Two more weeks and I am living and working in Malawi for a year. A year seems like a long time. You would say, enough time to get used to a different culture, learn their habits and integrate in the daily life. But I have to be honest: even after a year of working, chatting and living with the Malawians, I am still struggling with their culture.
Most of you are probably familiar with the discussions about immigrants in the Netherlands and many other European countries. An opinion often heard is that it is o.k. if they come to the Netherlands, as long as they fully integrate, leave their own culture behind and just live as the Dutch do. If they succeed in doing this, let them stay. If they don’t, send them back. A pretty harsh opinion, and after trying to integrate in a completely different culture myself, I can tell you: it is simply impossible.
This past year I have altered my way of clothing, tried to learn their language, have been to Malawian churches, parties and events, had discussions with Malawians about philosophy, theology, politics, sexuality and gender. I tried to understand them. I ate their food and learned how to prepare it myself. I have traveled as the Malawians do, tried to live as the Malawians do, I have been patient (or at least I tried), and got used to Malawian time (always be at least 30 minutes late). But I did not succeed in adopting their values and still my behavior deviates from their definition of normality. Trying to adjust my values and behavior is the most difficult thing I have ever done. It costs me a huge amount of energy every day to try to fit in, to watch my words, behavior, temper and even facial expression and posture. And as time passes, I realize more and more that I continue to be different.
Before I went to Malawi I thought I could adjust. So far in my life I never had much trouble with adjusting to people or situations. I was not worried when I left to go to Africa, because I thought of myself as a flexible, easy going person who could handle all kinds of situations. I had read much about Malawi and its people and customs. Adapting to the Malawian culture and lifestyle would be a piece of cake for me, how wrong I was.
The way we are raised, the values we grow up with, and the system in which we grow up determine much of the persons we become. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never completely get away from it. Our own culture is so strongly ingrained in our systems, the way we think, the way we are, that there is no escape from it, even if you want to.
From this day on I will respect all immigrants, both those who fled their home countries voluntarily and refugees, who have more or less succeeded in adapting to a new culture. For people who live far from home, started a new life in a new country, even if maybe they create their own little communities. Because that is what you need most: to have people around you who understand your mother’s culture.