Adapting to a new culture comes in stages. So does rejecting a new culture. Ironically, they can both start in the same place. The crucial difference comes when we decide to push through our initial resistance.
I’m not an expert on adapting to culture. My right to speak about it doesn’t come from expertise, but from the reality that we’re all finding our way and it’s more a process of learning to walk than of gaining a right understanding.
Nicaraguan culture is extremely different than U.S. culture. You could go back and read that three or four times to emphasize the point. Of course, many other cultures in the world have greater contrast with U.S. culture, the one in which I grew up, and I would likely be working harder at this if I lived in one of those. But I live here, and I’m learning to live here, to be here. We all are, unless we have simply given up and decided we hate it here. That would be “reject.”
None of this is clean. We don’t travel directly through these stages in some nice, linear fashion. Neither are we going to reach “embrace” for every aspect of the culture which we’ve adopted.
I’m not talking here about parts of the culture that are blatantly sinful and counter to God’s Kingdom. I just addressed that in Something I Hate. Of course, one can debate whether this or that part of a culture is bad because it pisses one off or because it is inherently evil; we’re inclined to justify our anger and struggle by putting spiritual labels on personal issues. Gotta watch out for that.
I’m giving personal examples for each of these, describing only my own journey. Please hear this: I’m not judging Nicaraguan culture with these descriptions, but my process of learning to live within Nicaraguan culture.
I don’t hate this one as much as some. My wife is an incredibly patient person, and she gets legitimately angry at some of her experiences of visiting businesses here. In many larger businesses I’ve visited, it isn’t simply ordering from and paying that same person. Often you order from a sales person, pay a cashier, then receive your paid-for item from a third person (a giver? A hander-overer?). They’re trying to avoid theft; I get it. Recently, we decided to buy a new phone. The telecommunications companies have notoriously challenging customer service for many of the gringos with whom I’ve compared notes. On a recent visit, we were trying to get through in a hurry. That’s a bad idea–we were setting ourselves up. But you don’t always have a choice, even when you know it’s doomed.
We were buying a new phone. We knew what phone we wanted. We waited forty-five minutes to get to speak to the salesperson. That means we are sitting in our chairs, with about half a dozen Nicaraguans, and seemingly no one is moving. There are two salespeople waiting on customers…for a really long time. Coming from where we do, this would be painful–two salespeople, 10 people in the store, forty-five minutes to get to the front of the line for what, in our minds, should be a 3-5 minute transaction. But looking around the room, there are nine (9) employees present. There is the cashier. There is the hander-overer. There are three people sitting behind desks with computers, and I have NO idea what they are doing. They may be working incredibly hard…though from what I can see they are talking on their own cell phones and walking back and forth to chat with one another. And there is a woman doing the cleaning. She, at least, is demonstrably working. But there are 9 employees present for the 8 clients, and we wait most of an hour to speak to one. Then, giving our order as efficiently as possible, we are directed to the cashier. He is very nice. He asks us if we’d like to pay in cordobas or dollars. Hmm, we say. Dollars, sure. Great, he says, and takes our money. He then sends us to the hander-overer. This person looks at our order, written on the paper we have delivered from the salesperson, and the receipt, provided by our cashier, and says, “No, you can’t pay with dollars. You can only pay with cordobas.” Okay, that’s fine. We can do that.
No, no. Because the paperwork was filled out in dollars, we have to go back to the cashier and repeat that step again. It’s not quite starting all over, it’s not quite going directly to jail without passing go–but it feels like that. Kim grinds her teeth, does her best to keep speaking in her kind, polite voice, and returns to the cashier line to wait her turn to pay again, with the one currency that will lead us to a successful transaction. Sometimes it feels like playing one of those board games in which you have to make choices, but one of the choices is a dead-end. We allotted an hour for this purchase. At one hour and forty-five minutes, after I have gone out twice to get other things done while Kim waits (it’s a mall), I return to find her signing and saying her “thank you’s” and we’re out.
That doesn’t describe the interaction when we’ve had a problem with our bill or our service. That’s just trying to buy a new phone, trying to give them money for something they sell. It feels to us like 25 minutes would be too long, but an understandable amount of time.
