I’ve always been sensitive to how people relate to each other. I think it spawned from being the youngest child in my family: watch your older siblings blunder and made a mental note to not do that. In work places I can notice when coworkers are reaching their tipping points. When travelling with friends I can compromise on dinner plans. It is a skill that has served me well.
Being in different cultures means one’s attention to how people interact is very important. Structures around age, general economic class, and even race relations are completely different. You can’t bump into an old lady in a market in Ghana and get away with an, “I’m sorry.” (Or rather, “Kafraa, waaye.”) You’ll probably end up saying kafraa several times, carry her bags for her, and ask the details of her childhood. In fact, that bus you were going to catch? Yeah, just give her your seat.
This attitude of respect and connectivity extends to daily life. I don’t just stop by my local corner store, buy eggs, and move on. I walk up (usually around 8 pm) and theatrically slump on the bench next to the owner. I spend ten minutes looking at her 10 year old’s homework, order my groceries from her daughter, and exchange small talk with some other passing neighbors. We must, of course, inquire into the health of both her house members and mine. I pay for my goods, spend five minutes just in good-byes (Twi and English) before I can depart. Usually with a final bye-bye oooo just when I think I’m in the clear.
Everything is built on a foundation of relationships. It makes your life easier. If you know somebody who knows somebody, you won’t go into the bank and wait in line with the rest of the unconnected plebeians. You’ll call your friend’s old roommate from Uni, greet them like they’re your best friend and walk past the line directly into her office. If I’m on a hunt for the most recent statistics on the BECE pass rate for last year, I don’t go online. I don’t call the statistics/data arm of the local education department. No, I call my “friend” who works in the office and meet with him directly. The minute you figure this system out, you realize life just got so much easier for you.
Success depends on how well you navigate this system. It can lead to quicker service, “discounts” from your “market guy,” or a few extra tomatoes in your grocery bag. It’s a simultaneous mixture of ingratiating yourself, maintaining your own authority, teasing, inflating egos, and deferring an argument when it gets close to them inviting you to church. This is not to say it’s a contrived system. These inquiries are all genuine. People want to know you’re doing fine. In fact I regularly get calls from acquaintances that last a whole 30 seconds.
Random person: “Ahh, Akua, how are you?” Me: “Fine, thank you, how are you?” Random person: “Fine. Fine. Your sisters, they are fine, too?” ” ME: “Yes, yes, they are all well. How is your work?” Random person: “Oh, it is fine. Dumso-dumso is hard. Can’t get any work done.”
Me: “I understand. It is a struggle for me, too.”
Random person: “Ok! Just wanted to say hi, glad you are doing well, bye-bye ooo.”
Me: “Oh! Ok…bye!”
Maintaining and leveraging these relationships is something a well-integrated ex-pat does. As brief as some of the contact is, the brevity does not take away from the significance. Community members soon enfold you in their daily life and routines. As strange as it feels in the beginning, a new sense of home begins to stir. And this the feeling, the feeling of strange customs becoming habits, that adds spice and flavor to our lives and work.