By Farooq A. Kperogi
When I began these reflections last week, I said they would straddle the entire spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous. If you would be generous enough to characterize last week’s ruminations as the “sublime,” this week’s may very well be characterized as the “ridiculous.”
My three-month stay in Nigeria alerted me to profound cultural transformations that have been wrought in me by America, transformations that I hadn’t wittingly reckoned with. I realized, for instance, that I’d became overly, perhaps irrationally, sensitive to the incidence of strange male adults touching my little girl. In Nigeria, every male adult is a child’s “uncle,” and our culture does not frown at total male strangers showing avuncular affections to little girls.
That is the cultural experience (call it a cultural baggage, if you like) that I took to America. I got my first culture shock about four years ago when a little white girl at a grocery store fixed a stare at me, as if she’d recognized a long-lost person. I returned the gaze and she smiled an infectiously benign and innocent smile that just made me want to reciprocate her graciousness.
So I asked what her name was. Just then, the mom looked at me disbelievingly and told the little girl to say “Mom said I shouldn’t talk to strangers.” I was embarrassed.
But, apparently, I didn’t learn the appropriate cultural lesson from that experience. About a year later, a lovely little black baby girl who looked only a little older than my baby at the time saw me and started screaming “daddy!” I was overcome with emotion. I hadn’t seen my own baby for over a year then and had been overpoweringly nostalgic and wistful.
The little girl’s ecstatically innocent shouts of “daddy” evoked in me an indescribably vicarious parental connection with her. Perhaps because she was black and kind of looked like my baby, I felt comfortable enough to want to hug her. Then I suddenly saw an anguished expression on her mother’s face. She hurriedly dragged her baby away and scolded her for calling a total stranger "daddy."
I was distressed. My cultural education later led me to discover that in America it is, generally, inappropriate for male adults to get friendly with children. My American friends told me that by my unsolicited avuncularity to girls that weren’t my relations, I exposed myself to the danger of being mistaken for a pedophile—an adult who is sexually attracted to children! I was thunderstruck.
In time, however, I understood why. The media here play up the occasional stories of pedophilia with such contagious panic that it is almost impossible to resist the urge to see every male adult as a potential pedophile. Here, only women can cuddle other people’s children without inviting suspicion. By a process of cultural osmosis, I internalized this awkward American prudery.
So, my instinctive reaction to the innocuous avuncular excesses displayed toward my daughter by well-meaning male adults in Nigeria was one of unease— and even a little bewilderment. I had to self-consciously remind myself many times that I was not in America. This is the psychological damage that can result from traversing two mutually exclusive cultural universes.
But there are also good sides to this cultural duality. For instance, I have also imbibed the well-entrenched American culture of “tipping.” A tip, for those who didn’t know, is a relatively small gratuity, beyond the original price agreed on, that customers give to waitresses and waiters who serve them in restaurants, bars, etc. It’s usually between 10 and 15 percent of the cost of the food eaten in a restaurant or of drinks served in a bar. Although it is entirely voluntary, it’s considered bad form if you don’t give tips to your servers.
After initially questioning the propriety of giving tips to people who get paid for their jobs (I used to say that a tip was no more than a bribe elegantly dressed in swank linguistic robes), I later appreciated the wisdom behind it and have since wholeheartedly accepted it.
The expectation of tips from customers often compels waiters and waitresses to be courteous and efficient in their service delivery. But more importantly, waiters and waitresses, who are mostly from Third World countries, barely collect the minimum wage. The tips, (which, by the way, are taxed by the government!) supplement their modest wages. So giving tips is also, in a way, a humanitarian gesture.
In the first weeks of my stay in Nigeria, I found myself instinctively giving tips to people who served me in restaurants. Of course, this made them happy. But it also surprised them. They were surprised, perhaps, because I neither have the carriage nor exude the airs of the kind of Nigerian “big men” who traditionally give tips—more to underscore their social distance from the people who serve them and to impress and psychologically intimidate onlookers than as a gesture of fellow feeling.
I guess what confused the restaurant attendants even more was that after giving them tips, I also packed my plates from the dining table. This was another holdover from having lived in America for a long stretch before visiting home. Here, people pack their (mostly disposable) plates after eating in restaurants. It’s not the job of the waitress to do that. It took me a while to resist the compulsive urge to pack my plates after eating in restaurants in Nigeria.
And, you know, there is something the culture of tipping does to customers: it imbues them with a sense of entitlement that can make them such impatient customers. This came out in stark relief when I was in Nigeria.
In America, the customer is truly king. Employees lose their jobs here simply because customers complain that they are rude or discourteous or inefficient. Most companies, in fact, record their workers’ phone conversations with customers and review the conversations periodically to determine if the employees have been courteous to customers. It is impossible not to be an impatient customer in Nigeria when you are habituated to the American customer experience.
Another good side to staying in America for a prolonged period before my visit to Nigeria was that my driving habits changed—for the better. When I drove, I found myself stopping for pedestrians—to the aggravation of other drivers.
As I have written here sometime ago, in America, alomost as a matter of instinct, drivers stop when pedestrians want to cross the road, even when the drivers have right of way. It’s an American culture that’s observed even in vast and exceedingly busy cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
But perhaps my most uncomfortable experience was that everywhere I went in Nigeria, my all-in-one business mobile bag on wheels (with a push-button, locking upright handle, and padded honeycomb-frame laptop compartment) attracted curious stares. Each time my acquaintances and friends saw me dragging my bag, they almost always asked if I was traveling out of town.
In America, most professionals have mobile bags, (usually called “mobile office”) with gusseted organization pockets and padded handles to carry their everyday business needs like laptops, mobile printers, files, etc.
It’s surprising that in spite of the aggressive Americanization that I saw in Nigeria, the culture of “mobile office” is virtually unknown. But I won’t be surprised if by my next visit I see most professionals dragging their mobile offices, although the fact that Nigerian roads are not pedestrian-friendly may hinder this.
One other thing: in Nigeria, I found myself calling people “sir” and “ma’am” “indiscriminately.” In the British and Nigerian traditions, “sir” and “ma’am” are linguistic markers of social distance; in southern America, for the most part, they are not. They are mere markers of politeness.
People who are clearly my social superiors here have called me “sir.” I used to be discomfited by this. Not any longer. I have since come to terms with the fact that American culture is deeply socially horizontalizing: it is very informal, casual, encourages a relaxed attitude in interpersonal relations, and generally discourages the drawing of gratuitous social markers.
When I had a chance to meet with some of my loyal readers at Akenzua Hall in ABU, Zaria, one of them, Dr. Abdulrahman Muhammad, who has just completed his master’s degree in veterinary medicine, remarked that he was struck by my “humility,” especially because I didn’t resist when he invited me to eat at the student cafeteria.
Although from an early age I have always had contempt for false airs (I’m, in any case, from a humble home), living in America can hasten one’s freedom from vanity and self-conceit—if you learn the right lessons, that is.