Cultural Whiplash

Sometimes I have days where I feel reasonably secure in my ability to function in my life here in Dakar. Other times, I feel like I may in fact be completely broken. Today I had both of these experiences within about five minutes of each other, and felt what I can only describe as cultural acquisition whiplash.

The positive experience was–as almost all of my positive experiences are–an interaction with my tailor, Ousmane. I like him both because he makes me pretty, pretty clothes and because he is the most deadpan human being that I have met since leaving the United States. He’s great.

I was passing by his shop this evening with a friend when I saw him outside taking a smoking break. We waved. He waved back. Then, he hissed at me (the way that most folks here indicate, “I don’t remember your name despite knowing the circumfrence of your entire body, but I have something to tell you”).

I was too far away to respond, so I raised my hands and shrugged to see what he wanted. He pointed inside the store and shook his head–my clothes weren’t ready yet. I mimed being heartbroken, which made him laugh. I then made a sort of bumping motion with my hand–would they be ready tomorrow? He gave me a thumbs up, I gave him a thumbs up, and we parted ways. I was understood by and joked with someone from outside of my program. It was a brief moment of feeling socially functional.

Then, I returned home. Dinner was uneventful, but afterwards my social failures manifested.

“You don’t want to watch TV?” my host mother asked. I have shown interest in Senegalese TV exactly once (they were playing Brittney Spears videos from the mid-90s), so I assumed this actually meant, “Go watch TV now.” So I did.
I elected to watch some dubbed Indian soap opera, because soap operas and the easiest thing for me to follow. There’s minimal, slow dialogue, lots of reaction shots, and the basic themes of the episodes (betrayal, weddings, secret pregnancies) are easy to follow.

After a moment of this, my host mother asked, “You don’t want to change the channel?” Given that, as before, I had not shown any interest in changing the channel, I figured this was more of an order than an inquiry.

I flipped around until we landed on the Senegalese wrestling channel. I would have continued in order to find some music videos, but my host mother seemed excited. “This is more exciting,” she declared. “Better than the Indians.”
As best as I can tell, my host mother does not understand my gleeful enjoyment of terrible things, so I just went with it.

I had not realized until tonight that Senegalese wrestling–the national sport, which is followed with keen interest–is horrible. It involves two grown, large men (think football players) in cloth diapers, covered in oil, attempting to hit each other. The first one to have all four limbs on the ground for any length of time loses. The players are allowed to use the arena (which, like everything else in Dakar, is mostly sand), meaning that you get compelling shots of men attempting to fling sand into each other’s eyes.

After the sand-flinging and the slap-fighting, the wrestlers enter into a long, aggressive bro-hug. Because they’re usually pretty equally matched in strength, this can go on without much movement for a while. Then, eventually, one of them falls over (or is taken down by a kick to the leg) and the match ends.

I’m not a big sports fan in general, so I found this incredibly boring. My host mother, however, was super pleased and exclaimed, “They’re real artists!” I feel like if I was a better host daughter (and/or Senegalese) I would have been into it, but I just couldn’t manage. I made my excuses and escaped to my room, where I could sneak BBQ tortilla chips in peace.

So, on a cultural aquisition level today was a little weird. However, if my hand-gesturing went as well as I think it did, I’m going to have three new dresses tomorrow, which gives me an endorphin rush in the way that only new clothing (and also, if the government’s ad campaign is correct, meth) can. Huzzah!

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