2013 BARER FELLOWS

A Tale of Two Cultures

by Stella Wangechi Ngotho

Growing up in Kenya there were only two breakfast cereals: Weetabix and Cornflakes. Here I was in Seattle, a few blocks from my home at a Safeway store amazed by their cereal stand that had over 50 brands, none of which I had come across. I strolled back and forth, picking every brand that jumped at me, reading through, hoping to select one that was most convincing. Many thoughts were running through my mind, including the disbelief that I was finally here. To say the least, I left, not having identified any cereal. I proceeded to walk around the University District, familiarizing myself with the area, now my neighborhood. The order of things couldn’t go unmissed: buses were in order, people kept right while walking on the sidewalks, it was generally clean and I thought how wonderful America is. Needless to say, I met several homeless people and honestly this made me feel at ease that after all, poverty is everywhere. I got the feeling that this was going to be a good year.

As expected, everywhere you travel there has to be a clash of cultures. I have had my share. I will share two of which I found most interesting. Back home in Kenya, when anyone invites you for lunch or coffee it means that they would be paying for your meal. After all, it is in their interest that you have accepted their invitation. It is also considered a nice gesture between friends. Here in America, the opposite was so. Everybody goes Dutch regardless of who invited the other. Obviously, not knowing that, I found myself being told by many that I am "overly kind". That being said, I have not changed. Whenever I invite someone for coffee I am unable to let them pay.

The second clash was of course the issue of time. I knew and had prepared that being late was absolutely rude and I adjusted accordingly, but nobody mentioned that arriving too early might be considered intrusive. In Kenya when one arrives early to an invitation, it means that they would like to help the host in preparation!

Being this far from home, I accept that I am on a cultural learning curve and my hope is that all around me are also culturally aware that when we come to America we are not wired into American ways. With time, it will all come together, for me and for all my new friends.

Last updated 11/14/2013