a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Friday, November 6, 2009

The W-Curve: Cultural Immersion

When I was earning my Master in Teaching, I decided to spend “Jan-term” (one course for the whole month of January) on a study tour in Thailand. In preparation for the trip, our professor took us through some cultural immersion training. There were two pieces from that training that have stayed with me. The first was that there are skills to negotiating a new culture and two crucial skills on the list are “to understand your own culture” and “to know your own limitations”. The second piece I remember from this training was a pattern that people go through whenever they experience a new culture, whether it be as obvious as Zulu language and traditions or the structure and practices (i.e. culture) of a new job. Our professor named this pattern the “W-curve”. The “W-curve” begins when you first enter a new culture. You are excited and energized. The language you don’t understand, the strange sights, sounds, and smells all seem interesting and just part of the adventure you set out to experience. But soon things start to feel less adventurous and more annoying, strange, even uncomfortable. You are no longer amused by the sound of the language but frustrated that you can’t understand it. The different smells just stink. And you long for something familiar like your favorite music and a good cup of coffee! This is the first slope of the W. And it is the danger zone. Some people never start the upslope and become so miserable they simple can’t stand it any longer, “fall off the W-curve”, and go home. But if you survive the first slope and stay in the country, slowly your frustrations become less and aspects of the new culture start feeling more normal. You start to understand some of the language and can communicate with the locals. The layout of the grocery store starts to make sense. The uniqueness of the new culture is interesting to you once again. This stage is the up slope of the W. And that is where you stay, more or less, until you return home. The second half of the W is what you experience upon reentering your own culture. The new culture is now the familiar one and you go through a similar process to adjust back to your old culture again.

Before my trip to Thailand and my first trip to Africa, I was worried I might fall off the W-curve. Thailand was difficult at first but I worked hard and ended up loving it. Tanzania was easier but I did feel myself going through the W-curve. I didn’t even think about the W-Curve this trip (move!) to South Africa. At least not until I started feeling myself sliding down the W! A little Maria Callas and a strong whole milk latte please! :)

We are meeting lots of people this week. And I’m feeling my limitations as an introvert. Trees are being planted around our home (all by hand, mind you, with shovels and pickaxes) so there are men working in our yard nearly all day. Monday we toured the Philanjalo Care Centre and Church of Scotland Hospital grounds meeting people everywhere we went. Too many names to remember even if they were familiar. But they are not, they are Zulu or Afrikaans. There is very little schema in my brain to attach these new names to. Not like a John or Donna or Joe or Audra or Stephen or Sabrina. All names to which I have memories and stories attached. We met a Mseni and a Sma, an Elzeth and a Philelani. Stephen wrote the names down, asking for the spellings. And there has been lots of hand shaking. Zulus shake your hand three times: first is like how any business professional would shake hands in America, the second is a twist of the fingers up, pivoting at the thumb not quite closing the fingers, and then the third is back to the first way again. I shook so many hands this way that when I met an American, I nearly shook her hand that way too.

Monday night we ate dinner with two other couples. Tuesday afternoon the founder of the Philanjalo Care Centre and his wife visited us in our new home. Tuesday night we attended a small group. Thursday we were invited to another dinner at which there would have been a mix of new acquaintances and more strangers to meet (the dinner has been postponed for next week - Phew!).

I was feeling overwhelmed by this flurry of interpersonal activity. But thanks to my professor and his cultural training, I know that I need to acknowledge my introverted nature and give myself some time alone to recharge. Which is exactly what I’ve done the past two days. Stephen set up my digital piano the other night, (Yes, we brought it on the plane with us in a hard music case!) and I played for hours that night and the following morning. And today I feel more balanced. The morning is absolutely beautiful. It’s spring time in South Africa and the air carries the smell of warm soil on it. I can stand in front of my kitchen window and feel the cool breeze as I look across the Care Centre rooftops to the Acacia tree covered rocky hill. Mornings in Tugela Ferry are definitely worth getting up for! By 5:00am it’s perfectly light.

