Long before western sociologists began talking about how our experience of reality is a social construction, mystics in Asia described the phenomenon, as the title of this post, a well-known quote from the Dhammapada, a collection of Buddhist sayings that dates back at least to the 1st century BCE (Before the Common Era), attests.
One of the things I like best about living in another culture for a length of time is that I get to witness in myself how my experience of the world subtly (or not so subtly) shifts as I live in the presence of people whose values, customs, and language differ from my own. The sharper the difference between us, the more visibly I can see when a shift has occurred. I don’t know how they happen, or even when, but suddenly, presumably after a series of minor imperceptible shifts have occurred, they accumulate to the point that I notice them I am different.
For example, the correct pronunciation of those pesky little consonant clusters that bemused, amazed, and frustrated me when I started learning Kinyarwanda are now becoming instinctual and I find myself when thinking of words like “tweezers” and “two” having to make a mental effort not to pronounce them “tKweezers” or “tKwoo”. Of course, I am a visual learner, so I often “see” words in my mind when I speak them, or plan on uttering them. This is especially true when I am learning a new language, although why the tendency would then spill back to my native language is a somewhat of a mystery, presumably having to do with the fact that apparently, all our knowledge of language, regardless of how many we speak, rests in the same part of the brain as one big mash from which we pull out whatever we happen to need to use in a particular linguistic environment.
Even Juliet’s much-quoted wisdom “A rose by any other name would smell as sKweet” is not safe from my emerging adoption of a process that is called in linguistics “dissimilation” where one sound is differentiated from neighboring sound, presumably to preserve the integrity (and perceptibility) of the two sounds. In Kinyarwanda, dissimilation is alive and well: whenever “w” follows a consonant, “k” or “g” magically appear between the two, the choice of which depends upon the nature of the first sound. So “rw” becomes [rgw] and “sw” becomes [skw], and “tw” becomes [tkw].
Interestingly enough, we can see this happening in English when people say foreign words so, for example, no one actually says “Rwanda” in English, rather they say “ruwanda” [roowanda]. Well, we don’t say it in Kinyarwanda either: we say “rGwanda”. Which means, of course, that I am learning “kinyarGwanda” not “Kinyaruwanda” (English pronunciation of the word).
Face it, languages that have dissimilation are pretty clever. Look at English where the “w” in the word “two” is totally lost to us, since we pronounce the word as “too”. If it were a word in Kinyarwanda, it would have never gotten lost in the shuffle between “t” and “oo” because the trusty “k” would be inserted between the “t” and the “w” to protect them both from extinction. This means, of course, that the words “too” and “two” would not be homonyms in English, they would each be their own distinct self. And there would be no risk of confusing one for the other.
Changes in my perception and, therefore, my experience of life here, are not limited to language acquisition. Every day I am reminded that I don’t experience something the way I did just a few months ago.
When I arrived here, I was often offended when people laughed at my attempts to speak Kinyarwanda. As my language improved, I would ask “why are you laughing?” More-often-than not, the reply would be “because we are happy to hear you speak our language”. Sometimes I believed them, sometimes I didn’t. Now, as time has passed, my perception of their laughter is more sophisticated, I can tell when someone is laughing because they like what I am saying versus because they are ridiculing me. Of course, both still occur, but the former occurs now more often than not because my language has progressed to a point where I am at least “worthy” of consideration for a real conversation by a Rwandan.
I also no longer mind being ridiculed by the young men who still engage in such obnoxious behavior. If not for any other reason than that others things are more important in a country where some people don’t even have enough to eat or clean water to drink than trying to convince someone that I am not an object of ridicule when, in the context, I actually am pretty ridiculous in many ways. I mean, who but an American, would get annoyed when there is no water or electricity? Talk about ridiculous!
I can even tell the difference in the quality of someone’s laughter without seeing the person: Today, after a child stopped to point at me as if to say “hey you, look at you, you’re weird”, I laughed and greeted him in Kinyarwanda as I passed by him, silently agreeing, once again, with his assessment, “yes, indeed, I am weird”. A few seconds later, I heard him squeal in delight (obviously it took a minute for him to “get” what had just happened and to react) “wow, she speaks, she spoke to me, and in words that I know, whoa what’s up with that?”, I imagined him to be thinking. As I walked down the hill, I savored his pleasure as if it were my own.