The part that rubs: we often experience employees as seeming irritated and hassled that we are attempting to do business.
In our experience, Nicaraguans are friendlier to strangers than people in the U.S. are. They will greet you more often, they will stop and help if you are having car trouble, they are always willing to give you directions (that may or may not lead you to where you hope to go). But because of the high value on commerce, most employees in the U.S. are trained–and required–to be polite, or at the very least civil. Nicaraguan employees are paid poorly. Businesses, for the most part, don’t have the “Time is Money” or “Customer Satisfaction Is Job One” mottoes. “The Customer Is Always Right?” Oh, my, no.
So we feel slighted. No, stronger than that. We feel mistreated. Sometimes abused.
But I know much of our offense comes from having to wait. We’re AMERICANS! We don’t wait. Nicaraguans do. They know how to. They don’t expect that everyone is working to help get them anywhere on time. They’ve waited all their lives, many of them, and they simply accept it as part of life. So a large percentage of our offense is entitlement. And we describe this as, “Why do they do it like this?” A friend and I were in a photocopy shop. The “line” was about four people deep, maybe five across, and the way to get waited on, the only way to get waited on, was to shove to the front and get the attendant’s attention. If you didn’t get them to make eye contact and take your order, you were never going to get your copies. I want to be polite. I’m here as a missionary, remember? Spreading Jesus’ love wherever I go. So, throwing elbows and employing boxing out techniques I’ve learned in basketball, I fight my way to the front while spreading the love of Jesus.
I don’t know if I’ll ever reach “accept” on this one. Kim and I really try to remember our “flexibility and humor” rallying cry. Sometimes we can’t find the humor until afterward. Sometimes we lose every trace of our elasticity. Sometimes we are doing our best merely refraining from everyone’s stereotype that U.S. folks are rude and impatient and believe they are entitled to special treatment. Because everyone gets the treatment we believe we are entitled to…where we come from.
You know you are rejecting the culture when you can’t stop saying, “Where I come from..
Negotiate: Public Transportation.
By “negotiate” I mean one is still trying to work out a compromise between doing things in the familiar (i.e. like “back home”) manner and adapting to how things are done in the current home. I am in the negotiation stage with many cultural facets here. I recently described my struggles with a particular taxi driver and the larger questions it raised for me. A couple days ago, I had a really pleasant, surprisingly successful travel experience. My walk to school is 45 minutes if I’m race walking the way my mom taught me to back when she was winning trophies. On this day, my son was home from school, “sick.” He didn’t feel well the night before, was running a low-grade fever, and we decided to let him sleep in…which he didn’t. Kim drove away at 6:40, and by 7:00, he was trying to get me to play basketball or throw a disc with him. I don’t need extra challenges to run late–I have highest expertise in solo-lateness techniques. If there were a Nobel Prize…but I digress. I was trying to spend time with my son before I left, so I gave that priority and left with only enough time to walk part of the way.
I didn’t really want to take a taxi, because I still had a sour taste in my mouth from the previous experience. But a taxero stopped about half a kilometer into my walk. When I told him where I was going, he said he could only take me to Kilometer 8. I thought that was pretty close to my destination (Kilometer 11–yes, I’ve got that math), so I took it. Turns out, I’ve never seen the Kilometer 8 sign because it’s the closest intersection with the highway, still in the city proper. So he cut off maybe 15 minutes of my trip. But, he asked for only twenty cordobas (83 cents). He was going the opposite direction of our school, so he tried to signal another taxi for me, but I didn’t really want to commit to a taxi driver sight unseen–part of my precautions–so I just hustled my way across the street. Nicaraguans cross large highways by crossing halfway, standing in the middle of the road, literally on the yellow line, while cars and trucks whiz by on either side, then crossing when the final lanes clear enough. I don’t like doing that, but this was a busy time on a main highway, and I couldn’t get enough of a window to sprint across the whole way (even with my blazing 47-year-old speed), so I did it…holding my breath, feeling the cars zip by way too close for my comfort. And I got across fine. Negotiate. I don’t love it, I know it’s done, I will do it sometimes, but I still prefer my own method of doing things.