Stephen has been in meetings this week. It’s a dynamic time in Tugela Ferry and he is excited to be part of the improvements in clinical care and research. This morning he left early to observe the capture of a sputum sample from a pediatric patient. As his position was newly created for him, the list of his roles and responsibilities are quite general, with the details to be worked out over time. Like most people here, he will be enlisted for any number of tasks outside his job description. But so far he understands his job to be one of organization, gap minding, quality assurance, personnel management. Nearly all of the staff he will manage are Zulu, some have degrees, some do not. But all have the opportunity for on-the-job training and advancement. In this sense Stephen will contribute to “Capacity Building” in Tugela Ferry and even the country of South Africa as many employees are from other areas. They live here during the week and travel home on some weekends.

So one week in Tugela Ferry, South Africa. While we certainly have many comforts - hot showers (now) and plenty of water in general, air conditioners, stove/oven, refrigerator/freezer (with the smart design of the freezer on the bottom), internet and cell phones...we have also experienced “African time”. The leaking toilet has yet to be fixed though the plumber looked at it on Monday. Both the front and back cement steps were scheduled to be broken down and rebuilt as they were too high, preventing the doors from opening properly; one was done the other has not been touched. But my biggest frustration is the internet, or more accurately lack of internet. I mentioned this to an Afrikaans woman the other night as she drove me home from small group. She’s been here for 21 years and her response to me was, “When I first came here we would go for a whole week without either water or electricity and sometimes both.”

Most of our interaction with people here so far has been through the organizations Stephen is working with. But we each have had brief interactions with residents of Tugela Ferry, total strangers.

At the post office the other day, Stephen stepped into the line where he could register our car (the post office handles many more duties than just sending and receiving mail here) and an apparently drunk man looked at Stephen and looked at the "queue" of old women, one in a wheelchair, waiting in another queue where they could receive their pension checks and proceeded to yell, “Whites only line!?” It might seem as if there was a special line and Stephen (though half Japanese) does nevertheless look white. Though a misunderstanding in this case, with Apartheid ending in 1994, unfair treatment of black people is all too recent.

My own interaction was far more pleasant. This afternoon I was sitting on our back steps scrubbing caked on mud off of Stephen’s shoes, when a young woman walked up to me and said something that I couldn’t understand. I think she was talking in a mix of Zulu and English because I caught the words “job” and “cleaning”. She pointed to my scrub brush, having noticed me scrubbing, so I think she was hoping she could get a job cleaning for me. I really did not know what to do or say. I don’t need to hire anyone to clean for me (if I can’t keep 400sqft clean I’m in trouble!) but maybe it would be a good thing for me to employ her. I don’t know. So I bought myself some time and asked her to come back Tuesday next week. By then I can talk with Stephen and our new friends through the hospital and Care Centre to get some input on what they think is best. Those who have lived here for a few years will know common practice at least: whether I should give her a job, what I should pay her.

This weekend we are driving the 1hr 45 minutes to Pietermaritzburg and to do more shopping. Rugs for the floors – we have some carpeting but it’s harder than the laminate, a wash tub – I’ve been promised a washing machine but it has not yet been installed so I’ll need to wash some clothes by hand, a variety of cleaning supplies and tools – with no screens on the windows and plenty of loose soil, cleaning is a full-time job! And a compost bin – for my garden. I’ll be driving, my first time driving on the "wrong" side of the road and the "wrong" side of the car!

1 comment:

  1. Sabrina!

    How wonderful to hear of your adventures so far. It sounds incredible. I look forward to seeing what God does in your and Stephen's lives through your time in S.A. We're slowly figuring out what's next for us here after the Green Bean burned down. God is still so faithful, and the community (both the church and Greenwood at large) has been so supportive.

    love to you both,
    mark mohrlang

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