Thursday, July 24, 2014

Inside My Brain

Just in case you are under the impression that cross-cultural missionaries know what they are doing, here’s a little inside look. This is part of my internal monologue during a recent new event. I had never been to a rice cleaning party before. I had been invited by the bride’s mother that morning, and all I knew was that we were supposed to clean rice for her daughter’s Send-Off on Saturday and that they needed the school’s speakers for the event. For those not from Tanzania, cleaning rice means picking the tiny stones out of the dry rice. For an event as big as a Send-Off I imagined they would need a whole lot of rice. I was right. Our best guess is that it was about 50 pounds of rice.

(Upon arrival…)

“Oh wow. They all look so nice! Apparently I underestimated the dress code for a rice cleaning party. Note to future self, dress nicely to a rice cleaning party. At least I arrived about the right time. I’m an hour later than they told me, and I’m still one of the first ones here, but not the very first one here. And look, some of them have already started cleaning rice. Something I know how to do, since we do it at least once a week every week.”

(I greet the host and start cleaning rice.)

“Ok. Doing good cleaning rice. Oh wait, I’m sitting cross-legged and no one else is. Gotta sit with my feet tucked under me or legs out in front.”

(I put my legs out in front)

“Well, this isn’t going to last long. I’m not flexible enough to sit like this for long periods of time. Tucked under it is.”

(I adjust and continue cleaning rice)

“Oh, they are just using their right hand for cleaning. Not both. Ok. Right hand it is. Man, I’m so much slower one-handed.”

(Someone comes up to greet me.)

“Ok. Here it comes… the Swahili…. O goodness she is talking fast! And it’s so hard to hear her over the music. I think I got three words out of that. Ok. How to respond? “

(I give it the good college try)

“Hmm… confused look. Guess that wasn’t it. Ok, she’s trying again. Got more. Time to respond.”

(I give a second response)

“Ok. That was better. Not great. But better. Is she giving me a look of pity? Ok. Deep breathe. Yes, Swahili is hard.”

(I continue cleaning rice after she leaves. I get to the point of cleaning where the rice is tossed in a woven shallow basket to get the chaff out.)

“Ok. I got this. Wait, how do they do it so little extra rice doesn’t fly out. Slower maybe. More intentional. Ok that’s better. Does anyone notice that I’m a novice? Hopefully not.”

(I keep working at the rice. Eric shows up to take a few pictures.)

“Yay. My partner in awkwardness. I’m saved! Or at least I won’t be the only one for a few minutes.”

(Eric takes some pictures and then leaves.)

“Oh man, my butt’s falling asleep. Time to shift.”

(More women arrive.)

“Huh. Everyone makes kelele (tradition female cry of joy) when more people arrive. I’ll have to try that next time.”

(Later more people arrive.)

“Shoot. Missed the kelele again.”

(Even more people arrive. Over 50 are now present.)

“Wow. How many people do they need to clean rice?!?,,, Remember, Linda, this is a social thing. It’s not just about the activity.”

(A woman offers to help me and takes my basket.)

“Hmm… was I doing something wrong or was she just being nice? I mean I think I’m doing everything everyone else is doing.  I’ll assume nice. Please let it be nice.”

(I help out the other women without baskets.)

“Oh man, losing feeling in my legs again. How do they sit like this for so long? Shift.”

(The woman soon returns my basket, and with a little more work the pile is finished.)

“Well it looks like our pile is done and most of the piles are done. Now what?”

(I watch the five dancers for a while.)

“I feel weird just sitting here. Maybe I should go dance. But it’s such a small group and I don’t see anyone I recognize. I’m not sure I’m emotionally prepared to be in the spotlight. Maybe later.”

(I sit and wait some more.)

“Now I feel really awkward. Maybe I’ll go talk to someone I know.”

(I find our neighbor and ask what happens next. She says that nothing happens right now, but eventually there will be a TSH 5,000 collection from each woman.)

“O goodness. I don’t know that I have that on me. I didn’t know about a donation. Maybe I’ll go home and grab it, and just take a little breather from feeling awkward.”

(I return home with promises to come back shortly. I get the money, chat with Eric for a few minutes, use the bathroom, and then return.)

“Oh, some people are already leaving. Perhaps I waited too long. I wonder where to give the donation”

(I check with our neighbor and find out they’ve already taken the donation.)

“Bummer. I guess I stayed in the house too long.”

(I find out who is collecting the money. They receive it gladly, and then a few minutes later give me TSH 1,000 back.)

“Wait, there’s change? I’m so confused.”

(I hang out some more. I see some of the people who were dancing earlier.)

“Oh, I did know some of the people who were dancing! I guess I could have danced. Oh well, I’ll dance up at the Send-off on Saturday.”

(I sit for what seems like a very long time.)

“Ok. Don’t let your American impatience get the better of you, Linda. Just be present. Hang out until your neighbor leaves.”

(I chat a little bit and sit some more. Finally, I hear from our neighbor that it’s an appropriate time to leave.)

“And another event, more or less successfully, navigated.”

This whole scenario reminded me of one of the great tips for cross-cultural missionaries in the most recent post:

Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.””

Am I always fine not knowing what is going on around me? Nope. But I’m trying to be, and that’s the first step :-) 


  1. Love the phrase "my parter in awkwardness." Definitely captures how I feel when Ashley shows up to bail me out of Kiswahili confusion.

  2. :-) Yeah, living overseas can be really hard on marriages, but it can also be really good. I think we realize how much we need and value each other now more than ever.