I walked about fifteen or twenty minutes, using all the time I had left, hoping that a familiar face would pull up and offer me a ride. Instead, a mototaxi (three-wheel, motorcycle-adapted-into-public transport) pulled up and asked me if I wanted a ride. I’ve had bad experiences with motos, too, and even swore I would not take one again (swearing you won’t, ever again, and then doing it again when you need to is a strong sign of Negotiating). He had a Nicaraguan women in his moto already. How much? “Diez cordobas.”
So I hopped in, and arrived at school for thirty cords (plus some tips, which I was happy to give this time) with a good stout walk, precisely on time.
“Negotiate” means sometimes I am still fighting for it to work the way I expect it to, other times I’m dealing with it the way it is, and I’m always trying to reconcile it with how “things should work.” Meaning my preconceived notions based on my life in a different culture. Unlike “reject,” when I negotiate I take into account that I have some positive experiences and let those influence my overall view that maybe this isn’t so bad. With “reject,” those are just anomalies that prove I’m right that it could be better if they’d just do it my way!
Accept: Harmony Over Truth
Nicaragua is a “warm culture.” Relationships are highly valued, as is harmony within relationships. I love how people will take the time to stop what they are doing and talk when a friend comes by, or when they are meeting someone for the first time.
Along with these values, Nicaraguans in general prefer to avoid direct confrontation. Some cultures are very blunt. Here is an example of what “no” sounds like in Nicaragua:
“Can you come to the meeting on Tuesday?”
“I will try my absolute very hardest to be there.”
That means “no.”
it takes some getting used to. Anything less than, “Yes, I assuredly will attend, wild horses couldn’t keep me away” most likely means “I won’t be coming.” And sometimes “yes” also turns out not to mean, “yes,” but instead means, “I know you want to hear ‘yes,’ so I’m saying ‘yes,’ but I can’t.”
If you are very direct and were raised in a family where people held telling the explicit truth above every other consideration, this can pose a hard transition. (Similarly. if you were raised in a highly punctual family or sub-culture–U.S. in general is more punctual than Nicaragua in general, certainly as relates to business)–Nicaragua can feel disorienting and frustrating. That isn’t so much of a concern for me.) I wasn’t, but I have felt some anger over “I thought you told me…” before I learned to understand how this speech works. It’s tricky. Once I understood the mentality better, it helped me to hear the message more accurately.
To cause people disappointment here is shameful. The harder you press someone to do something you want them to do, the more you encourage them to tell you what you want to hear. They tell you what you want to hear because they care about you, and because they do not want to experience the vergüenza of having to tell you “I can’t,” or “that’s not possible.”
Until you grasp this, you can be fluent in Spanish but still be speaking a different language. Later, after you have felt hurt that a friend lied to you–because we read it through our cultural lens, where telling me you’re going to be somewhere and then not showing up is lying–you go back and confront them…see above. I’ve heard some far-fetched explanations. The cultural agreement is that we are trying to have harmony, so I wasn’t really supposed to follow up and put the thumb screws to why you didn’t do what you said. My friend is looking at me, thinking “I told you I would do my best [i.e. uh-uh], why are we having this conversation?”
Accept: Do what you gotta do when driving.
This one will probably scare my mom. But honestly, I believe this is part of learning to be safer here. When visiting my family in Chicago, we were riding with my sisters on a busy highway, approaching a stoplight, when suddenly the pickup in front of us threw their vehicle into reverse and came at us. My sisters expressed their surprise (I would never say my two adult sisters screamed) as the truck came toward our bumper, then swerved right to pull off the road and swing around to go the opposite direction. Impressively illegal move. My wife, daughter, and I didn’t blink.
I’ve learned, in Nicaragua, to look both ways when preparing to cross one way streets, whether I’m driving or walking. People here drive the wrong way on One Ways, not all the time, but not only when they fail to recognize they’re going the wrong way, either. They do it when they need to get somewhere and this is the reasonable route. I know, it’s not safe. But freaking out doesn’t keep drivers from making that decision. Drivers pull halfway across an intersection, like I described with pedestrians, except cars and trucks can’t hide on the yellow line in the middle. In busy traffic, they will do this and force the oncoming vehicles to stop and let them complete their left turns.
