Fish and Fish Tanks, reflections on culture

Posted on December 27, 2012


Five months have passed. Five months of feeling like a fish out of water; or perhaps more accurately a fish that has been plopped into a foreign fish tank. Imagine an innocent carnival fair goldfish that has spent its entire life in a familiar little fish tank with other goldfish, complete with pink rocks, miniature castle and plastic seaweed. Then one day the goldfish is relocated to a new tank. This tank is totally different and, *gasp* there are OTHER KINDS OF FISH in the tank. Our little fishy is thinking, mind blown.

New Fish Tank

So that’s been our life. New fish tank, new kinds of fish. In some ways adjusting to our new tank (for those who struggle with analogies, read here: new continent, country, city) has been easier than we expected. Nairobi is a fast paced (unless you are in traffic) and remarkably diverse city. (When was the last time you saw someone in complete traditional Masai garb and 30 seconds later walk past a women in a miniskirt and stilettos?…and have that be TOTALLY NORMAL). Welcome to Nairobi.

Despite the traffic, crime, garbage everywhere and complete lack of noise pollution laws (is anyone else nearby bothered by the neighbors playing really loud music at 2 am?), we like our new tank. In fact, we are surprised by how quickly it has felt like home to us.

New Fish Friends

Adjusting to the new fish, the different kind of fish, is not nearly as easy. It seems to come in waves. A few weeks can go by, and I find myself thinking, “Oh, we are really not all that different.” And, obviously, in a very fundamental sense, that is true. We all want what is best for our families, are outraged at corrupt politicians, need to feel loved, desire a sense of purpose in life.  We are very much alike.

But in another very real, very daily life sort of way we are pronouncedly different. Relationships between men and women are different. Perspectives on personal property are different. Conflict resolution is different. Child-raising is different. Oh, I could go on. These are the things that leave you scratching your head, sometimes merely bewildered, but often frustrated, too.

I am finding that even if I am not coming up against anything major, it’s a million little worldview differences every day that start to exhaust me. A tiredness sets in and I find myself wanting to retreat to an American movie. Or American restaurant. Or just Americans Sometimes the fatigue is subtle, a back door foe that creeps in unawares, and I’m not quite sure why I feel so tired.

Other times, the source of the fatigue is unmistakable. It is when I catch myself thinking, “I just can’t handle how these people (fill in the blank).” Recently the blank has been filled with “drive,” or “drag a third party into conflict resolution.” Two little words reveal what is truly in my heart: these people. In such moments I am no longer thinking of them as friends or potential friends, but they have been pushed out of my affection across some ethereal boundary where they now have the identity of “these people.” I am not proud of these moments.

I do genuinely care about my new fish companions—my new friends. I love learning about their lives, their hopes, their concerns. My heart aches with them in their troubles and rejoices with them in their joy. And so I feel sick when I catch myself thinking of them as “these people.”

Living as a foreigner in a foreign land is forcing me to be confronted with how easily I set myself above others and imagine that everyone should be just like me….and let’s be honest, a world filled with people just like me would be severely lacking in beautiful diversity.