I mostly write about nice stories and feelings and stuff, so I want to balance out the perspective a bit as the half-way mark of my time here passes.
A lot of people say that the 6 month mark is when a sort of long-stay culture shock can set in. For me I wouldn’t call it culture shock, but ‘lack of quality interaction shock’. The biggest cultural difference that you encounter every day is the language. Despite some decent efforts to learn the local language and integrate with the local culture, I’m miles from being able to have meaningful conversations with most people in this country.
Most of my interactions with people in English or Chichewa are regarding really basic day to day stuff, or just basic greetings. Greetings are really prevalent and important in Malawian culture, but are mostly just a formality.
A lot of people are able and keen to approach me to chat, and even more to greet, just because I stand out so much. I pretty much have instant celebrity status, or at least am the instant center of attention wherever I go. Most people like attention and being acknowledged etc, but when the attention for me is so limited to always the same basic conversations or less than conversations, it’s easy for it to become totally meaningless, and eventually frequently annoying. I get greeted or approached far more than the average Malawian, with each person looking for that attention and acknowledgement from the special foreign person.
Even when approached by someone with above average English, their vocabulary is usually limited, and the conversation doesn’t go very far. You can usually guess the standard 5-10 questions they will ask before they even start.
Same goes for Chichewa though. I find myself stuck asking the same questions that I am tired of being asked, just because that’s all I know how to ask. Then I wonder if this person feels the same about the conversation as I would if it was with someone in English.
A lot of time I’m craving to know something real and non standard about someone, but I just don’t know the words to be able to ask. I end up staring blankly at the person, with a lot of meaningless “yes yes” or other similar phrase going back and forth in either language. The worst is the difficulty in just asking people how they’re doing for real. It’s so difficult to get an answer that actually describes how they’re feeling and actually doing beyond the standard “I’m fine, and you?”
Some people have the ability to strike up good basic conversations with little rapport, I admire those people. I’m just not a natural conversation striker, even in English, so this doesn’t make my quest for quality interactions any easier.
I see that most of my stories and positive experiences involve sharing activities with people here. Most of life and communication is non-verbal, so it works out pretty well in general. I have a really great time, and connect well with people in these situations. But after 6 months, the main thing I’m often craving is an easy flowing conversation on a topic that isn’t day-to-day chit chat, or basic application form information.
Sure I work with well educated Malawians in the District government, but conversations outside of work stuff, or with anyone with higher level English, tend to gravitate towards cultural differences. I’m tired of 6 months of talk about the differences between Canada and Malawi. Unfortunately my village living situation doesn’t allow me to interact frequently enough with these better English speakers. So it doesn’t allow my slower level rapport building to reach really meaningful or personal conversations. Then even with the highest level English speakers, the conversational pace is still often slower or somewhat constrained by understanding.
Then although Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa” for the great kindness and hospitality of the people, it’s also a very introverted and reserved culture. So until you greet them or get to their home, there’s often a coldness or barrier when passing a lot of people in day-to-day moving about. I find that most Malawians walk around with a type of scowl or frown on their face, and don’t respond to smiles (although there is great response to an eyebrow raise). This initial coldness from people is another factor in the whole situation. You go about feeling really disconnected from people most of the time.
When sharing more negative experiences, I usually feel I should have some kind of moral, lesson learned, or positive spin on the whole thing. I’ll just let the sentiment sit this time…