January 25, 2007 lia

Absolutes, ambiguity, and being a real Canadian

Can you spot the “real” Canadian?

Ghanaians describe things in often ambiguous ways, while Canadians like to talk in absolutes — until we talk about our identity.

-It’s past the junction.
-Which junction?
-The junction. On the road to Accra.
-How far?
-Not far. You’ll see it.
-Is there a sign? What colour is it?
-There are flowers. But not the first house with flowers. The other one. With oranges.
-And which junction?
-Near the French lady’s house.
-The French lady?
-Well, she left about 6 years ago, but near the junction where she was staying.

I come from a culture that worships absolutes. We like specific names for things, and clear, quantifiable, measurable directions. African culture is a culture of ambiguity, where nothing is explicitly stated, but everyone seems to get it. It can make life really easy for a recent arrival, because even those who don’t speak English never panic about trying to understand you. They use their common sense and assume that you’re approaching them for the same reason everyone else is approaching them – you want water, plantains, or a coconut like anyone else, and any sounds coming from your mouth will either ask how much they cost, or dictate what quantity you would like. This is best summarized in how to catch a taxi.

-How do you know if you’re taking a shared taxi or a single-dropping taxi?
-Uh, I can’t explain. You just kind of get in and pay shared taxi fare, and that’s how you know.
-But how do you know where it’s taking you?
-Often I don’t know where it’s taking me. But there are only so many places a taxi can go. So, if you get into a taxi and don’t say anything, then they’ll know that it’s a shared taxi.
-What if you get into a taxi along the main road. How do you know which direction it will turn when it reaches a junction?
-When you’re standing on the road, you sort of wave the generally direction you’re going. When the tros drive by, that’s what they’re doing.
-Those ambiguous signals are supposed to indicate direction?
-Yah. They don’t point like we do, they kind of make this general wave in the air. If the wave is up, they’re going straight. If the wave is up, but to the left a bit, they’re going left. When they shake in a circle-like, they’re going to Circle.
-But where are they going left?
-At the junction.
-Which junction?
-Whichever one is the usual one.

Sometimes assuming people will always make the same request as everyone else can really backfire though, and many of my battles with bureaucracy would have easily been avoided if my colleagues would just listen to what I’m saying rather than assume they know what I’m going to say:

-Nunoo. I have no lights, but the rest of the building has lights.
-You’re having light off.
-NO! Mine is the only apartment of the 9 blocks of flats that doesn’t have lights. When I came to inspect the place yesterday, I had lights, but today I don’t. So it’s not an electrical problem. The electric company has cut my electricity and someone must go to the electric company to pay the bill.
-I’ll send the electrician.
-DON’T SEND THE ELECTRICIAN. Please, listen to my words. You must send someone to the electric company to pay the bill. I don’t have the bill, because I just moved in today, but last time this happened, I didn’t have the bill either, and we managed to sort it out by going to the electric company.
-Do you have the bill?
-I don’t have the bill. I just moved in today. I’m standing here looking at the box, and there is no bill.
-It’s there. Slotted into the box.
-There’s no bill in the box. I’m standing in front of the box right now. There’s no bill. Just like last time.
-You stay there. I’m sending the electrician.

Last time this happened, it took 3 days for me to have electricity because no one would listen to me and go pay the electric company. This time, I didn’t just stay at home and wait. I got in a cab, went to work, found a driver, found an electrician, went to the electric company together, and sorted out the problem before nightfall. It took 3 trips to the electricity company, and 3 trips back and forth to my house, but we did it in 5 hours, not 3 days like last time. [There’s also a huge water bill that hasn’t been paid yet though, so I’m just waiting to see when they cut my water.]

-So, did they sort out your electricity problem?
-Kathryn, I’ve decided that it’s best not to try to save people time and effort by skipping them through 5 steps in the process. They’re just not prepared for that. They can’t even hear it, and meanwhile I’m left exhausted. They have to follow the usual sequence of activities, involving the usual people who do those things. They’re not prepared for a white planner knowing when her electricity’s been cut in Africa. That’s an African electrician’s job to determine.

