Cultural Adaptation Whack-A-Mole

A few weeks ago, we taught an all-day seminar. At the lunch break, we were invited to a back room in the church set out with a table for lunch. Our hosts seated us, offered us a cold beverage, and excused themselves to bring the food.

I looked around and noticed a bowl of water with what appeared to be perhaps a bit of soap in it on the table. For washing hands maybe? But what were we to do with it? Were we supposed to dip our hands in it? Wait for someone to come back and offer it to us? What if it wasn’t soapy water? What if it was part of the meal? Don’t laugh. It wasn’t obvious exactly what it was. Awkward.

We looked at each other and wondered, but we did nothing. Soon, our hostess came back in with a towel over her arm. She picked up the bowl and presented it to me. “Do I wash my hands in it?” I asked, hesitant to plunge my hands into the bowl. She chuckled a little and nodded, and so I washed and she handed me the towel.

Ta-da! Nailed it!

Next, we were each served a plate of food. The portions were more than generous. In fact, there was more food on my plate than I could eat in an entire day. Rice, two baseball-sized portions of fufu (a local starch made of pounded manioc.) some sauce, half of a good-sized fish and some chicken pieces on the bone.

Chicken and rice, served to us at a pastor's home in Lome, Togo. I was thankful there was no fish this time!

Chicken and rice, served to us on a different occasion at a pastor’s home in Lome, Togo. I was thankful there was no fish this time!

Chicken Kedjenou (top left) with rice.

Chicken Kedjenou (top left) with rice.

Oh dear. More awkwardness. Did I have to eat it all? I’m not sure I could. What about the fish? I don’t really like fish and this one showed much more evidence that it had recently  been a living thing than a salmon filet would. How much do I have to eat to be polite? Do I have to finish it? And the bits of chicken—it was really tough. They like their meat “craquant,” crunchy. Nothing tender about this chicken. Was it acceptable to leave some meat on the bone?

Finally, I took a deep breath and just did it. It was easier, because, surprisingly, nobody came to eat with us. We were the guests- it is polite to leave us in peace. I ate as much as I could. I picked at the chicken and fish to make a good showing. Did I offend anyone by not finishing? I still don’t know, but I don’t think so.

♪ Awk. . . ward ♪

Culture shock is a serious thing. We had a whole course on it before we left for the field the first time, but much like trying to explain to someone what it is like to have a newborn baby, nothing ever prepares you for the full force of it.

But this isn’t culture-shock. This is a tiny little snowflake on the top of the iceberg that is cultural-adaptation. This is culture surprise.

Culture surprise can pop up at any time. You are going along, having a normal day when all of a sudden, you find yourself in a situation that you don’t know how to correctly respond to. All of your own cultural practices are irrelevant, but without the anchor of what you know to be polite behavior, you are left feeling awkward. Uncomfortable.

In the first few years in a new host culture, culture surprise pops up like a game of whack-a-mole. Pretty soon, you learn to navigate more and more of those surprising situations, but I’m told that they even pop up when you’ve been here a long time. Just not as frequently.

We had a meeting today at our house, planning next year’s children’s curriculum with five Togolese men. When the meeting was over, we served them lunch.

I had ordered rotisserie chickens, fries and coleslaw from a local restaurant. The food was more than an hour late and I was so embarrassed. I apologized profusely, only to realize that late is normal here. I was the only one worried about it. They were happy just to visit, assuming that the food would eventually arrive and nobody would starve in the meantime.

When the food did arrive, we served it “American” style- rather than serving plates and presenting it to our guests, as they would do, we set out a buffet on the kitchen counter and let them serve themselves.

Have you ever noticed that Americans know how to do a buffet? We know who should go first. We know how to walk down the line. We even know how to compare how much food is on the table with how many people there are before we decide how much to take. It was evident from our guests’ awkwardness that they weren’t quite sure what to do. There was a lot of nervous laughter.

♪ Awk. . . ward ♪

Then we all sat down to eat. And it was silent. Silent as the grave. Well okay, silent as the grave if the corpse were eating. But there was no conversation. This is the way the Togolese people eat–They talk before. When the food comes, they eat. Phil and I were the only ones uncomfortable with the silence. We tried to start a conversation, telling them they had to have a meal American style, but the conversation died quickly, so we just ate too. Then, as suddenly as it had stopped, the chit-chat started again. Everyone had finished eating.

Afterwards, as I was clearing up the meal, I noticed that they had all cleaned the chicken bones- I mean you could have reconstructed the chicken’s skeleton- those bones were so clean. But a few of them had left large chunks of white meat on their plates. As I scraped the perfectly good white meat into the dog’s bowl, I thought, “No American would leave this much white meat and still clean the bones this well.”

Culture surprise pops up again. I wasn’t offended. And I realized that I probably don’t offend them either when I don’t know how to behave during something as simple as a meal. As long as we all do our best to be polite, the rest falls into place.

I hope our guests didn’t feel too awkward.

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