Monday, March 3, 2008

It Takes Some Getting Used To

Although I’ve been in Togo for almost nine months, there are certain parts of the culture that still surprise or irritate me and that I have yet to fully appreciate. The two that stand out most are touch and observations.

Most Togolese and I have vastly different concepts of personal space. I like personal space; they like to share my personal space. Obviously, in overcrowded bush taxis, there is no option but to acquaint your thighs with your neighbors’. But about a month ago, I got a ride from a counterpart’s friend. I had the back of this Mercedes to myself until we picked up a lady heading home for a funeral. We talked a little, and then she started stroking my hair. I realize my hair is different, and I didn’t really mind. My friend’s counterpart regularly puts her hand somewhere on my friend’s person – thigh, butt, shoulder – and leaves it there throughout the meeting or car ride. So I can handle a little hair-stroking.

The touching seems to be restricted to same sex (again, aside from bush taxis, aggressive street vendors and creepy men). I rarely see public displays of affection between men and women out of adolescence. But boys and men will hold hands or put their arms around each other and no one blinks an eye. In the States, if your son was holding hands with the neighbor boy, you might wonder. Here, it’s a sign of friendship. But if a dude tries to hold my hand, he’s not trying to be friends.

So the touching surprises me; what irritates my politically correct background is the statement of the obvious. Not just things like, “It’s hot,” but the speaking aloud of things we, as Americans, observe and keep to ourselves. If we meet someone overweight, we see that; here, he or she is called “le gros/la grosse” (the fat boy or girl). If you’re white, you’re “The White Man/Woman” and if you’re Asian, you’re “the Chinese”. If you suffer from acne, you will be reminded of this and questioned why you have those “buttons” on your face, and do they hurt? This week, a man asked what was going on with my chest (I have little bumps, probably from the heat, that show if I wear a tank top). I told him I didn’t know, but it was ok.

"Du courage!” he said. Have courage, a common Togolese phrase. I burst out laughing, which is probably rude, but usually I just get angry.

In Lome in December, I walked into a bookstore. It was hot outside (surprise!) and I was sweaty (surprise!). The doorman, who makes sure you check your bag into a cubby, instructed me to do so, giving me the once-over. Noting the sweat droplets and stains on my shirt, he shared his assessment with me.

“You are really suffering from the heat.”

“And you are very observant,” I said, which does not translate (“observant” is NOT a French word).

Anyway, those are the main things that get me. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes frustrating. It usually depends on if you’re the first or tenth person telling me I’m a white, sweaty person.