This month’s Rock.Paper.Scissors e-newsletter focuses on lessons I’ve learned as a Canadian living abroad. (Not on the monthly e-newsletter mailing list? Sign up for free here.)
1. Living in Africa has been a wild & wonderful adventure. Kind of like the traffic. It’s a big deal to navigate in a city with the 4th worst traffic in the world, especially when driving on the left hand side of the road. On one hand it’s not uncommon for drivers to overtake other vehicles on blind corners. On the other hand when there are ‘jam’s (aka traffic jams), people are very gracious about informally directing traffic to help keep the cars moving. No matter how bad the traffic is there’s hardly a honk to be heard.
Lesson learned; be gracious amidst chaos
2. I’ve learned a lot about living with stereotypes & how weather can be a cultural stereotypical example. Canadians tend to think Kenya is hot & Kenyans tend to think Canada is freezing. I still chuckle (to myself naturally) when I see a Kenyan baby wrapped up in thick layers on, what I’d call, a hot day. Conversely, I’ve noticed going back for visits to Vancouver, I’ve found it oddly chilly.
Lesson learned: it’s all relative. Context is huge.
3. To a Canadian, where order & efficiency are gods, Nairobi addresses are something to behold. Many homes don’t have a numerical number. When asking for directions, a friend will say ‘oh you know, it’s by ABC plaza.’ This can be frustrating when you don’t know where the comparison landmark is. Also street addresses have a rhythm all their own. Numbers jump about like a cat on a hot tin roof. You may find yourself seeing house number 42, only to be followed by house number 112 & then 22. On a bad day, when time is tight & I can’t find my way, it drives me bonkers. On a good day I enjoy the adventure & space it provides to toodle around.
Lesson learned; loosening a linear approach & appreciating a zigzag approach is illuminating & refreshing.
4. I’ve had a bank account since I was a kid & I was one of the first people to get a coveted ATM card when they were first introduced. In other words I consider myself fairly financially literate. Living overseas means starting from scratch, including when it comes to banking. To withdraw money from one’s account here involves writing a cheque. To yourself. And when you do write a cheque, due to fraud prevention programs, it’s required to sign it not once but 3 times. Forgot to bring your chequebook? Can’t withdraw money.
Lesson learned; safety (in this case financial) can be inconvenient but it’s necessary.
5. You can’t talk about living overseas without talking about food. I’ve come a long way (1/2 way around the world) to come to know food that was in my backyard in the first place. Despite Vancouver being home to many Indo-Canadian restaurants, I never realized the delights of paratha & chilly garlic paneer.
Lesson learned; leaving your backyard can help you get to know it better.
6. On the other hand, when camping in the middle of nowhere & a particularly loud grunt or snort erupts, I love being so out of my element that I don’t have a clue whether to drop, run or yell. Camping & exploring the wildlife here (including cheetah, leopard, genet cats, gereneks & more) has been at the top of the list of favourite things to do. A friend recently said, ‘being able to go see lions on the weekend is pretty damn cool.’
Lesson learned; do more things that get you out of your element in order to stretch & grow.
7. Raising two kids in Kenya means they’re now TCK’s (third culture kids). In other words they combine their Canadian culture with Kenyan culture to come up with a unique culture. It’s some interesting view, to peek into their world & see how they combine the two into something new.
Lesson learned; learning through the lens of another is a great boost to your own learning.
8. Having a Masters degree in Education, specializing in intercultural conflict resolution was like prep school for living abroad. Understanding that what I call a ‘lie,’ can mean a Kenyan being reluctant to tell me ‘no’ is one of many interesting intercultural communication journeys to walk on a daily basis.
Lesson learned; there’s a delicate balance between moral relativism & being aware of the huge influence of culture.
9. I am grateful for my Canadian passport & the privileges it brings. Having been training UNDP Somalia staff in Nairobi precisely when the UN compound in Somalia was attacked, it’s sobering to live in & near places where violence is a reality. Knowing my citizenship is powerful & that the Canadian High Commission will help if I’m in a true jam is priceless. I am grateful to be Canadian most days of the week.
Lesson learned; we’re known as the ‘nice’ folks & when conflict arises, as it inevitably does, I draw on my Canadian ‘niceness’ to navigate my way through.
Some days, when I think my tongue will soon grow a callous from my biting it, the lessons are what Geneen Roth calls A.F.G.O. (another #@$’n growth opportunity). Most days however I’m gob smacked & grateful for this incredibly diverse, rich learning environment I’ve called home for the past two years. From a Canadian abroad, Asante (thank-you) Kenya for all the A.A.G.O.’s (another amazing growth opportunity).