Westerners, especially North Americans, tend to favour specifics like using people’s given names, instead of labeling them as the property of some familial line, and you can be fired for generalizing people into labels like “the dark man”, “the fat woman”, “the fair girl”, and “the crippled man”. Ambiguity and generalization manifests in so many facets of Ghanaian culture. Every Ghanaian has several names – a Christian name, a name that indicates the day you were born, and a surname. In general public life, most people go by their day-they-were-born name, making it much easier for people to remember everyone’s names, because there are only 14 of them [7 days of the week for men, 7 days of the week for women]. Where this generalization becomes most dangerous though is in tribalism, and sexism.

-George: Women in Ghana are their own worst enemies.
-Me: Yes, I’ve attended sessions on gender equality in Africa at International Conferences, and all the African men complained that women in power were always striking each other down. But that hasn’t been my experience at all – all my girlfriends here are super supportive allies.
-Evelyn: I will never vote a woman into power. I will die before I’d elect a woman into power.
-George: See?
-Me: How can you mean that Evelyn? Women are just as capable as men, and recent studies are suggesting we make superior managers. Besides, men seem to be especially fumbling up the world in the last few decades.
-Evelyn: Look at the character of women in power. Look at your housemate.
-Me: Actually, yes. That was something that was very disappointing. The only woman with any managerial role of the entire Assembly’s staff, and she fulfills all the stereotypes associated with catty women. She doesn’t get along with a single female staff member and has even let her dislike of other women escalate to the point where there have been several management meetings just to discuss the “female problem” in the office. When she was being hostile and bullying me at home, management kept saying things like ‘women can’t share a kitchen’ and ‘the blacks can’t live with the whites’. Meanwhile, I have shared a dozen kitchens with a dozen women from countries and in countries all over the world. My inability to live comfortably with this woman was due to the particular character of a particular woman, not black-white, woman-woman issues.
-George: But women in Africa always see other women as a threat.

[Constantly being pinned against each other by men doesn’t exactly help, though. I’ve had men try to manipulate me into distrusting my girlfriends here, trying to plant the seed of distrust so that if the women happened to reveal the fact that these men were all married and deceiving me into believing they weren’t married, I’d distrust the women instead of distrusting the men. I’ve also listened to George rank the women in the office according to his tastes in a room full of these women he is ranking – practically mapping out which women are threats and which women are not.]

-Me: Women and men are not all that different, and I find many of my male friends struggle with the same things my female friends struggle with. In many circumstances I find I can relate to men more than women, just because of the roles I have had during the course of my life, and the independence I’ve been fortunate enough to exercise. Being a woman is just one component of what makes me the person I am. And I definitely think a confident woman is still more likely to be ‘successful’ than an unconfident man.
-Evelyn: I will never vote a woman into power. I almost didn’t vote in the last district election, because there were so many women on the ballot.
-Me: You need to get past the label. I’ve never experienced labels like I have here. GET OVER IT. Not all Ewes like the colour red, not all Gas have a specific shape of forehead, being a ‘northerner’ is not an insult. See through the fact that she’s a woman, a Voltarian, or a Ga and listen to her words. If you like someone’s ideas, at least vote for those.

The label is what allows a culture of ambiguity to function. We need to form generalizations in order to make sense of our world and compartmentalize it into bite-sized boxes. The paradox of how rigid those boxes are is what makes for an interesting debate though. The ambiguous Africans have strict and absolute judgments about the contents of those boxes. The absolute Americans are careful not to restrict our judgments to the boxes, and are very ambiguous about how we self-identify.

-This is my friend Andrea from Canada. She stays in Morocco and is visiting for X-mas.
-Welcome! [to me]: Your friend doesn’t look like a Moroccan. She looks like a Chinese.
-She’s a Canadian, like me. She’s staying in Morocco for 2 years like I’m staying in Ghana for 6 months.
-Does she eat with chopsticks?
-Stop it. Did you know that I eat with chopsticks?
-But you’re a white lady. White ladies eat with a knife and fork. The Chinese eat with chopsticks.
-Well, I don’t have a knife and fork. I have chopsticks. Deal with it.

My colleague Patrick is the third Canadian to intern at the District Assembly where he works. Patrick is a mix of different European heritages, while the other interns were a Chinese-Canadian and a Nigerian-Canadian. When Patrick first arrived, he was introduced to the Assembly’s staff:

-This is Patrick. A real Canadian.

