By Lena Wensel

I’ve done more mental “face-palms” in the past 15 months transitioning to Tanzania than I can remember doing in the past few decades. (The definition of “face-palm,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “to cover one’s face with the hand as an expression of embarrassment, dismay, or exasperation.”) As much as we prepared during our pre-departure period, time alone can provide cultural acclimation. Here are a few examples of daily life cultural mishaps that had me inwardly cringing and chuckling at myself simultaneously…

  • Just as I’ve been (somewhat proudly) thinking that American TV is a little disconcerting to watch because everyone is not only driving on the “wrong” side of the road, but also on the “wrong” side of the car. A few days ago, reverting back to my American reflexes, I nearly turned into oncoming traffic on a busy street. I’ll not make that mistake again anytime soon!
  • The assumption that my cheery smile and passing wave will do just fine as a greeting when I’m in a rush was squashed when I learned that short-cuts like this can lead to hurt feelings and thoughts that the “jilted” person has upset me in some way. Oh, dear.
  • As many times as I remind myself to use my right hand for all things- eating, exchanging money, greeting, accepting a receipt- I notice a cashier’s slight flinch when I pass her money with my (culturally considered dirty) left hand. Oops.
  • After we brought one house pet from the USA and then acquired a second house dog and a house cat within six weeks of arriving here, we learned that believers of some other religions won’t enter a house or a car where animals are. So many things still to learn!
  • I brought long skirts and modest clothing aplenty for myself, still thinking that my 14-year old “baby girl” doesn’t have to dress according to the cultural protocols of adult women in Tanzania. Then I see her walking in her skinny jeans, 5’8”, and looking like she’s a grown woman. We are now sharing my wardrobe.
  • I noticed that droves of mouse birds were eating our guava fruits right off the trees in our yard. After an extensive inquiry, I was told by a local Dutch farmer that these birds hate shiny objects. I hung temporary sheets of aluminum foil from the tree branches, contented with delaying the long-range plan of decorating the tree with broken colored glass and compact disks. I later learned that hanging objects such as these can be considered a sign of witchcraft – clearly not the impression we’re looking to give to our neighbors!
  • Following a fruitful meeting with a Tanzanian teammate, we spontaneously invited him to dinner in our home. The meal was nearly ready when we entered the house- simple fare of pork, veggies, and chapattis. We learned something new that day, as our guest politely explained that people of the Barabaig tribe don’t eat pork. Face-palm.

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