James Higby’s Top Ten Culture Clashes

Paraphrased Quotes + Explanation

10) “Aren’t you Afrikaans?”

The Afrikaans people are South Africa’s white minority, descendents of the Dutch and Portugese colonists.  Since I’m a whitey, I’m usually profiled as an Afrikaaner.  I’ve been getting incredible kicks watching people react when I respond to their Afrikaans greeting by saying “I don’t speak Afrikaans”, not in English, but in their native language.  One guy actually hugged me, it was great!

9) “So, are you from North America or South America?”

Yes, the ambiguity of just saying “America” when one means “the United States OF America” does not fail to confuse South Africans.  We take it for granted that America = USA but let me tell you, it’s not the case over here.  I can usually explain the difference to someone if they have decent English, but I’ve given up on telling people I’m from upstate New York and not the big city.  Another funny thing I was asked, on a similar note, was “So, if I want to visit you in America, which bus should I take?”  I’m guessing geography doesn’t get much attention in the South African schools’ curricula.

8)”My god, your arms are so hairy!  Wouldn’t you like to shave them?”

I’m not kidding, my host sisters were always wondering why I don’t shave my arms.  Arm hair just fascinates the kids here for some reason.

7)”You must learn at least 7 of our 11 national languages while you are here.”

I get this a lot from dyed-in-the-wool old timers.  Ok, so the suggested number isn’t really 7, but still, they tell me things like “English and Tshivenda aren’t languages I like.  Learn Zulu so we can have some deep conversation”.   It’s unbelievable how I’m expected to be a foreign language sponge just because I can say “good morning” to someone in their native tongue.

6) “If you bang the door of my Kombi any harder, I will dismember you.”

Yes, despite how ridiculously chaotic the public transportation is here, Kombi (passenger van) drivers get really steamed if you close the door hard.  This is in sharp contrast to what I learned about vehicle ettiquite in the States: Make sure the door is truly closed, and do it quickly.  Here, it’s better to try several times before getting a solid latch (quietly), thus wasting everyone’s time but saving the driver’s ears and the doors’ hardware.  The fact that half of these sliding van doors are on gummy, uncooperative hinges makes this challenge extra fun.

5) “You want to meet up at 8:00 sharp?   Sounds great, see you at 9:15.”

The notorious “African Time”.  I’d say about 60% of the arrangements one makes here will inevitably be delayed, sometimes by as much as an hour and a half.  Peace Corps training staff described it as “Polychromic Time” as opposed to the western world’s “Monochromic Time”.  The theory is that with monochromic time there is a single set schedule and people operate within it, whereas polychromic time says people are more important than the schedule, there will always be more time.  This means chronic lateness, all day every day.  Here’s how it happens:  You’re walking home, or to work, or to a “big, important meeting” or whatever and you see someone you know.  You must stop, greet each other, and ask “how’s it going?” at the very least.  And if this person actually has something relevant to tell you, take a seat and get on the African timetable!  It’s more important to show that you care about your friends and relations than it is to be punctual.  In fact, I’m writing this at 11:05 while waiting for somebody who said he’d stop by at 11:00, and I know I’ve got at least another 10 minutes.

4)”Honored guest, please eat these honorary poorly washed, half-cooked bovine entrails.  I insist.”

Ok, so this hasn’t actually happened to me yet but I’ve heard about it from some other volunteers.  I have however helped cook this special dish called Mohodu, which consists of cow intestine, lungs and stomachs (cows have 4).   It was washed and cooked properly, and no one was forced to eat it but many of the volunteers chose to do so.  The stomachs are delicious, but I’m not so big on the lungs and intestine.  Next up for exotic food is Mopane Worms.  That’s right, worms.  These adorable little grubs are a popular snack here in Limpopo.

3)”Hi, nice to meet you.  When do we get married?”

This is way more problematic for women than it is for me, although I’ve had a couple of marriage proposals and my host mum wants to set me up with a girl ASAP.  One popular icebreaker question I keep getting is “so how many kids do you have?”   Seriously though, it’s unbelievable how fast some people I encounter will try to marry an American.  This is probably because of a common misconception that all Americans are filthy rich, which brings me to this next cross-cultural instance….

2)”You should give me some money.  Just 50 rand will be fine.”

Sheesh, it’s like I’m walking around with a big sign that says “HUMAN ATM!” or something.  It’s either school kids or drunks and it never fails, they’ll hit you up for anything from pocket change to big bucks and some of them are very persistent.  I have to say, this is the single most irritating occurrence on this list.  The misunderstanding just kills me.  I say that I’m here as a volunteer to help, and I get “If you’ve come to my country to help me, you need to give me some money.”  I’ll usually try to explain the concept of helping by enabling (if the listener isn’t too drunk) but it’s not something they want to hear, they just want the dough.  What blows my mind is how casual the soliciting is, even though I’m told by most adults that it’s definitely considered rude.  Now let me tell you about something that is not considered rude (despite how offensive it seems) which happens to me literally every day:

1)”MUKHUWA!!!”

Mukhuwa of course means “white person”.  Most of the time, I hear it before I even see who’s saying it.  It’s usually little kids, some of whom have never seen a Mukhuwa before, but I get it from adults as well.  It’s a good indicator of when someone’s talking about me in Tshivenda, which most people assume I know zilch.  It’s really funny to watch them react when I respond with a Tshivenda acknowledgment.  Sometimes it can be amusing, like if a friend just jokingly calls me Mukhuwa in casual conversation, but sometimes it’s painfully annoying.  The worst is when little kids start forming a mob and chanting “khu-WA! khu-WA!”, big stadium-style.  The thing is, it’s just innocent fascination so most people don’t understand why it’s offensive.  For example, I asked a teacher at my school how to tell the kids to stop calling me mukhuwa, and he said “it’s OK James, they’re just calling you white”.  Yup, this one takes the cake.  Vocalized racial profiling in South Africa = Totally fine and politically correct.

Well, that’s pretty much the gist of it.  Don’t get me wrong I’m definitely loving it here, just thought these little anecdotes are worth sharing.  I’m officially sworn as a volunteer now and I start work on Thursday; time to try and help over a thousand gradeschool kids, many of whom don’t speak English!  Woo!  I’m going to post some pictures of my humble abode and the cooking of delicious Mohodu as soon as possible.  Peace!

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