Culture shock works both ways


Culture shock. Travelling from Canada to Mali, you expect it. So many things will be different—the language, the food, the climate …

You get settled into the house that has been assigned to you. You begin your job of teaching English at the girls’ high school. You learn to check your motorbike for snakes sunning themselves on the seat before you get on. You learn that certain English words sound like “bad” words in Bambara so you refrain from using them.

You learn that greetings are never just a hello, but rather a long and drawn out process even if simply buying stamps at the post office or veggies at the market. Hello, how is your health, how is your family, etc. etc. And every encounter is preceded with a handshake.

You learn that price tags do not exist. You bargain for everything and if you don’t the seller will often refuse to deal with you.

You came to Mali expecting things to be different, you learn as you go and lose your heart to this arid poverty stricken country, to the people who struggle and work so hard, to the warm smiles of the children.

And then you come home. And suffer culture shock again. Only this time it’s worse. You know your country and your language and your society and nothing of that has changed. But, you have changed. You see it with new eyes.

Everything is too fast. The rush of people flowing through the buildings and offices sends you running out the door in a panic. You extend your hand and people stare uncomprehendingly.

The abrupt greetings set your heart pounding. You’re not ready to do things so fast and impersonally.

Eventually you adjust, but you will never be quite the same and you will always long to return to Mali.



11 comments on “Culture shock works both ways

  1. I’ve noticed that people in Canada can pass each other on the sidewalk, even if they are the only two people on it, and they don’t even say good morning or hi or whatever kind of greeting. It’s a small blight on our manners. We could learn from some other countries.

    • When I lived in Alberta, I always thought that our climate dictated our social behavior to a great extent. In warm climates everyone is outside and thus more prone to social interaction even as simple as greetings as you pass in the street. They also move slower to conserve energy. We move fast to stay warm.

  2. Growing up in a small town in southern Alberta, everyone did smile, shake hands and chat when met. But once I moved to the larger cities, that didn’t happen so often and hardly ever in Vancouver. I am now looking for a slower pace where people take the time to stop and chat.

  3. Nigerians share a similar style of greeting with the Malieans. Interestingly too, in each Nigerian tribe there is a distinct tradition as to how a guest is received.

    Life is often different in a new place.
    But like my people always say: “He who travels a lot, gathers more wisdom than one who sits at home.”

    Off topic: did you ever purchase locally made beads and ankara fabric?

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