Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Cultural Misunderstanding

Some of you will remember how I met this guy back in June. It was quite an honor to meet His Excellency. When I met him, he made two promises to me. That he would send me a dictionary in Sidamuaafo (the language of my daughter's people) and that he would put me in touch with other Sidama people living in the U.S.
I had expressed an interest to connect with other Sidamas so I could learn more about the Sidama culture to teach my daughter. I was thinking it would be great to have a Sidama source that I could email with my questions about Sidama culture. Cause my last attempt at belonging in an online group with Sidama people wasn't so successful. Mostly because they thought I was a spy for the Ethiopian government. Don't worry, they were mistaken insane.

In August, His Excellency sent me a package that included a Sidama Dictionary and Grammar book, which I am very grateful for. And recently, he sent an email to me, giving me the contact information for two Sidama men living in Seattle. He sent my email to them as well, so they emailed me asking me to call them. I also got a follow up email from His Excellency asking if I had called those men yet.

Here's a little side note: I'm not good at calling people. For some reason I can't drag myself over to the phone to make a phone call. If people call me and I'm home... great. I'd love to talk to them. But for some reason, I never get around to calling people. I've been like this since I've been old enough to want to talk on the phone. My mom recently told me, "I've just realized that you're never going to call me and if I want to talk to you on the phone, I need to call you." I'm not sure what took her so long to realize that, but anyway, that's the way I am. And adding to that little phone-calling aversion of mine... the email I received from one of the Sidama men was very hard to decipher due to the very limited grasp of the English language. And I was thinking if it's that hard to understand the email, it will be even more interesting trying to talk on the phone. So... we had family visiting when we received their email, then I was busy getting ready to start school. Finally last night, I made myself call them.

Apparently I was right about the communication challenges that would be present in the phone conversation. I'd say the conversation comprehension was 0-30% at any given time. Now I will say that the man I spoke to was very, very nice. Here's a bit of our conversation, or at least the part I could understand.

Very Nice Man: "I'm glad you called. We are in Seattle, Washington now, but are going to move to Los Angeles now and live with you for a long time, so we can teach your children."

Me: "Uh...."

Very Nice Man: "We have job here but we will get new job in Los Angeles while we live with you."

Me: "Um, I'm not sure my daughter is old enough to learn about Sidamas just yet. She still only two years old."

Very Nice Man: "Shiferaw said there are other Sidama children living there. I can teach them, while we live with you."

Me: "Yeah, uh, I was looking for some Sidamas to be a source of information, that I could email with my questions about Sidama culture, so I can teach my daughter when she is older."

Very Nice Man: "ssoiejrlk woeirj lker woier,smen oihelsken oiejlr oijeorwie oiejr.k eiciemslie owiejxi itkdoek doekdos gnewr theoes toid oiwejl owied soie hidyl owendo qowei oidgh tieso seoisdnir seirhsl igoehs goehwl ghe giemsl woeisl etuw heuks gue otidls t itiehsl theilse."

Me: "Uh-huh?" (wait, did I just agree for them to come straight here on a bus?)

Very Nice Man: "We will live with you at your house, or you pay for an apartment for us to live there in Los Angeles."

Me: "I think there has been a misunderstanding. I'm not in a position to have you live with us or to pay for your apartment."

Very Nice Man: "A misunderstanding? Because Shiferaw said to me there are Sidama children who need to be taught Sidama language and culture and he told us to move to Los Angeles to teach them, and he said that you would take care of us."

Me: "Uh, I just thought he was going to put us in touch with other Sidamas living in the U.S. that I could be in touch with through email."

Very Nice Man: "What is it you are looking for?"

Me: "Friendship with Sidama people, where I can go to them through email and ask questions about their culture and language, to teach my daughter when she is older."

Very Nice Man: "Oh, Ok. A misunderstanding. Is it hard to find job in Los Angeles?"

Me: "I don't know. It's very expensive to live here."

Very Nice Man: "Very expensive?"

Me: "VERY expensive."

And then he offered to be that contact I wanted, where I could email or call him anytime. (though honestly, the language barrier makes it complicated)

And though I was shaking and terrified when I got off the phone, at the idea of two men ready to pack up and move in with us for a "long time"... I have to say, here were two guys, who were told by the President to leave their jobs and move to another city, to teach their culture to Sidama children. And they agreed without hesitation. Their love for their people and their desire to pass along the culture to the Sidama children is huge and admirable.

