Culturally Illiterate

By Beth

I set my notebook down on the table in front of the teachers. Today is our day to review the computer program that we have developed, to look at basic computer troubleshooting, and to think about the classes that will pick up after Christmas break. It is Friday, which is when we usually meet up and plan our lessons. It is also my last week in São Tomé e Príncipe and I am trying to leave my teachers self-sufficient, so that they don’t need me during the eight months that I will be gone. It is a difficult task and certainly not the best situation- I wish I could stay and lend a hand. But this program is theirs to develop. On their own. If they can do that, I know the future of the One Laptop per Child program here in São Tomé will be in good hands.

“Now,” I say, looking at the five of them. “Before we talk about tomorrow’s class, I wanted to go over this guidebook I made for you that will help you troubleshoot any computer problems that you may come across.”

“What class tomorrow?????” The teachers ask me, all five of them. “Don’t you remember? We’re going on a field trip!”

After about ten minutes of back-and-forth, I realize that we have, once again, hit a cultural speedbump. Last week the teachers and I agreed to take the kids to the beach the following Saturday to celebrate our last day together. I stood beside Miguel as we told the students to bring their computers to class Saturday morning, as we would be leaving for the field trip shortly after.

However, it seems as though my words did not resonate in Miguel. And what I didn’t realize is that, it just doesn’t work like that here. You either have class, or you go on a class trip. You don’t- you can’t- do both. So no matter how much you may tell someone otherwise, it’s so different to them that it’s not even remotely possible that it’s true.

Years of culture were acting against me on this Friday in São Tomé. I see some of the teachers getting frustrated with me. Language has bitten me in the butt once again.

Here in São Tomé, I am very happy and have some great friends, but at the same time, I tend to get frustrated and/or offend other people regularly. My Portuguese is solid enough that I really get to know people for their personalities and not as much as a visitor or a foreigner. Yet it’s a different world when you’re nearly fluent in a language but completely illiterate in the culture. I wonder if it’s a double-edged sword to be like this- able to relate to another person perfectly on a linguistic level without knowing their culture. Because when you are able to communicate easily with another person, it is also that much easier to assume they are just like you, culturally. It makes it easier to bicker and fight or to get frustrated.

When you don’t speak a language, I think you are often extremely open to different cultures and experiences. You treat it like a game, in a sense. The voice of adventure in you says “go!” But when you speak the language, when you can connect with these people on a different level, not only do you forge deeper relationships, but you also put other relationships at risk. If someone says something that you don’t agree with, it hits you square in the eyes and you react relative to your own culture. But if you don’t speak the language, you smile because you don’t understand anyway.

It’s a funny situation when you understand a language but not a culture. I find myself defending my actions often by saying “I’m sorry, I’m just not used to the way you guys do it here because it’s not like that in the States!” Sometimes the boys ask me if I want them to give me a ride into town, if I want them to go buy me gas for my motorcycle, or other little tasks. I am used to saying “Sure, but I don’t want to impose, so if you don’t want to, that’s ok.”

And when I say that here, people get angry with me. “Do you want to or not?????” They snap. I don’t mean to offend. I try to tell them that in the States, people don’t necessarily mean what they say, and you always have to give them a chance to back out of it. But to São Tomeans that’s the craziest idea, and something they may never fully understand.

If I didn’t speak Portuguese, would there be so many mix-ups, so many misunderstandings? Probably not, because I would go with the flow, a smile on my face. But on the other hand, how well can you know someone without understanding their words? But in an age of not always saying what you mean, is body language enough?