As an expat, are you ever confused about something you see or hear in your foreign environment? Dumb question. Of course you are. Cultural confusion is inescapable in the expat life and I’ve suffered or enjoyed it many times.
Below is the story of one of the many moments of befuddlement I experienced in Ghana, West Africa. It occurred during a conversation about children, family and work; a conversation with Jerome, the husband of our housekeeper Leah. We had just returned from home leave the night before.
I love this photo by Petr Kosina
THE LITTLE ONES: DON’T PUT YOUR MIND ON THEM AT ALL
A sunny African morning. Ali is watering the garden, Leah is in the kitchen doing the breakfast dishes and my mate is getting ready to go back to his office for a new day of toil. My job this morning will be to empty the suitcases and go grocery shopping to restock the fridge and pantry after having been away for a month. Home leave is a stressful affair. So many planes to catch, so many people to visit, so much stuff to buy — books and underwear and vitamins. It’s always nice to come back to our house in Ghana and be happily greeted by everybody. Leah and Jerome’s little daughter Emilia was especially enthusiastic with her helloI’mfinethankyouferrymuch!
As my man opens the door to leave, Jerome, the restaurant chef, makes an appearance, apologizing that he was not able to wish us welcome when we arrived home last night because he was at work until late. He offers the standard questions.
How are our parents? In good health? And the children?
Everybody is fine, we assure him.
He lingers, saying he traveled to his home town in his native Benin last weekend to deal with family business. We talk about children, about money and education. We tell him our younger daughter, who is in college, works part time as a waitress to earn money for clothes and personal expenses.
His eyes grow big. “C’est pas vrais!” he says, unbelieving, his English failing him. We are rich people from the West. Surely our daughter wouldn’t work as a mere waitress!
We tell him she does, indeed. Working is good.
Jerome has several children from an earlier marriage in Benin and wants the oldest to train as a medical worker in a clinic. I’ve been confused about the number of children he has, so I ask him once again how many he has altogether.
“Four pickin,” he says. “Three sons, 17, 15, and 12 years. And one daughter, 8 years.”
“Two daughters,” I say. “Emilia, too.” Emilia is three. She lives right here and he dotes on her.
He laughs uneasily, hesitating. Yes, he says finally, but not really, because she’s very little.
“But she’s your daughter,” I say.
Jerome notices my confusion. He explains that you don’t count your children until they’re five and can carry things and help. Until then, he tells us, “you don’t put your mind on them at all.” He laughs some more, shaking his head, as if this is the simplest thing in the world to understand and we’re dumb obrunis to not get this. “You don’t put your mind on them at all,” he says again.
This from the man who last month took Emilia, who had hurt her arm, to the clinic while three people had assured him there was no need just yet. Children in the street had playfully yanked her arm too hard and probably pulled a muscle. Emilia was refusing to use the arm, but it was getting better a little already. It was not broken or swollen. Leah was not worried, saying it would get better by itself, and both my husband and I had examined Emilia’s little arm and said that it would not hurt to wait a couple of days to see. Three people trying to tell him waiting a day or so would not hurt.
But Jerome looked worried and put his hand on his chest. “But my heart is not feeling easy,” he said, and took her to the clinic anyway, where they told him that the arm would heal by itself. But when he counts his children, she’s not in the numbers.
You don’t count the little ones because so many children in this part of the world never make it to the age of five. Traditionally, babies don’t get a name until they are a week old. A naming ceremony is held, also called an “outdooring” because the baby is brought outside and presented to the world. It’s a joyous occasion with lots of celebrating, gifts and music. And of course the generous pouring of libations for the gods and ancestral spirits. The baby is all dressed up and sleeps through most of it in the loving arms of all around.
Still, you don’t really put your mind on them until they are five.
Have you ever suffered from cultural confusion? I’d like to hear your story! And if you’ve never been confused, befuddled or bewildered in your travels, tell me your secret.