I’ve seen buses make three point turns across four lanes of traffic. I’ve seen innumerable u-turns directly in front of “No U-Turn” signs. Some of you reading this in the U.S. right now are likely thinking, “Oh, drivers in the U.S. are just as bad or worse.” First, I disagree. It really is different here. Second, I’m not talking about bad or worse. I accept this. People do it all the time. I don’t like when it leads to accidents. But we joke about “the suggestions of the road,” and that really, in practice, is how it works.
I see three basic categories of foreign (non-Nicaraguan) drivers here: those who absolutely hate driving here, who feel stressed out every moment; the majority of us, who spend a period of adjustment white-knuckling the steering wheel, but learn the system and adapt; the adventure-lovers who find it a challenge–or a live version of Mario Kart–and enjoy it from the start. A crucial part of acceptance is learning that my emotional response has absolutely no impact on the reality I’m facing. It sounds funny when I say it that way, but the emotional experience is that somehow, if i scream and yell and invent new profanities enough, people will cut it out and behave correctly. Because they should.
They won’t. I may get an ulcer, or suffer apoplexy, but this is how they drive, and this is how they’re going to drive. And so it goes.
The exception for me, thus far, is how drivers, when I am waiting to make a left turn onto a highway or busy street, will pull up beside me and try to make that same left-hand turn as soon as they can. I’ve had three “rows” of vehicles where there should be one turn lane, competing to see who can get across first. That one I still reject. I get very angry. But I have to emphasize (to myself): my anger changes nothing. Except for my face. And my heart. And how I treat my children, if they are unlucky enough to be in the car when this is happening. And those are pretty good arguments for acceptance.
I’ve done some driving here that I would never have done in the U.S. I’m pretty sure most ex-pats in my community would say the same. If I have to get in the wrong lane to avoid a pothole that would pop my tire, the oncoming driver doesn’t blink, because he or she gets why that needs to happen. I doubt I’ll ever choose to drive the wrong way on a One Way knowingly…but embrace is the the final stage.
I didn’t set out to make three of the four of these about motor transportation, but I think these are the clearest examples for me. Nicaraguans love to honk. They honk their horns a lot. But they speak a language with those honks. I am learning to speak this language.
In the U.S., ninety percent of the times I’ve been honked at, the driver was flipping me off. Symbolically. Or not symbolically, along with the honk. I remember specifically, while studying for the written drivers’ test in Washington, that “apprising another driver of their error” is not a valid reason to honk. It follows that apprising another driver of their character flaws or questionable lineage are also not valid reasons to honk.
When i first moved to Nicaragua, I felt like other drivers were flipping me off on the road all the time. I frantically tried to figure out what i was doing wrong. “WHAT???” That was my reading their cultural cues through my cultural lens. Nicaraguans honk to let you know they are there, to warn you they are coming, to caution you against changing lanes, to inform you they are about to change lanes, even to suggest that you merge next. My friend Juan Ramon and I joke that Nicaraguans know how to say, “Hello! How are you? Greet your family for me!” through honking.
In my opinion, Nicaraguan drivers use their horns to much better advantage than U.S. drivers. if you’re walking on the side of the road, you’ll get a honk to caution you from walking in front of them. Of course, it isn’t always clear to me why someone is honking. Taxi drivers also honk to check if anyone standing by the road wants a tide. When stoplights turn green, it feels like a race to see who can honk their horn quickest to tell the first person in line to go. I don’t join that race; that still feels rude to me.
But I do drive through traffic with one hand constantly straying toward my horn. I’m not always honking, but I’m nearly always ready to honk, because it helps. I know other drivers’ honks have helped me to avoid accidents before. I’ve also seen drivers look completely startled when I pull past them or change lanes without giving them the warning “beep.” The honk is not merely accepted, it’s expected. If I want to drive safely within their system, I need to honk. So I do. And it makes sense to me.
There is also a much longer honk that means, “What you did really angered me.” I’ve embraced that, too. And others have embraced it in my direction. But the simple warning honk is a quick tap or two on the horn. It no longer sounds like someone using the “F word” in my direction. It sounds helpful. Friendly, even.