Sunday, October 10, 2010

A need to Communicate

In the past two weeks I have had experiences that make me very curious about the culture where I live. There seems to be this desperate need for the local people here to communicate with my roommate and I as we walk about the town. The means with which communication is attempted often leaves us scratching our heads, frustrated, or bursting in laughter, but often after all of the initial shock has faded we are often bewildered due to the sporadic timing of these gestures of 'kindness'. Here are a few examples of attempts at communication:

Last week while eating dinner at a corner cafe two boys approached our table selling DVDs, pocket tissues, key chains, etc. we smiled and said no thank you. The boys walked away and return 20 minutes later, the older boy lingered at our table asking us to buy goods from him and as we were telling him we would rather not the little boy walks up behind my chair and pinches the back of my neck and runs across the street as I let out a surprised yelp and the waiter yells at the little boy from inside the restaurant lobby. I rubbed my neck and looked across the street and the little boy smiled a mischievous smile and stood there watching us as we finished eating our food. What was he really trying to say to me? Was he upset that I wouldn't buy from him? Did he want me to chase him? Did he want to play? Did something about my response before the pinch communicate that pinching was appropriate? The others with me just shook their heads and chuckled to themselves.

The other day my roommate and I were walking in the Medina and a small man said "Hello!" We kept walking as he tried to block our way. He then said, "You will not answer me....Why?" Walking after us he then said, " Hey, it is my color..." Then directing his words at me he said,"Wait, YOU are my of my will not answer me....." as we walked away. We often do not speak to men on the street here unless we know them from work or through friends due to our commitment to respect the culture and wisdom, but what was this man wanting? Why did he single me out? Could it be that this man wanted more than just a hello, but a full on conversation? If he wanted a warm greeting, why didn't he approach us in a different manner? What judgments will he make in the future of foreigners who don't speak to him on the streets?

Another man in the Medina greeted us at the large main door saying, "Hello! You are welcome here! Hey Mama Africa.....Jamaica.........Rasta.........Hey Rasta.." as he faded into the crowd behind us....I didn't know why he found it necessary to call out to me. Why does my ethnicity drive him to act in such ways? What response does he want from me? Why didn't he say anything to my roommate who was walking with me?

In the rug shop one of the helpers wanted to know if my roommate and I knew what the word "gazella" meant, and we told him that we did. This was after a few minutes of over hearing a conversation between the shop owner and the helper which was all about how beautiful we were. When the shop owner realized that we understood what he was saying he shhhhhshed the helper and told him "Shhh.....these girls know a little Arabic!" and laughed out loud and proceeded to ask me if I was Muslim. What was his point? Do these men tell every woman who enters the shop that they are beautiful? Do they ask every woman who enters the shop if she's Muslim?

Another young shop owner saw my roommate and I and watched us come down the road and said," Come to my shop and see many things! You will find nice things there." When we said "Not today, Thank you." He continued to gesture and tell us to come in with command in his voice. As we walked away he said "Ok another time..... see you later alligator, after while crocodile! You are welcome.....I like your body!!!!" We walked faster and decided to take a different route home. What did he really want to say to us? Did he think that his comments would really get us to come into his store and buy goods?! Who taught him colloquial phrases? Could he have been more convincing with a different tone or words?

Last Friday, my friends and I were walking to get candy at a corner store and we saw other friends we knew at the corner before our destination so we hugged them and kissed their cheeks excitedly when all of a sudden a group of young boys walked by mocking our words and expressions. As we continued to greet our friends the boys began yelling and laughing and one boy picked up a few small rocks and threw them. One of the rocks hit my hand. As I tried to figure out what happened the boys all turned to look at us with surprised looks on their faces pointing to each other to place the blame on the other boys. What did they want? Did they think that we were too loud? Did they want to talk to us? Did our language sound funny to them?

These mysteries of communication still boggle my mind....we'd like to think that having so many people wanting to interact with us would be a positive thing but sometimes we just don't get it.......

One experience last week made the difference! My roommate and I went into a clothing store in our neighborhood that we walk pass everyday on our way to and from school. We wave at the shop keeper and she always smiles. She often laughs as we gape at the new clothing in the window. We point as we walk by and give thumbs up at the new line or an ensemble that we like and she always smiles. On Friday we went into this shop and she greeted us warmly and made suggestions for us holding up the latest fashions, and since we didn't seem to excited about her choices or the prices of those choices she mentioned that there was a sale to get rid of all of the old collection in the store. So she then showed us clothing with 50 percent reductions of the original prices. We tried on a few items and had a few laughs as she patiently waited for us to make decisions or give pointers about what would look best with our figures etc. When we finally made a decision to buy one item, she was so ecstatic that she just grabbed the two nearest shirts near her from the sale rack and said, "Take for each of you....a gift!" We were so overtaken with her kindness and tried to refuse, but she wouldn't take them back and told us to go with health. We left smiling and she introduced me to a little boy who kept running in and out of the store and we told her that we would have to come back someday and shop again, which she welcomed. We enjoyed her kindness and hospitality...she didn't allow us to stand but made places for us to sit, made conversation with us about fashion and where we were from. This experience was more like what we are accustomed to in terms of communication. Why was this experience such a contrast to the other attempts at communication over the past two weeks? She did not inquire about my ethnicity, I wonder why?

I guess the better question would be: What do I communicate with my words and actions daily? How are they perceived? Are my attempts to communicate misconstrued as well?
More pondering to come...