Red Twin and I have been talking about contextualisation: the necessity and complication of putting off your own culture to live in another. It’s always a compromise. Everyone draws the line somewhere different. But it’s more complex than simply working out what you’re comfortable with. What do those in your current country think? For me, it’s Tanzania. For Red Twin, it’s a country in Central Asia.
Take Red Twin’s veiling as an example. Most westerners wear a headscarf rather than the body length veil. This is the recommendation of some Central Asians. They say they don’t want westerners to pretend to be Central Asian. Wear enough veils to be respectful, but that’s all. And yet, Red Twin has discovered that people keep her at arm’s length when she wears a headscarf. When she started wearing the full veils, she was welcomed into friendships.
We’ve felt something of this too. Tanzanians wonder why I don’t use a western baby sling. It’s strange to see a mzungu carrying a baby in a kitenge on her back. There’s even a shop that sells prams for Tanzanians who want to seem more progressive (though how they negotiate them over the Dodoman roads is beyond me!) And yet, many are delighted to see that I am making an attempt to do things like them. They ask, who taught you how to do this? They tell me it looks good. Conversation flows from there.
One challenge of contextualisation is how far the one crossing cultures is willing to go. I still haven’t brought myself to dress Elliot in the ski gear and blankets common for babies in Tanzania. Tanzanian babies seem OK but I feel it would be cruel for Elliot. My concession is that he wears socks and a sunhat to ward off hordes of mamas who are concerned that he is cold. Meanwhile, Red Twin will still shake the hand of a Central Asian male if it is offered, even though a Central Asian woman would never do that.
But the other side of contextualisation is how you’re received by those in your current country. It’s a global world, which means even if they believe in the superiority of their culture, many places around the world are inundated with messages that western=better. They can have a range of attitudes for western ways, ranging from derision to indifference to admiration. But what do you think of the message that western=better?
Actions speak louder than words. You don’t contextualise so you’ll look/act/be ‘one of them’. That’s near impossible! I might wear my baby on my back but I still stick out because my skin (and his!) is white. No matter how much Red Twin veils, she stands head and shoulders above any Central Asian! Instead, you contextualise because in our global world, it’s a way to say that you see another person or culture and that you esteem them.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.