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Culturally Lagging

August 19, 2010

It hit early. Megan sent us out on a scavenger hunt within hours of arriving, to get cell phones, and chitenje cloths and answer some interesting questions about Malawi (What are Robots? And what does district government do?). Armed with little more than a vague recollection of how to say ‘how are you?’ and ‘thank you’, we made it through. But did I feel good about it? No, not at all.

I don’t like feeling like an outsider, a tourist, or a visitor. If I could skip “awkward – not understanding” stage and go straight to “highly functioning, competent, Malawian resident”, I definitely would. But alas, I have no magic wand, and no secret formula. Essentially the best I can come up with is to realize that in order to get where I want to be, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I need to push myself to make those mistakes, and enter into awkward moments, the more the better, because it means I’m learning faster.

There’s been many of these learning moments to date, but here’s one of my favourites so far:

I got on to the bus to Zomba on Sunday with my smaller backpack, motorcycle helmet and laptop bag. The first time completely on my own since arriving, I was looking forward to the trip. It was standing room only and getting quite packed. Preparing for the 6hr drive, I pushed my way to the back, squished my helmet on the overhead rack, and put my backpack at my feet, so as not to hit the people around me, and congratulated myself on being the conscientious transit rider that the TTC taught me to be.

Soon the bus filled and started to leave, but all of a sudden there was a fairly large commotion starting outside and farther up the bus, quickly spreading to the man standing in front of me. The bus stopped and the commotion continued for several minutes until the gentleman standing behind me tapped me on the shoulder and suggested that I put my backpack on the overhead rack as well. Apparently the cause of the shebang was that it was felt that a few more people could be fit into the bus, and the general feeling was that my bag was taking up one of those spots. Thankfully, my new friend Peter helped mitigate the situation and started teaching me both Chechewa and Chitimbuka. A difficult situation, left me with a better understanding of bus etiquette, a language learning partner for the duration of the ride, and a good friend with a standing invitation to dinner in Balaka with his wife and kids, should I ever be in town.

From experiences like this one, I’m learning that language is key, and it’s important to get out there on my own, away from the shelter of other more experienced individuals. When surrounded by other westerners, it’s easier to step back and let more experienced individuals take control and more difficult to connect with those around you.

I’m taking a lot of these ideas into account as I’m starting to think about where I want to live when I move to Mzimba next week. Do I live in the Boma (district capital) or outside of it? A family that speaks only Chitumbuka, or one that speaks English too? How do I find family/friends that will encourage and welcome those learning opportunities that come from not understanding? All questions in search of answers, but in any event, I’m looking forward to making mistakes, and settling in to life.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Gloria Crouse permalink
    August 20, 2010 1:07 am

    Hi there in the other side of the world! Cold with blankets, is it winter? Or maybe you are at a high elevation. Glad to hear what is going on with you. Sounds like your adventure has begun!
    Love from Michigan Aunt Gloria

    • August 28, 2010 11:28 am

      Yup, end of winter + higher elevations = some mighty cold nights. Good thing is that we’re moving into spring so its getting warmer by the day.

  2. Kelly permalink
    August 20, 2010 3:36 am

    Sounds like you are having an awesome time – making mistakes and settling in:) Miss you more then words my friend and I can’t wait to see pictures

    Love you!

  3. Sandra permalink
    August 20, 2010 1:38 pm

    As long as I’ve known you, you could always make the best out of any situation and see the positive side of things, and it sounds like you’re doing the same thing there! Who would have guessed that you’d have to be taught how to ride on a bus! 🙂

  4. August 20, 2010 8:06 pm

    Loving your blog so far Alyssa! Keep it up – hope you love Malawi 🙂

  5. Nadia permalink
    August 24, 2010 3:21 am

    So many people are afraid to make mistakes and you are looking forward to them- that is awesome and courageous. Be strong and stay safe! 😀

    • August 28, 2010 11:12 am

      I’m afraid too! Its just a good kind of scared I think. One that needs to be embraced, not run away from 🙂

  6. August 24, 2010 1:24 pm

    Excited to hear more of how you’re growing and changing towards being a true Malawian Resident on your assignment!

    Best of luck, was great seeing you in Lilongwe!

  7. minashahid permalink
    August 25, 2010 9:41 am

    Hey Alyssa,

    Great post, I’m dealing with the same questions and struggles here in Ghana! For the first time since I’ve got here I’m not completely alone in Saboba, it should be a steep cultural learning curve. I’ll keep you posted!

    much love,

    Mina

  8. Elizabeth permalink
    September 3, 2010 5:03 pm

    Wow, reading this post made me remember and relive with butterflies in my stomach all my “firsts” last year. At this moment, I don’t know that I’d ever want to do it again, but at the same time, I think I would … maybe?

    • September 26, 2010 1:39 pm

      try it… you might like it 🙂 Does it feel like a full year ago? I think I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, although I still have a long way to go. still tough, but there’s been some pretty great moments that make it all worth while!

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