One of the things that I've noticed about myself living in a cross-cultural situation is that I often feel, well, for lack of a better term, like an asshole. When two very drastically different cultural norms for behavior intersect it can cause some conflict and it leaves me feeling sort of jerky for not doing it "their way." But at the same time I've learned that there are just some things I can't change about myself, or don't want to, even if I know that if I do it "my way" I'll look like a jerk. Let's take this past Sunday's church experience as an example.
A few months ago Chris and I switched from attending Mass in our neighborhood, Swahili-speaking church to going to an English-speaking Mass in town. We don't want to totally lose the connection to our local parish, so we popped in yesterday for church for the first time in probably two months. Unbeknownst to us, toward the end of Mass the parish leader got up and called by name members of various church committees to stand together at the alter and say a vow to working on the committee for the coming year. Well wouldn't you know, when they called up one of the first committees, the Peace and Justice Committee, they called me as one of the members. Say what!?? No one told me ahead of time that this was going to happen, nor did anyone ask if I would be interested in joining said committee. If anything could be an indicator, I had attended a meeting early in the year about possibly educating the parish on upcoming Tanzanian national constitutional reforms, but that was like probably more than 9 or more months ago and I'd not heard anything more about it. So it was quite a shock to hear my name called. Not to mention that this was all in Swahili so I still wasn't 100% sure of what was happening and what was going to be expected of me.
Now, most Tanzanians in this situation would just go up to the front of the church and wing it. They'd do whatever was expected of them without much protest or questions. But me in my American ways was not going to get up in front of the church and promise to do anything without first knowing what I was promising to do and what was expected of me. So I just stayed in my seat, probably looking pretty pissy, since I was a little annoyed that no one had even mentioned this to me. Toward the end of calling all the names of the committee members, someone from the group came toward me, tapped me on the back, and said that I needed to come up to the alter. I shook my head and said I wasn't going to get up there because no one had asked me if I wanted to join a committee. He looked a little put off, but said finally said fine, we can talk after Mass.
So the thing with this is that I didn't feel really bad about what happened; I wasn't mad or anything. Nor do I feel like I did anything particularly wrong or right. I just didn't do something I wasn't comfortable with. But I also don't think they did anything wrong. It would never be seen as a big deal to not tell someone ahead of time that they had been volunteered for a commitment. Despite this, I sat in church for the rest of the Mass feeling keenly aware of the fact that I did something very un-Tanzanian and I'm sure that I attracted much more attention by sitting there than I would have if I'd just gone up and said the pledge. In Tanzania saving face (for yourself or others) is very important. So there were probably a lot of people looking at me and wondering why I didn't just get up there. I probably embarrassed church leaders by not playing my role and people probably thought I was really mad, which I wasn't.
All of this may not seem like that big of a deal, but it kind of is, especially when we face situations like this all the time. The way we act, the way we communicate (even if it is in fluent Swahili, which it usually ISN'T), the way we hold our posture. Everything we do can be misconstrued as confrontational or offensive. In the beginning I really cared about coming across as a nice person and trying not to offend anyone. But after a while I realized that it's impossible not to offend people when you are from such drastically different cultures, even if you are super careful (as I hope I still am). And no one likes feeling like they're a jerk. So then I'm left with figuring out what to do with these feelings.
I don't really have an answer about how to deal with this. I've just kind of learned how to live with it. Actually, I am still learning how to live with it. Hopefully it's made me more tolerant of people and their own cultural differences, though I know that I can still get upset at people even when I know it's a cultural thing. In the end, it just comes with the territory of living here and the things we unknowingly agree to when we sign up for this. I agree to look like a jerk, even when I'm not a jerk and I don't want to be a jerk. All in all I'm just hoping that it evens out!