We are set to arrive in the States in just 9 days and as we talk to our children about American culture, we have realized that it may be helpful for our friends in America to understand a bit of the culture that they are coming from.
I used to think of them as American. They are being raised by American parents, we speak mostly English in our home, and even occasionally watch an American movie all together. But then, we had a homeschool teacher show up in August who later shared that she had no idea how many cultural differences there were between teaching kids in American and teaching our children. Having her here has really helped me to see the dramatic impact that this culture has had on them.
For instance, one day their teacher, Megan, was talking to them about ice and our kids looked at her and asked, “What is ice?” They had no idea. They also will ask me questions like, “Mom, what is bubble gum?” and other basic things that we all assume everyone in the world knows about (but, as it turns out the world is bigger than America…).
They also have issues with language. All four of them are more-or-less bilingual and we hope to start teaching them yet another language when we return to Cameroon. And so they will often use a French word if they do not know the English word or they will carry over French grammatical rules into their English (“The thing who is sitting on the counter” for example). They also do not really know a lot of English idioms and take them literally. For instance, when their teacher was reading them a book that said that a woman stuck her head in the door to see if the kids were OK all of our kids gasped. “How is she going to get it out?!” they cried. Also, when their teacher read a book with a southern accent, they had no idea what she was saying (although that is getting better). They also do not know what things which we would consider basic are (dishwashers, microwaves, elevators, mailboxes, sidewalks, and so on).
What is equally comical is how content they are playing with trash. I asked them to bring me what they would like to take to America and it was hilarious to see what they chose. We are bringing home two dirty marbles that Kaden’s friend gave him, a couple balls that look like they’ve been chewed up by animals (and may have been actually), and I had to put my foot down about lots of other things. I told them that we were not going to take a suitcase of sticks (or, to them, swords) to America. Nor would I take the dirty bread wrapper that they found on the ground outside. “Kids, we are not hauling trash across the ocean.” They looked at me as if I had betrayed them. “Trash?!” is what their expressions said. “These are treasures! These are swords, shields, and kites – not trash!” I told them that we were going to one of the richest nations on the world and we could easily find more sticks and sandwich bags to play with. They were utterly unconvinced.
Another thing that I find absolutely hilarious is how they will eat absolutely anything. A.n.y.t.h.i.n.g. One day there was a little kitchen mix-up and the rice pudding (which included eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc) was added to our bowl of chili. The smell alone was enough for me to skip lunch. But, I thought, why not see if the kids will eat it? I served it to them without saying a word and they inhaled it and asked for seconds (and maybe thirds for the boys). There were chunks of eggs floating around in their chili – how could they eat it? But they did and they liked it. They just eat anything. It is staggering.
Another aspect of Cameroonian culture that they have adopted is that they have no concept of personal space (except for maybe Makyra). They like to be touching other people pretty much at all times. Aside from our home, there are not many chairs around, but only benches. Therefore, there are usually like 15 kids that all share a bench at church. I am really trying to introduce the concept of personal space but it is an uphill battle. Kaden is often seen running around hand-in-hand with one of his playmates.
Also, here, since there are so many children, a lot of the older (i.e. 4+ years old) children will help with the babies. One day I was walking down the street and I saw Zoey, our youngest, carrying a newborn baby, just walking down the street. We have explained that mommies in America generally hold their own babies, but do not be too surprised if our girls ask to tie your 6 month old to their backs (you can say no).
I write all this to help our dear friends and family know where they are coming from. Even though they are our children, in a lot of ways they are like taking one of the kids in our village to America for the first time. They will be forced to learn a culture that, to them, is foreign. And so, here are some ways to help us help them adapt to American culture:
Kindly explain how we do things in America and feel free to laugh later.
Here are some examples, “In our culture, we find it impolite to pick your nose. Do you need to go blow your nose in the bathroom?” (It is totally socially acceptable to publically pick your nose here). Or, “In our culture, we don’t urinate outside. Can I show you where the bathroom is?” Or, “In our culture, when we don’t walk in the street, we stay on what we call sidewalks. That way the cars won’t hit us.” Or, “In America, we really love forming lines. This is where you stand behind the person in front of you and wait patiently for your turn.” Please also feel free to explain what things are. Anything more advanced than Little House on the Prairie may likely need some explaining. They will probably ask lots of questions and find things you think mundane (like a vacuum cleaner!) completely fascinating.
