To be a Cultural Baby

Coming to a new country and culture can be a daunting experience. In this blog post, Ann Elise tells about her experience as a cultural baby in South Africa.

Last fall, me and a fellow student from the University of Bergen got to spend eight weeks doing an internship at the Field Band Foundation (FBF). We met so many new heroes who are truly trying to make a change in their communities. And next to all of this, we learned how to survive in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Coming from Norway — the best country to live in according to the UN Development Report of 2022, and one of the 20 safest countries in the world according to the Global peace index — it is quite a change of mindset entering a place where you always need to keep your car doors locked and look out for hijackers or robbers when driving late at night. It is strange living in gated communities, with guards at the gate checking everyone coming in and out. We are not used to being careful about what neighborhood you go to, not to walk outside at night, constantly watching your stuff, and passing beggars at every crossroad. And these are just the necessary safety measures to survive. When moving to a new place, you also want to learn how to thrive. 

Learning to survive in a new culture

This feeling of learning to thrive in a new culture reminds me of visiting my new boyfriend and his family in the Netherlands the summer of 2016. He assured me that coming to the Netherlands would be very easy, as it was the culture most similar to the Norwegian culture. At least that is what the internet had told him.

Previously I had on several occasions been living in cultures that were quite different from my own, and I had been working in an international environment with a strong focus on cultural differences. The Netherlands was supposed to be piece of cake, right?

Turned out, it was not.

Learning to survive in a new culture can be almost as demanding as learning a new instrument.

Before entering the house of his family, I had been instructed in how to greet. In the Netherlands this is done by kissing the other person ever so slightly on the cheeks. In Norway we don’t but kissing as a way of greeting is not uncommon in Europe. Some places it is one kiss, other places two, and in this case it is three kisses. Meeting and greeting his family went very well but already at the dinner table the next day I was flung towards the greatest culture shock I have ever had.

The Dutch family all went silent and stared at the table. A few moments later they started looking at each other kind of suspiciously, uttered some, for me, completely unintelligent words, and started eating. I was confused, and the confusion continued. First, they ate the meat.

Only the meat!

Once the meat was consumed, the vegetables was next. Now, only the vegetables. I had heard this was a thing some places in Europe, but I did not expect to see it here.

As the family left the table, going about their day, I was stunned and had no idea what to do with myself. I thought I knew what eating dinner looked like. In the Netherlands, I had no clue what eating dinner looked like. This was the moment I realized I probably knew nothing about the Dutch way of doing things.

Being a cultural baby

Entering a new culture is kind of like being born again. Not in a religious sense, but as in learning how to be human all over. I found that— even in a culture very similar to my own — I had to re-learn basic life-skills like greeting, talking, eating, using water and electricity, taking the bus, and navigating traffic now full of bike lanes. Even trying to bake a cake turned out to be an adventure above and beyond as butter and flour is not just butter and flour like you know it from home. Further, one also has to figure out what is expected of you in different social contexts, like in Dutch birthday parties.

Then, there is also this major part about language. Though most Dutch people speak English very well – the Netherlands is the non-English speaking country with the highest English proficiency — they are not all necessarily very comfortable with it. Especially not around their friends. Every time I visited the Netherlands, I was surrounded by Dutch people who, more than once, would greet me politely in English before turning to my boyfriend and continue the conversation in Dutch. This meant I was not part of the conversation and spent the time either trying to guess an appropriate moment to break in with a question so I would seem like a social being, or just wait out the time by reflecting on the purpose of existence. Both is, I have to say, a bit exhausting at length.

Being the only non-speaker of the local language, it became very clear I was an outsider, and I very much felt like a cultural baby in need of constant guidance and explanations to be able to join the locals.

Learning to thrive in South Africa

South Africa was no different. In the very beginning, we even had driving lessons for driving on the left side of the road, not the right as we were used to. We had to get accustomed to tip everyone everywhere; the waiters, the guys helping us find a parking place and watching our car, the guys filling petrol at the gas stations, the guy cleaning your windshield at the streetlights even though you did not ask for it, the guys running over with parasols when it is raining, and more.

Getting up at 5 am on Saturday for long drives to performances was another shock, but that didn´t stop us from smiling.

We had to get used to pretending to always be doing fine. Cause ‘How are you’ is not really the question, it’s just a way of greeting. Even at the pharmacy standing there with infections and fever, you are always ‘doing good’. We’ve also had isiZulu lessons as part of getting to know the culture. It is one of the 11 official languages, and one containing clicking sounds – please do not ask for demonstrations.

Learning to survive and thrive in a new culture, where people act, think, and speak differently, takes time and requires a lot of attention and energy. This is, of course, all next to adjusting to a new work environment and work tasks. In the end, we did survive, and even though it was exhausting at times, the overall experience was amazing.

Through our work, we took part in workshops with tutors from different bands, leading sessions on work readiness and teaching skills. In these sessions, we teach the tutors about writing CVs and Motivational letters, as well as discussing important teacher and learner traits. This is important, both to improve their skills as tutors, but also to set them up for success in applying for jobs after their time in the FBF.

Hard work is a lot easier outside in nice weather but bucket hats are essential

We have been developing content for life skills lessons on mental health and domestic violence to be given to the children and teenagers. The life skills are an important part of the band rehearsals to promote well-being, resilience and inclusiveness in and among the members, setting them up to impact their communities in a positive way.

We have been introduced to the M&E (monitoring and evaluation) tools used in the organization, been sitting in on an endless number of meetings, and eaten a whole lot of the local vetkoeks (very tasty balls of deep-fried sweet dough).

We’ve also been visiting bands in some of the poorest areas of the province, watching incredible music and dance performances by youth that is clearly loving what they are doing. In addition, we have gotten to know the staff, who are possessing a great love for their work and for the members of the bands.

Nobody leaves a rehearsal without playing, no matter if you are a musician or not.

We left South Africa with a gratitude of all we have seen, experienced, learned, and the people we’ve gotten to know along the way. It is truly a beautiful place, full of beautiful people, and the Field Band Foundation is doing an amazing job giving youth an opportunity for a better life in some very poor areas.

Written by Ann Elise Reigem

Photos by Ann Elise Reigem, Jacob Mhlapeng, Sondre Aksnes Yggeseth and Franqo Ntshole

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