And I get that it's a cultural misunderstanding between my American culture and their Ethiopian culture. Perhaps if I was Ethiopian, I would have opened my house to two men I didn't know because teaching my daughter Sidama culture would be of utmost importance. And while my daughter's culture is very important to me, I am a selfish American who likes my personal space. The idea of having two men I don't know come to live with us scared the pants off of me.


  1. I am sorry to laugh... but that was really funny... only because I experience this ALL THE TIME. Hungarians are always asking me if I have friends in America. Then when I say "yes" they ask if they could go stay with them for a month to a year. I am always like "are you serious?" But they all want to go, they all want help to get there and they all want to go to FL so they can lay out on the beach with beautiful people. Isn't that funny. Because apparently that is all American's do... layout in Miami and get tan while surrounded by beautiful people. Ha ha.

    Africans are very social and very open to many people under one roof as well as many in 1 bed. It is very common, so for them to go to you seems very natural to me...but I know is NOT natural to an American.

    Well, it is nice to know you could have "nannies" there to help you learn the language... much better than the latin lessons... don't you think? Or maybe just as scary... ha ha.

  2. oh man! That's intense! I'm very glad that he was so friendly and that you cleared up that little misunderstanding. I would have been freaking out!
    Sure does make for a great story, though :D

  3. Oh Julie! What a totally funny experience!

  4. While reading the first part of your post, I was thinking, "Wow, how cool. I wonder if she'd pass on my e-mail to them for when we have Sidama words being spoken at home that we have no idea how to translate!" Since I'm a weird American that hates picking up the phone and can't fathom the idea of unknown people living in my house, I'm glad that my son is speaking very little Sidama these days! Do you have a spare room just in case they show up?!

  5. Wow .. I'm so glad you got that cleared up! It would have scared the pants off me, too! At least he was nice about it :o)

  6. Julie, I think you were about one sentence away from two more family members. How hilarious. And truly, how amazing that they were ready to come.

  7. Wow! I would have been freeking out!! It's amazing how different our cultures are. I think you handled it very, very well!

  8. hehe. Sorry to be snickering at your expense (or ... laughing WITH you?!? cause, HINDSIGHT, it IS funny, right?!?)

    I don't imagine this experience will be changing your phone habits any time soon!

  9. OH MY WORD!!!
    I am cracking up.
    And it sounds like you handled yourself very well and very respectful. good job.

  10. Wow! That would have really freaked me out.

  11. Hmmm... maybe you need to clear a few things up with your buddy in Ethiopia :). You don't want him sending you more people to live with. That's very interesting!

  12. It's a good thing you called them or they might have just shown up at your door!

  13. oh LORD.

    i used to be sooooo jealous about your tight Sidama ties.... not so much now. :-)

  14. This made me so nervous.

    So. Very. Nervous.

    I cannot comment coherently...but I'm glad you were able to stay calm , under the circumstances. I'd have probably been like, "Oh, my house just got bombed--BOOM!--Gotta go!"


  15. Julie, I am so disappointed in you. Why oh WHY couldn't you just open your heart a tiny bit? :P

    Yep, I woulda FREAKED! That's an hysterical conversation! I'm so glad it got cleared up before they showed up on your doorstep with their bags. Too funny.

  16. It was great that he was so friendly and helpful but oh my goodness, I would have been freaking out when the guy said come to live with me. I'm totally with you on the personal space.

  17. Holy Snot! That is funny and freaky at the same time!

    By the way, even though I haven't posted it yet, you win. Come by a little later when I gewt the post done.

  18. Wow, what a story! And so interesting that you can share it with us now. BTW, got a Great New Giveaway going on over at my place, to commemorate my 100th post--please stop by!

  19. oh dear!!! That was nerve racking!!! I think you handled it better than I could have. :)

  20. I once taught a natural childbirth class to a group of deaf Mongolian couples. So, I spoke in English. Then it was translated into Mongolian. And then into Mongolian sign-language. We got into some crazy misunderstandings! Sometimes we ended up laughing so hard that we cried!

    I feel for you!

  21. That is too funny. I probably would have been stammering and stuttering too much to have even finished the conversation. Our ways are so different from other continents, for better or for worse. Is it any wonder other people look at us as weird Americans?

  22. Wow. Life as a spy is complicated! You have the funniest, weirdest stuff happen to you! And by the way, since our kidlets are Sidama as well... please pass along any info you have/learn over the years! You have such incredible contacts... and with two Sidamans living with you, you're bound to learn LOTS! :-)

  23. Yikes! that would have freaked me out. You handled it gracefully though.

  24. I really like your story. You know, I'm doing my assignment about "Cultural Misunderstanding". I'll use your story as examples, ok?