Another peculiar thing that happens to me when I live in the company of people whose appearances, as a group, are distinct from mine is that I find myself reacting to people who look different from the norm, even if they look more like me than those around me, in a very curious manner. First, I am startled, and the word umuzungu pops into my head; in Japan, it was gaigin (foreigner). But then, and this is perhaps most interesting of all, I am suspicious. Even if the person looks just like me, in terms of skin, eye, and hair color, I do not experience any feeling of “oh, hello, you are a compatriot of mine”. Instead, my internal response is something along the lines of “who are you, why are you here, are you safe to be around?” Each time this happens to me, it underscores how the human response to “different-from-everyone-else” is instinctual. It is not, however, a “different-from-me” response; rather it is a “different-from-what-I-see-around-me” everyday response.
The world in which I live now is black and brown. I can’t remember the last time I saw a white face, apart from my own, and I don’t look in the mirror that often. (I actually didn’t have one for several months, having left it off my lengthy packing list in the U.S. and ending up living in a town where mirrors of actual glass were not to be found. Of course, each time that I do look at my reflection, I am startled by my appearance. It actually IS strange by comparison to everyone else around me. The skin is the “wrong” color, the hair has the “wrong” texture and color, my eyes definitely are the “wrong” color. What’s with that? Who is this person I often ask myself when I gaze into the mirror. My “startle” reflex appears to apply across the board to anyone who is not black or brown. It does not diminish when the non-black person is me. Odder still, it is not as strong when I come across someone who is brown or beige but who is not African, as I discovered today when an Asian couple entered the store where I was.
Apparently, I do not construct my idea of “normal” based upon what I look like, or how similar, or not, the people around me are to me. Instead, it emerges from who I see around me day after day, who I look at, day in and day out, wherever I go. My experience of living in society in Rwanda is one of belonging to a community of people who are black and brown, not pink or white. They are what is normal, the status quo, and therefore, they are who it is safe for me to be around. Friend or foe, the distinction has shifted without warning. Suddenly, the white man, or woman, to whom I probably wouldn’t even pay attention in the United States, becomes a suspect, someone to “keep an eye on”, someone whom I would rather avoid than interact with.
Now, of course, this phenomenon of experiencing one community as “one’s own” which is not, in terms of outward appearances “one’s own” has a distinctive “downside” when one returns to “one’s own” and this is one of the reasons why people experience what is called “reverse culture shock” when they return to their native homeland. It is particularly dramatic in the U.S. where our history of oppression related to the color of our skin has left us, white, black, or brown, confused about who is safe to interact with, and the confusion is magnified by the fact that attitudes about the color of our skin and what it means about who we are and who we “belong” with differ across different geographical regions, as well as different localities within those regions. In this respect, identity in America often has a precarious existence, certainly nothing like the solid “I-know-who-I-am-because-we-are-one” — Turi kumwe — that comes from living in a culture where everyone speaks the same language, behaves in the same way, and looks, relatively speaking, the same.
I remember when I returned from Japan, Americans seemed to be all the things that the Japanese notice about us – loud, self-centered, rude. My first interaction in a group of Americans after I returned was overwhelming; I couldn’t wait to get out of the room. I wanted to tell them to “shut up”, and quit talking about themselves so much. And all I could think in that moment was “oh, now I get it! Now I understand why the Japanese say the things that they say about us!”
And so it is with some trepidation that I contemplate my return to the community of wrinkled, aging white people in Florida where I now live. I can’t imagine that I am not going to be as shocked to see “all those wrinkly white faces” around me as I am when I see a solitary one here. I can’t imagine that my mind won’t be crying abazungu! Where is everyone else? All of the color in my social surroundings will have vanished in a heartbeat, without a trace, to be replaced by a multitude of colorless faces. I am sure that I will feel more comfortable going into Orlando where there is a better mix of brown, black, and white, than in my retirement community. Yet, even then, as in Japan, a mixture of skin color is still pretty strange when you are used to living in a community where everyone’s basic appearance is the same.
Of course, the discomfort this time will be magnified by the fact that the “home” to which I will be returning is, in fact, a “new home”, several states away from the beloved home I previously had nestled in a Vermont forest, and to which I always returned for more than 30 years. No, I suspect that this return to the U.S. of A is going to be perhaps the most uncomfortable one I have ever experienced. Lucky for me, I know that, as sure as the sun will rise on another day, I will adapt, once again, to a new social context and construct my version of reality to be one that is in harmony with the new setting. The miracle of with our thoughts we make the world will, once again, occur and I will eventually feel at “home” in another worldly “home”.
I do think, however, in the meantime, just as I will have to be mindful not to say “tKoo” and “tkweezer” and “skweet”, I am going to have to resist the temptation to reach out and touch people just to see if they are real…
*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.