‘Sorry, he’s spent his whole life in East Africa.’
I find myself saying this almost daily. (I say East Africa rather than Tanzania because many people have no idea where Tanzania is, or mishear it as Tasmania.) Sometimes saying this diffuses the tension of a situation, like when Elliot joins someone’s birthday party in the park uninvited and starts playing with the unwrapped presents (because toys and property are pretty well communal property in Tanzania). At other times, it’s less clear how relevant that statement is, whether I’m just scapegoating him because of my own parental shortcomings.
I used my TCK to get out of a parking ticket yesterday.
I knew we were late getting back to the car, but Elliot was dragging his feet, stopping to talk to each person he passed, inspecting every parking meter he saw, looking for ‘the fountains’ i.e. sprinklers. I could see the man putting the parking ticket on the car so I ran ahead calling out, ‘I’m coming!’ And then I said, ‘Sorry, my little guy’s lived in Africa his whole life and the words ‘hurry up’ don’t mean anything to him!’
The guy said that was the best excuse he’d ever heard, but I wasn’t sure how genuine it was. After all, three year olds are infuriatingly slow, and no amount of coaxing makes them do something they don’t want to. And yet, I suspect Elliot’s hearing ‘hurry up’ more than he ever has before in his life. I know I’m feeling stressed, getting to places ‘on time’ or moving on from a counter promptly when our turn is up, or making it back to the parked car because everything in Australia is timed. It might be combined with three year old stubbornness, but there’s probably something about the whole ‘hurry up’ thing that is culturally weird to Elliot as well.
At the library today someone called out, ‘Someone’s lost a child without any pants on!’
Guess who?! ‘He’s mine!’ I said cheerfully, but inside I was tossing up whether this was another moment when it might at least help my own embarrassment to use the ‘he’s lived in East Africa’ excuse. However, I didn’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of half-clothed African kids, and after all, the Tanzanians we’ve lived among are completely scandalised by naked kids. As I thought about it afterwards though, I realised that it was actually a cross-cultural conflict.
You see, the reason Elliot was wearing no pants was because he had just wet them (and I had not brought a spare.) And the reason he’d wet them was because he’d gone to find the toilets earlier and someone had thought he was lost and taken him to find me. Fair enough – I guess most Aussie mums wouldn’t leave their three year old unsupervised in a library, so it was a reasonable assumption. When they found me I asked Elliot if he was lost and he just kind of looked confused. It turns out he wasn’t lost; he’d been thwarted on his way to the toilet!
In cross-cultural interactions, you are constantly guessing what’s indicative of a broader cultural construct and what’s something else.
I’ll never forget the moment of sheer relief last year when one Tanzanian colleague said to us about another, ‘You know how X isn’t that good with people?’ and we realised the tension and confusion we’d been feeling was simply him, not us completely failing to pick up on the context clues! Now I’m finding something similar in Australia as well. I don’t have a reference point to know the difference between when that mum in the playground is being unreasonably judgmental and when I’ve made (or allowed Elliot to make) a major transgression. Those same resources are missing with understanding my own child. In each situation I’m wondering, did this happen because of him, my parenting or some cross-cultural conflict? At one level, you can’t separate those things out, and at another it really doesn’t matter anyway. Here we are again, living with the ambiguity!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.