Saturday, December 5, 2009

Cultural Sensitivity

I didn't write much last week because I was in such a terrible mood that every time I tried to organize my thoughts, I ended up with nothing but a series of complaints and depressing self-reproaches.

Things are starting to get better again, though. It helps a lot to have other volunteers in town, and talking with my roommate especially has helped me to figure out the source of some of my frustrations and to try to relieve them.

One thing that has really been wearing on me is the continual effort of trying to be cross-culturally sensitive. It can be exhausting to have to put so much thought into things one would take for granted in the US; for example, figuring out what clothes to wear. In general, people dress more conservatively here, but not as conservatively as in Kenya (though this may have more to do with the fact that I am in a larger town and not a small village, as opposed to representing a broad difference between the cultures of the two countries). Tank tops and tight clothing seem to be completely fine. Shorts I haven't quite figured out yet. Some people have told me that anything above the knee is considered provocative, while others have said that times are changing and the younger generation will not take offense at Western clothing. I see others wearing shorts, but I don't know if that means that it is OK for me to wear them – with about a thousand students at the school, half of whom are in one of my classes, I'm bound to run into students any time I leave the house, and I want to maintain some illusion of respectability.

Anyway, I mention this just to show how much more complicated simple things become in a foreign culture. What's frustrating about it is, because the people here do not have to put the same kind of thought and effort into acting appropriately, it can feel like an enormous amount of effort goes into something that is completely unappreciated. And it can be irritating to feel like it is a one-way street; people often say or do things that seem extremely rude to us as Westerners. For example, people do not hesitate to tell me and my roommate how fat we are looking. Even if I know this is meant as a joke or a compliment, it's very, very difficult to hear it without feeling shitty, especially because I feel so very bad about my appearance here in general. Or as an example I've used before, people do not hesitate to ask for money, food, my phone number, or even my laptop – sometimes even before they've told me their names. It's difficult to put up with what seems like unbelievable rudeness when I feel like I'm putting so much energy into acting in a way that will not bring offense to others.

(. . . Huh. I meant for this to be an entry about body image and cultural differences in the assessment of beauty, but once again, somehow the writing has taken on a mind of its own and gone in a completely different direction. Another day, then.)

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