02 October 2011

Don't Talk With Your Mouth Full: A Misadventure of the Cross-Cultural Type

I learned a very interesting cross-cultural lesson tonight:  we don't all build community over food.

WHAT?!?!?  Crazy!!!  I know, right!!

But, no, really.  In fact, I was teased tonight for how much talking I did during the meal!

I spent the day (literally the WHOLE day) cooking with three Nigerienne friends.  They taught me how to make a super delicious, but VERY complicated sauce with my-Italian-grandmother-didn't-even-make-them-this-good meatballs.  I've been teaching the girls how to bake cakes, so they agreed to come and teach me a new sauce.

Forgetting for a moment that I now live in West Africa and not on the East Coast, I invited a few of the guys we work with and a short-termer who grew up in Niger . . . because, hey, we're cooking a lot of food, someone got to come and eat it.

One of the boys I invited is my second favorite Nigerien (the first being, Soho of course).  We work together in the OR, and I find him to be so refreshingly honest and easy and relaxed.  But when I invited him to come for dinner, he hesitantly agreed.  And within half an hour he came back saying:

  'Wait, I don't understand.  You want me to make you sauce that you can eat for dinner?'
  'No, we're making the sauce.  You're going to come and eat it.'
  'Because if we make food, someone's got to eat it.  And besides, it's a good way to make new friends.'
  'But I'm not used to doing this.'
  'Well, it will be good for you.'
  'But I'm not used to doing this.'
  'Just come it will be fun.'
  'But all we're going to do is eat?'

He walked away with an I-still-don't-get-it look on his face.

The cooking itself was interesting.  To chop the veggies, the girls popped a squat on my kitchen floor.  Which is also where we ate lunch: one common bowl and four spoons (pretty sure we only had spoons because it was my house).

They laughed at me throughout the day . . . when I made mistakes like showing a girl to the bathroom when she was asking for a spatula . . . or when I handed them soy sauce when they were looking for pineapple extract (but, really, who has pineapple extract laying around?!?!) . . . and I lost count of how many times I inappropriately used my left hand.

But then there was the meal.

The girls sat on one side of the room and the boys on the other.  I felt like I was at a middle school dance, minus the crepe paper and cheesy music.  No one really knew what to do. I tried to facilitate conversation, but it was humorously awkward from an outsider's perspective . . . but they so clearly didn't want it to be.

Eventually we moved from the couches to the table which is where I really made a cultural fool of myself.  After the food was dished up, and a prayer was offered (that's another story!), everyone began to eat.

But no one talked.

Not one word.

So, being an attentive hostess, I decided to break the ice and get the conversation going.  I'm not sure what I asked, but in response everyone just blinked at me.  Assuming no one heard the question, I asked again.  Someone mumbled a very a short response.

More silent eating.

I tried again.

This time they all looked at each other.

My third question was met with giggles, snickers, and some in-Hausa-amongst-themselves chatter.

Eventually my second-favorite-Nigerien spoke up and asked me if chez moi we have a word in English for someone who discusses new ideas while they are eating.

It was now my turn to stare blankly.

Thankfully the-only-other-non-Nigerien-in-the-room explained to me that here, normally, people don't ask each other questions while they are eating.  In fact, they don't really converse at all.  It shows that you've lost interest in your food.

Suddenly, I was speechless.  Shamefully, not because I was trying to be culturally sensitive, but simply out of sheer shock (was that an excessive use of the letter 'S'?  Totally unintentional, I assure you!!).  Six of the people I was sharing a meal with HAVE PASSED THEIR ENTIRE LIVES IN CONVERSATIONAL-LESS EATING!?!  I couldn't believe it!

They continued to tease me by asking for more topics of conversation.  At that point, I was introspectively trying to image what the past 30 years would have been like if I had eaten in silence . . . and was now at a complete loss for words!


Bobnrobn said...

I like that idea....no talking while eating.....noone could complain about the food!!  =)

Linda Thomas said...

Hilarious!  Love your blog!!!

Shal said...

How funny! So much of the rest of the world bonds over meals, don't they?

Beth said...

You are such a great cultural observer...techinically, I guess that would be after the fact! :) But hey you are learning. I think you're going to have to write a book with all this fodder.

Matthew Megill said...

Yeah, its weird... there's even a word for it, 
'Santi' is a Hausa cultural concept which is hard to
define precisely. It always involves

some kind of remark during eating. This will typically be a complimentary

about the food itself or about some thought not directly related to the meal

to the mind of the speaker, for example a comment about nice clothes or about

how fat one‘s livestock
are. To commit santi is
considered boorish or unsophisticated.

Kari said...

Wow.  Talk about a cultural difference, and how much it changes things. 

Deb. said...

HA HA HA!!! Leave it to me to be boorish and unsophisticated!!! HA HA HA!!!

Deb. said...

I know, right!!

Deb. said...

Well, if there wasn't so much vinegar on the salad, no one would complain!! I mean, uh . . . I LOVE YOU MOM!!! YOU'RE THE BEST COOK IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD!!! (And you should probably pack your own balsamic, I don't keep any in my house on principle!)

Deb. said...

Thanks Linda!! Happy to hear I'm not the only one laughing! :)

Deb. said...

Interesting, isn't it!!

Deb. said...

Yup, learning . . . and laughing!! :)

Kathryn said...

Yeah, it's hard to get your mind around hey?! Same happens here. They've got words like that (suddenly breaking into conversation while eating) in our language too! (Not that I know the word!!) And they aren't compliments!

Deb. said...

That was actually my first question . . . if it was okay to compliment the cooking or 'mmmm' if it tastes good. I'm pretty sure there are some things I'm NEVER going to get used to! :)