Sunday, February 12, 2012

Potholes on the Road to Acculturation

Let's bring this back to living cross-culturally, shall we?

When I first moved to South Africa, I tried so hard to fit in that I pretended I wasn't American (or just kept quiet so no one would hear my accent).  I rejected my home culture and tried to be 100% South African.  This, of course, was not possible nor wise.

I then swung to the other end of the pendulum:  I'm American; so what?  I like celebrating Independence Day, I like eating peanut butter with chocolate, and I'm proud of my country's history of ingenuity and optimism (yes, we have our weaknesses, but let's focus on the strengths for a moment).

After that I settled somewhere in the middle:  I appreciate South Africa.  I appreciate the United States.  I'm now perhaps a little bit of both, and while I may never completely belong to South Africa (while also never belonging fully to the United States now), I have the added richness of seeing two different cultures through a unique lens.

There are rough patches on the journey of acculturation, though, that sometimes leave me feeling disoriented and jarred (even now I'm debating whether to write 'disorientated' or 'disoriented' because the English is different between the two countries).

It seems that people around the world enjoy picking on the United States and Americans. I am making a sweeping generalisation, but it comes up often enough that I find it worthy of comment.  In having to listen to jokes about Americans, I have gone from laughing with the joke teller ("We deserved that one!" or "So true!") to taking it personally ("You pick on us, but look in the mirror... are you really that different?") to feeling confused these days.
I have reached an eddy in the river of my cultural adjustment and I find myself going around and around in circles of thought whenever I hear someone picking on Americans ("We're not all fat.  We're not all stupid. I do know where Azerbaijan is on the map! I know you're not directing the joke at me personally but I do take it personally!  I am American.  How am I supposed to feel when you say 'those people' - which instantly puts a wall up between you and me?  If you only knew how hard I have worked to understand you, to learn your language, to study your music, art, literature, cuisine and history... would you still make the joke?").

I am overly sensitive at this stage.  I know that I take "American jokes" - which are general in nature - personally.  I become defensive.  I feel embarrassed.  I want to become invisible so that nothing I do gives myself away as being American.  I even want to cry at times.  Why, after four years, does this still affect me so much?

It affects me because I want to belong.  On most days I feel like I do.  I forget that I am an American living in South Africa.  I am just me - with my work, friends, ministry, life and neighbours - and I fit in just fine.  The jokes jolt me out of that security like a splash of cold water in the face, like potholes on the journey.  And I'm not very good at navigating potholes... yet.

No comments: