Waiting to fall apart
Reflecting about how I acquired my intercultural competence, it helps looking back to my very first work in international cooperation, and draw some lesson learnt from a time, where I was young and green.
Adapting to a new culture
Preparing myself for my first assignment abroad, Mozambique back in 1998, I was given a book about the psychological process one lives through when adapting to a new culture (the book was called “Nutids-normader” in Danish). The process was described as initial interest in the exotic, followed by growing frustration over, not being able to read the social codex as you use to do. After some time, your norms and values are challenged, and you move to a state of “cultural chock”. This may result in a breakdown, followed by a time, where you connect the broken pieces and adjust to the new environment.
The book helped me to understand that it is perfectly normal to be tired and exhausted at 8 PM because of the strange things I deal with during the course of the day.
And while I was prepared for things to
fall apart, I started to build my local
network of colleagues and friends.
With my logical and sharp mind, I tried
to understand the social and cultural
norms I was surrounded with. But, of
course, my perception of things had to
fall apart and be re-constructed in a
new way. I soon figured out that I
could only come half way with my own
logic and needed to let go of the
Known, to understand the Other that
Respecting the ancient spirits
In the beginning I was not explained the reason, why my car got a puncture every time we passed a certain place. My logic suggested that there were nails or stones that cut the tires, but this was not the case. I was told that I had angered the spirits by not paying respect when passing the grave of a local chief further down the road. I had not noticed that the radio was turned off and everyone except me stopped talking while passing the grave.
I also did not understand why a construction supported by my employer IBIS was facing problems all the time; water pipes busted, roof tiles blow off, and window fall down. Well, for me it was clear that the construction did not live up to quality standards. But for the users of the house, the reason for the challenges were to be found on the spiritual level: Important rituals that usually are performed under construction to protect a building from bad spirits had not been practiced; it was exposed to the negative energy from envy people and ancient spirits.
I wonder why my colleagues did not tell me this earlier. Maybe they thought I would not understand, though I define myself as an open-minded person. We then conducted the ritual, and the development agency paid for the chicken blood needed for the protection. And since that day, everyone was feeling much safer as before.
I then understood that my local colleagues and friends are trapped between the so-called western logic, adapted through education and work, and the traditional believes, passed on by the elders at home. Two parallel realities exist at the same time and both are real for those who believe in it.
I made these experiences while I was waiting for the cultural chock to come. I only discovered later that I already had adjusted the new setting and had somehow become part of it. I got used to an environment where normal views were challenged and fall apart, until I understood and created a new view. And slowly I became more like them, all while I was waiting to fall apart.