Avoid speaking negatively about Cameroon.
We teach our kids that things in various cultures are not “good, bad, but just different” (unless the Bible calls them good or bad of course). So, the way in which we cut the lawn in the US is with a lawnmower and the way we do it in Cameroon is with a machete. Not good, not bad, just different. In American culture we typically don’t wear extremely bright clothing. Here, the brighter the better. Not good, not bad, just different.
Also, these kids are being raised in Cameroon and, in their minds, Cameroon is their home. It is what they know and they love it. Just today Kaden said, “I love being a missionary kid!” They are happy here and are even sad to leave. We are thankful for their love of this place and do not think it would be productive to pity them for “all they’ve had to give up.” In fact, Elias said he was a little nervous to go back to America because of “how dangerous it is.” He said that he was afraid of the tornados over there. Cameroon does not have tornados (I guess he does not see all the other dangers….).
Less is more.
If someone asked you if you wanted the “Baton de manioc” or the “poisson braisé” for dinner, which would you choose? You would probably just sit there and stare because you don’t know what either of these are. This is exactly the same thing for our kids if you asked them if they wanted “a drumstick” or “fish sticks.” They will just stare at you because they don’t know what these are. Our kids are not used to options, partly because there is just not much out here and partly because that is how we are raising them. We are trying to help them be content and thankful for everything that they are given and everything that is around them. So, let them continue to be content playing with sticks and rocks and encourage them to say thank you for whatever they are served to eat. A lot of options and a lot of stuff would most likely overwhelm them.
In Cameroonian culture, if ever there is a bit of uneasiness in the air, people laugh. I like it (generally) – it lightens the mood. But what that means is that our children laugh at times that Americans consider inappropriate or even rude. For instance, if one of them is asked a question in homeschool and they do not know it, their brothers and sisters laugh. I do not think the one who does not know is offended at all. In fact, to me it seems like they are thankful that someone lightened the mood a little by laughing. We have explained to them that would be interpreted as making fun of people in American culture and they just kind of stare at us like, “really?”
Also, we expect that they will be scared of things that Americans do not find scary (we have heard that things like static electricity have scared MKs). It is like how we show up to Cameroon and are afraid of cockroaches. People just scratch their heads like “why is she afraid of that?!” I assume that many of you will have the same reaction if our kids are running in terror from something like moving sidewalks at the airport.
I know it is hard to talk to people from different cultures. My full time job is to develop relationships with people who I have absolutely nothing in common with and it isn’t easy. I understand. So, I thought I’d write down some things to help start conversations with MKs:
- What do you do everyday in Cameroon?
- What are some animals that you have seen over there?
- Do you have a favorite Cameroonian meal?
- What is your favorite thing to do in Cameroon?
- What is your favorite thing to do in homeschool? What did you do when you went to the village school?
- What are some things that you see at the market in Cameroon? Do you know how to buy stuff in the market?
- When you play with the village kids, what do you play?
- Tell me about the cute babies in your village.
- Tell me all about all the pets you’ve had.
- What kinds of toys to your friends play with?
- Tell me about the pretty dresses that the women wear (for the girls).
- Tell me what your room looks like in Cameroon.
- What is it like when you go out with your mommy or daddy to learn Bakoum?
- What do you mommy and daddy do for their language sessions?
- Tell me about the time that your daddy ran over a viper with his car, or about when Kaden was baptized, or about the VBSs that your parents did, or about the time your house almost burnt down.
- What did your yard look like when you first moved in and what does it look like now?
- Tell me about the amazing thunderstorms in Cameroon.
- What seasons do you have in Cameroon?
Well, we hope that this gives our friends and family an idea of where our children are coming from. And, at the end of the day, they are extremely thick skinned and it is nearly impossible to offend them, so don’t worry too much. We are so looking forward to bringing our kids home to their loving grandparents, to meet our life-long friends, and to attend healthy, Gospel preaching, English speaking churches. Thanks in advance for welcoming us back into your lives!