Work is Hard. If you’re interested, consult the second part of the first chapter of every ethnography I’ve read in my undergraduate career. But basically, they’re all the things you think would make living abroad difficult.

So, while thinking about that, I realized that my biggest stress factor right now (and the one that directly leads to like 90% of the stories on this blog) is that I possess a complete inability to figure out why people want me to do things now.

Do you know how difficult it is to respond to other people without the ability to predict why they’re talking to you and what their requests are leading up to? Turns out, it’s really difficult. I can no longer filter what parts of requests are really important and what aren’t. Operating in a second language, in an environment I’m unfamiliar with, has given me a mild filtering disorder. It’s disconcerting.

It’s less bad now, but I remember a particular moment about a month after I moved in to my host family, which I now think of as the Worst Dinner Ever. I had spent all day being told to move chairs and plates and bowls of rice in ways that were never fully explained because—to my host parents—they were obvious.

(Of course the rice goes in the living room and not in the dining room—we don’t eat in the dining room, and we need to eat the rice. For dinner. Which we are having now, because it’s 9 pm and that’s when dinner happens.)

After all of that, I sat down to dinner. And, because I am clumsy, I spilled water on my TV tray (which we have to use, because we don’t eat in the dining room, which has a table).

I got up to go dump the water in the kitchen sink and dry myself off in the bathroom, because—for me—that was a totally reasonable thing. It’s just what you do when water is spilled. But for my host parents, it was apparently weird; I think I was supposed to use my cloth napkin to clean myself off without leaving, instead. So, they asked me what I was doing.

I was wet, and I was frustrated, and I tried really hard and just didn’t have the words to explain in French that I needed to go dry myself off, and just started crying in the living room. In the middle of dinner. In a society that’s big on Group Working Out of Emotional Trauma. (I’m from Oklahoma, so I flee from that shiz like the plague. What up, flyover repression!)

I got out of there, managing “Secher!” (“To dry!” complete at its unconjugated infinitive) before I just kind of lost it in the bathroom. Which of course I had to explain, because I looked like I’d been crying, and it was just really, really awful.

The great part of this experience (in retrospect, as it was obviously terrible at the time) was that it basically boiled down to differing cultural expectations about whether I dried myself off with a bath towel (my choice) or a cloth napkin (theirs).

“Napkin choice” does not often make the Why Fieldwork is Hard list, but I’m hearby nominating it.

I am increasingly aware that this experience is probably going to be really, really internally valuable in the way that I am told that four month spans can be life-changingly valuable in your early 20’s, but occasionally you just have to take a step back and realizing that you are losing it over what–from any reasonable external perspective–being slightly damp and tongue tied. Which is, objectively, hilariously small potatoes.

Thus begins and ends the only time in my writing career in which blogging has given me a more reasonable perspective on the gravity of my own problems.

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