Pleasing Success and Dismal Failure (and the Return of Crying)

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Today was a day of communication success and really, really frustrating communication failure. It was also a nice reminder that frustration tears are actually just a permanent condition of existing here, if you are me.

First, the success. Today at lunch, I ate around the bowl with my family. I managed to get yelled at minimally, and I understood the lunch conversation (mostly). Given that it was in Wolof, this was very exciting.

Granted, this was only possible because the conversation (a discussion about perfumed rice produced in factories) contained a lot of nouns. Nouns and adjectives are my savior, because most of them (particularly when referring to post-industrial things) are just the French word. It was possibly the most boring lunch conversation in the world, but it was the first meal conversation I’ve followed along with in the last 3 1/2 months, so I was pleased. Tiny victories!

Now, onto the failure and the tears. Today, after locking myself in my room for two hours to nap/do homework/attempt to recover from my third cold since moving here, I moved out into the living room to chat with my host dad. He, realizing that I talk pretty much only to him because his first language is French, sent me in to go socialize with the rest of my host family. Harsh, but well-intentioned and effective.

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I Don’t Hate it Here.

So tonight I Skyped my sister. Which was great, because I haven’t actually spoken to her since… oh, I left the country. Talking to her is always so great because whenever she’s freaked out about something, I can be like, “I remember that being terrifying! It turned out to be in no way a big deal.” And then, if I’m feeling perspective-havey, I realize that there is some two-years-older me doing exactly the same thing to my own at-the-moment all-consuming problems. Then I calm down.

But anyway, after we chatted about our linguistic failures (me and Wolof, her and Ancient Greek), she said, “You know, [our mutually-shared, fabulous undergrad adviser] reads your blog.” Which I was sort of aware of, but had filed away along with the information that my parents have had sex and that somewhere out there my LiveJournal still exists as best not to think about ever.

“Yeah,” she continued, “She thinks you hate it there.” I spluttered. “Well, except for your tailor.” I stopped spluttering, because once again, my tailor is the greatest, she is correct.* But she is also correct about this blog sounding like I hate it here. And, to be fair, I’m still not sold on this experience as a pleasant one. I am not ashamed to say that my friends and I spent an hour at the weird expat mall this afternoon pointing out that, for a few hundred dollars, we could go home tomorrow. We all kind of wanted to.

The truth is, Dakar is not beautiful. It is not particularly comfortable. Living in a family is hard, and made harder when they’re not yours and you don’t understand half the conversations going on around you. Though I am fully aware that this experience is going to be a valuable one in terms of forcing me to realize that—though I could have left, because I am holy-shit-an-adult now—I didn’t, and that that is a good thing, I make no pretenses about this being a fun experience in the way that studying in Europe probably would have been. (Not to say that Europe can’t be difficult—I have friends there now and have had friends there in the past, and it can certainly be a head trip in a lot of the same ways just because you are far away from home and lonely and also broke.)

But I don’t hate it here. If I really, truly did, I probably would have left by now, because this is not an academically-valuable-enough experience for me to stick it out if I hated it. So, here’s a list of things that I am legitimately tickled with about my time in Dakar.

My host nieces: Today my oldest niece spent ten minutes constructing an elaborate crash scene using a toy boat, a miniature car rapide, and a makeup brush she found in my room. She narrated the whole thing in Frolof. It was adorable. Continue reading

Updatestravaganza!

Have been in one of those funks where rather than write, or read, or be productive, I nap for six hours a day and try not to be hit in the face by the children who live in my house. So that’s been fun. (Study abroad: I am the worst at it.) So, in lieu of actual, structured post, here’s some interesting things that have happened recently:

Thesis, oh god why: So my thesis adviser’s suggestions and my wordiness led to a thesis proposal that was roughly twice the length it was supposed to be. Whoops. Hatcheted it down, and the entire time I wept for killing my babies. (“Don’t you want to know about theoretical frameworks for death? Or blogging? Or my love for danah boyd? No? Okay.”) Need to get it sent in by the end of the week. Am somewhat terrified. Then realized that I would happily not do a thesis if it wasn’t a Prudent Thing to Do, and stopped caring as much. (Also, did you know that GDocs now has MWord comment support? It does! This is the best thing ever.)

Senegal has a new president: So that’s pretty neat! The night he was elected there was a spontaneous parade in the street near my house. It was pretty fantastic. This also means that a) we’re not going to be like Mali and b) I can stay in the country without fearsome emails from the embassy. Yay! Continue reading

Controlling the Narrative of My Personal Failure

The squid thinks my tears taste delicious.

The squid of my own personal failure.

So I cried again in Wolof. For those of you playing along at home, we’re up to four sessions of this class in which I have teared up. Given that this is a class that has only met ten times in the last two months, this is Kind of an Issue.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not want to be crying in class. This is not an attention thing. Something about my teacher’s style simply makes my eyes leak tears like a squid squirts ink. (In all fairness to my body, this one saves me a fortune on bleach.)

It’s not that classes haven’t made me cry before. I tear up easily and mostly define my self worth in terms of academic achievement.* But in every occasion that I can think of doing this sort of massively embarrassing thing, it happened after I left the room. Wolof sucks so hard that I literally cannot keep it together while sitting two feet away from my teacher. Continue reading

Awkward Moments in Cross-Cultural Communication

At lunch today, I realized that the maid who works in my host family’s house does not speak French. This is somewhat embarrassing, given that I’ve been living here for a week.

We had been getting along just fine with gestures and avoided eye contact. It turns out “no, that doesn’t go there,” and “I find it funny that you cannot ever light the stove,” are messages that can be conveyed totally without words. I had assumed that the rest of the time she was just busy or shy.

But no, it turns out that she has avoided talking to me because we do not share a mutually intelligible language. Whoops.
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I Want to Be Able to Joke

I think my host family finds me to be slightly dour (and more than a little simple). Most people who encounter me in English-speaking contexts do not, I hope, share this impression. In English, I’m funny (usually) and loud (sometimes) and a presence to be reckoned with.
But in French (and it’s even more difficult cousin, Frolof), I’m unable to joke. I’m also usually unable to understand other people’s jokes. It’s a crapshoot as to whether I’m able to respond to direct questions, most of the time. About the only thing I’m able to do with any consistency is obey direct orders to go get things out of the kitchen, and even then they have to be set out for me or I’m unable to find them.
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Salam Malekum

Dakar

So you know what makes people like 8 billion more times more likely to not think you’re an asshole? Stumbling through “hello” in their first language. (Shocking, I know.) I entered Senegal with the impression that this language was, for most people, French. It’s not. Instead, it’s Wolof–and now that I know how to appropriately greet people in it* people are substantially less likely to glare at me. Success.

As far as I know, Senegal is unusual in rejecting the colonial language in favor of a native language for the lingua franca. Though there are of course other major languages in Africa in general and in countries specifically (like Swahili and Hausa), countries like Kenya use the colonial language in public discourse in attempt to appear forward-looking to the west. Continue reading