This past Monday, I walked into my Genetics class rather early. So early, in fact, that I had 40 minutes to spare till class would begin. I walked in and my other classmate was sitting there. We know each other and we have shared classes together. In fact, at one point, she was a lab partner in a previous course. But when I walked in and saw her, I was prepared to tell her hi. She said nothing.
To an American, that’s probably not a big deal. But the thing is, I was raised in a Nigerian household, a culture in which acknowledging the presence of others around you is expected. Doing the opposite is considered rude. In fact, in my family, greeting my parents with “Good morning” every morning when I’m passing by them inside my home is a normal thing. Since they are my elders, I am expected to initiate this greeting. When I fail to initiate, I feel a little bit of shame since it is seen as disrespectful.
The acknowledgement of others is a huge part of Nigerian culture.
Going back Nigeria, one of the things you notice when walking down the streets is that people look at people when they walk by. If your eyes meet, you greet each other, even if you don’t know one another. It’s not awkward. It’s often quick. It’s normal there and it is very indicative of Nigeria’s collectivist, communal culture.
When I am walking along the sidewalk, I find myself facing ahead, avoiding eye contact with those passing me in the opposite direction. It is forced. It makes me uncomfortable. I think to myself they are a human being. They deserve to be acknowledged. But this is what they do here. And I must follow suit. But sometimes, I forget and it gets awkward and my genuine greeting in the form of a smile is met with a forced one that is only done to defuse their awkwardness. So then, I wonder if it’s just best for me to look ahead or look at my phone instead.
It’s not always like this though. There are the few people around my age that I come across who greet genuinely. And there are times I pass by elderly people who heed to my greeting or greet me first even! And if no word is spoken first, their genuine smiles say everything. I sometimes forget that they came from an era much like the old American black and white films where it was customary to greet each other “Good Morning” in the mornings and “Hello” in passing. These people are a relief from what I experience otherwise. They allow me to experience a bit of my culture without realizing it.
You would think that having spent more than a decade in America, I would be used to it by now or desensitized to people not wanting to greet me or others in passing. Well, that’s simply not the case and it brings up an interesting point about my reality:
It’s possible to be an expat in America for 13 years & still feel culture clash on a regular basis.
What kind of culture shock or culture clash have you experienced?