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Photo by Elke Schmidt, Senegal Bridge Year Program.

Some Thoughts on Culture Shock

My family laughs at me as I drop rice all over myself for the millionth time. We’re all sitting around the communal lunch bowl, and I’m struggling to balance the spoon in my right hand. Culturally, it’s inappropriate to offer your left hand to the public, so eating and transactions must happen with the right hand. This is quite unfortunate if you happen to be une gauchière (left-handed) like me. I want to explain that if I were using my dominant hand to eat, I wouldn’t be dropping rice everywhere, and I would look less like a total doofus. But, for fear of being culturally inappropriate, I instead just giggle and look down, embarrassed.

As Jenny later points out to me, this could be a metaphor for the cultural immersion that we’re doing here. We’re clumsy, awkward, we make mistakes, and we’re constantly dropping metaphorical rice all over ourselves. Yesterday, I emerged from the shower and encountered my brother who, in laughing surprise, asked me where my shoes were. I realized that unlike in the shower at home, we’re supposed to wear shoes in the shower here. BAM — metaphorical rice dropped. Or, for instance, as I attempted to clean my room and had to let my 8-year-old nephew take over because “I’m doing it wrong” and “it’s still dirty.” Another grain of metaphorical rice.

If my family could see me at home — the fluidity and ease with which I navigate my native culture — I would appear graceful to them. All the rice would make it to my mouth and they wouldn’t think I was such a clutzy ding-dong. But it’s not like that. I am culturally left-handed in the cultural bowl of ceebujen (rice and fish, a traditional Senegalese meal). It’s humbling for sure, but I’m learning a lot. And maybe by the end of the year, I’ll be slightly more ambidextrous