Today marks 6 months since my return from Ethiopia. Today also marks the establishment of Peace Corps after Kennedy made a passionate speech that made Peace Corps possible, and thus, a celebration at Peace Corps Headquarters that last for a week. During my two years in Ethiopia I picked up many things that are culturally normal in Ethiopia but are a little weird when done in the United States. These things though became my norm and were hard to shake, so when I returned home my friends, family, and just innocent bystanders got to witness some of the quirks I had acquired. Here are the top eight:
- Answering by blinking faster or by nodding
Yeah you read that right. And it’s exactly what it sounds like. Someone asks you a questions expecting a verbal answer, and you answer with what you know, only to look at them, and they are looking back at you like you are crazy or dumb. Now you have a visual of what it means. It’s a common thing to do in Ethiopia. But in America it just looks like you have are dumb and can’t respond.
2. Gesturing to come with fist closed and only using fingers down to move
In Ethiopia, its’ very common to use a different form of hand gesture to tell someone to come. While you are using the right way to communicate to someone to come, you say “Nay/na” (nay = come to female, na = come to male). I became a huge fan of this during my service and used the gesture quiet frequently as a teacher.
3. Shint Bet squat
The shint bet squat, is something everyone in the countryside of Ethiopia does. All of the roads and yards are red dirt. There are no concrete sidewalks or benches. So instead of sitting in the dirt and getting your pants dirty or muddy, you squat. I find it a very comfortable way of sitting. But in America when you just take a squat people look at you weird and wonder what you’re doing. Most Americans can’t do it.
4. Re-wearing clothes for days and not showering
It’s very common to re-use clothes, all while not showering in Ethiopia. Literally, the means aren’t available. I am a little more hygienic now at 6 months than when I first got back, but I enjoyed not having to worry about what I was going to be wearing that day. Come to America and do that? As my nephew would say “Auntie, you’re weird. We’re not in Ethiopia. We’re in America.”
The act of tipping as the main way someone receives their pay has always seemed weird to me. Tipping isn’t a thing in Ethiopia. There is the price and that’s what you pay. However, if Ethiopians see light skin, they think ‘ferenji’ or foreigner and they want to up the price, so negotiating is a viable option. Like in all other forms of work, people get paid for the service they do, not by the quality of that service. This is what I had gotten used to. So my friends in a few instances had to tell me, “Don’t forget to tip” and I was always curious whether I had tipped enough.
6. Table conversations
When volunteers get together they talk about their lives and things that happening with them and that conversation usually happens over the dinner table. Some of the most prominent conversations revolve around poop, sickness, and worms and all while we are eating. For us this is common place; proper etiquette is not followed. At some point during the conversation some volunteer inevitably says “How are we going to go back to America? We can’t have these conversations there,” but I sometimes do update some people. Don’t get me wrong, we live amazing lives, in an amazing country, are doing amazing things, and we talk about all that as well, but those things wouldn’t make a list about quirky things.
7. Language and Yes/No
Language can be beautiful, messy, and confusing, sometimes all at the same time. I found this out when I returned to the States and tried to speak exclusively English. I learned Amharic and some phrases have always stuck with me, i.e. ishi (okay) ow (yes), aye (no), ayzoch (be strong). Imagine people’s surprises when I insert those little phrases into conversations. But in America people don’t know these words so I always have to translate after saying them or put in a long awkward pause in my sentence as I found the best way to say it. There were also just the times I completely forgot what the English word for things were.
8. Packing into trains and buses
In Ethiopia, if you missed a bus, you would probably have to wait one to two, and sometimes even three hours for the next one. It wasn’t full until every seat was filled, and as it would go into town towards the police, it remained at full capacity until after the police was passed and then all hell broke lose. After we passed the police, people who were walking on the side of the road, or getting out of their homes would come out and get the bus, thus making the capacity of 20 seats, into 20 seats with about 20 people standing. It was fairly common in Ethiopia, especially in rural towns like Chiri where I served, to see people’s head poking out of the windows. Being in America, and especially Washington, I’ve had to condition myself to not get into a packed bus. A next one will come in a few minutes. What’s the rush?
My time in Ethiopia will always be a part of who I am. It’s ingrained in me that I have to go see my family soon, that injera is the bees knees and that kocho is life.