I’m an extrovert. That means I get energy from being among and interacting with people. In fact, I love people. But . . .
I’m from a cold climate culture. That’s a term used to describe people who mind their own business and are self sustaining. After all, if it’s -20 °F outside, no one stands around on the porch chit-chatting. And if the closest neighbor is a mile away, you learn to do things on your own.
In my case, the term is to be taken literally as well as figuratively. After all, I was born and raised in a cabin in the woods – in Alaska! We didn’t have a phone, electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. We did for ourselves, kept to ourselves and were proud of the independent spirit that helped define us.
Then when I was 26 years old, I came to Uganda for the first time. Remember, Uganda is on the equator and is the epitome of warm climate culture. People live very packed together in close knit extended families. The lines between private and community, for instance, are drawn up very differently from what I’m used to. In Alaska, I never stepped outside and had people along the path greet me while I’m brushing my teeth in the morning. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, as they say at home.
Just to make my point, let me bring one more example of the many, many things that a foreigner might find different or confusing about this culture. Borrowing: It is considered good manners to borrow from each other and share generously. Let’s say you have an iron box and I don’t. You feel good when I ask to borrow yours; in fact it proves to you that I’m a part of your community. If I don’t borrow from you, you feel I’m proud and unapproachable.
A person from a cold climate culture would understand if a neighbor borrowed something once or maybe even twice. And it would certainly be expected that the neighbor would return the borrowed item promptly and then buy his own. Au contraire!
In a warm climate culture both the borrowing and then the owner going to fetch it back, allow opportunity for important social interaction. So it is a point of dependency that is encouraged. Yet, as with every rule, there are exceptions. Just when I thought I had figured out the puzzle, I’m baffled by behavior that doesn’t seem to fit.
When a person is a visitor they are supposed to be completely catered for by the host, right down to soap, toothpaste and often even a toothbrush. None of this – Just pick what you need and make yourself at home – mentality. This also applies, I learned recently, to people that we having living with us long-term.
We have two men from the Busoga tribe who came for a visit and just never went home. Then we have a widow, her handicapped daughter and an increasing number of grandchildren who came to live with us because their mud hut was going to fall in on them. Things are usually on an even keel, but I find there are pressure points that cause me extreme stress. This comes from my Western mindset that when I’m putting the puzzle together, I like the pieces to match the picture on the box.
Let me give you another minor example. My husband and I agreed that since we are providing the food, the other people living here should take it upon themselves to cook the food. This had been going on well because I set out exactly what they are to prepare. But recently we were served food without any salt. It is not that the cook forgot to add it; he just felt embarrassed (and that it would be extremely bad manners) to ask for more, when the salt in the kitchen ran out. I have to admit, this made me angry. Here we are, living together with ten extra people; praying with them, ministering together, working, eating, sleeping in the same house. And they don’t even feel comfortable enough in that relationship to ask me for salt. For goodness sake, what is wrong with these people!
As is the case with many cultural differences, everyone is working hard to be the most polite they possibly can and the other party takes it as the rudest behavior they’ve ever seen. Did you know talking with someone with your hands in your pockets is very offensive, but you can pick your nose without any problem? Ugh! As Hamlet once said, “I die Horatio.”
Christians love to use the analogy from the Bible, Iron sharpens Iron. Okay, I get it. This culture takes me out of my comfort zone and I can see aspects of God that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I gain a greater dependency on Him because I’m so out of my own depth. And actually when it all settles down, I really love this sweet life of mine and feel privileged to be here. And yet, just like layers from an onion, I can’t seem to get to the bottom of this culture. And as you well know, onions add spice to food but also make you cry.