Walking down the street in Ghana, one is constantly called over to converse with people. Normally these conversations are limited to Country? Name? Marriage? Where are you going? Sometimes the conversation can be more elaborate though.

-How long did you practice that line? I realise that you’re just trying to be friendly and welcoming, but can I offer some advice about approaching white women?
-Why don’t you white ladies like talking to Ghanaian people?
-I spend most of my time talking to Ghanaians. Maybe I just don’t want to talk to you because you grabbed my arm, wouldn’t let go, and shouted in my ear. I felt like I was under attack, because in my country when someone grabs your arm and shouts in your ear, it is an attack. White women will interpret your behaviour as aggressive, even if you’re just trying to be friendly.
-Why should I have to change my behaviour when you come to my country?
-You’re absolutely right. And I do change my behaviour in your country. But I can’t change my instinctive reaction to what I’m interpreting as aggressive behaviour. I just want you to know that when white ladies don’t come talk to you, it’s usually because they have misinterpreted you.
[his friend realises that he doesn’t like what I’m saying and decides to intervene in our conversation]
-You know, I went to your country and you people look down on my people.
-What country is this?
-Ghana is closer to Germany than the country I come from! I come from North America. People from North America can look like people from Africa.
-But those aren’t real Americans. They’re Africans.
-Well, they’re both.
-No, they’re Africans. Someone may be born in America, but they’re not Americans. They are African, or maybe Chinese, but they are not American.
-But white people aren’t from America either.
-White people came from Europe to America, much like they came from Europe to Africa. The difference is that their diseases killed most of the people who were already in America, whereas in Africa, African diseases killed the Europeans.
-I doubt you have ever seen one of the original people of the Americas in Ghana. So, an African-American has just as much claim to the word “American” as a European-American.
-They are Africans.
-Why do you get to decide how they should self-identify. What if someone was half white, half black, and born in Canada?
-They’re a mulatto. They are no one.
-Excuse me?
-If your parents come from different tribes or different countries, you are nothing.
-But their parents often both come from America – the same country. Besides, my parents come from different countries. So I am nothing?
-Exactly. You are nothing.
-What happened to the piano? I think pianos make beautiful music!

Isolating one’s gene pool can be a very dangerous thing, just look at monarchs. Genetic disorders can be avoided by mixing as many gene pools as possible. When I was a very young child, I observed that my sister and my brother were very close and I asked my mother if they would get married. She said that they couldn’t get married. When I asked why, she said “Well, their children would have back problems”

[My mother always had clever ways to explain things to me as a child. In the 1980s, when American popularity was at its height and Reagan was in power, I asked my mother, who’s American, why we don’t live in America if it’s the greatest country in the world. She said “Well my dear, in America, actors can become presidents!”]

-Evelyn, why don’t you marry Edom?
-He’s from the Volta Region. Ashantis don’t marry Voltarians. My father would never allow it.
-But you would marry a white person, right?
-You don’t understand. My tribe, and his tribe, we don’t marry.
-But when you start dividing people, there’s no end to it! If Ashantis took over all of West Africa, you’re father would say ‘now you can only marry Ashantis with thick eyebrows’.

With post-natal plastic surgeries, and pre-natal eradication of genetic imperfections, pre-selection of the physical characteristics of one’s offspring is just around the corner. In some cultures, the practice of getting an ultrasound to determine the sex of a child has already resulted in the abortion of a high number of female fetuses. In a few decades, the rich and the poor will be distinguishable by their genetic and environmental flaws. But, if I were born with a cleft lip or a birth mark across my face, I’d probably prefer surgery so that I could enjoy the same opportunities in life as everyone else too. If we’re a world of not getting past the physical attributes of the label, then equality would mean that everyone must look the exact same, wouldn’t it? We can’t discriminate against each other if we are all in-discriminable.

I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope countries like Canada prove that we can get past the label, that there isn’t one marketable thing with which to define/judge us. That we not only defy the label, but that we challenge its existence in a modernising world.

Who is a real Canadian? Our culture of absolutes seems to thrive best under a magically ambiguous self-identity.