Yesterday, we met a group of visitors to our church. One of them will be staying in Uganda for ~6 months working as a nurse. The others (including her Mother) are here to help settle her in. The mother asked how long our family had been here, and Jeff remarked, “getting close to a year-and-a-half…so still pretty new”.
This brought wide eyes to her mother. “What do you mean? How long does it take you to get adjusted?”
Jeff explained that culture shock tends to come in waves. Incoming interns and new staff (and we ourselves) have remarked after being here a month, “yea, it’s starting to feel like home…” But it always seems that a few weeks later, you realize that you still have no idea what you’re doing. After 8-9 months, we felt pretty well acclimated, but then at a year, we found ourselves saying, “I know we’ve been here a year, but I still just don’t get X…” We know folks who have lived here for quite a few years and can still echo that they still just don’t “get” Uganda (and Ugandans) yet.
At this point, we’ve made a life for ourselves. We know the neighbors, the ladies at the market, and the motorcycle taxi drivers down the street. We know how to clean the produce and don’t even think of drinking from the tap anymore. Geckos are welcome friends in the house and the thought of a wood floor seems strange. We know our way around Kampala pretty well and for the most part, have figured out how to get what we need to get.
But culture runs deeper than these things. Culture is why a Ugandan will tell you that you’re going the right way when you ask for directions even when they have no idea. Culture is why the word “yes” can mean about 8 different things including “absolutely not”. Culture is why the people that we invited for lunch after church one day had to scramble because our assumption (that we were each paying for our own meal) was not theirs and while we didn’t find out about this until afterwards (when one of them graciously explained this to us against all of her cultural norms), that it was Definitely expected that we were picking up the tab (oops!). This isn’t to say that these things are necessarily wrong – however much I do “get it”, they all have a rational basis behind them. This also isn’t to say that you can’t have authentic relationships. We do, but boy, you certainly can’t call them simple. As one of our co-workers said, “Ugandans may as well come from a different planet – you are wired differently!”
Ironically, as Jeff was sharing some of this with the wide-eyed mother, Jen was talking with a Ugandan about a cultural mis-fire. The incident too small to even explain – and all is well – no harm done. But yea, we’re still new…