Over the course of your work anywhere, people will say things that upset you. It's inevitable--in the workplace, in your family, in life. You are not going to like everyone. And even if you like most people, you are definitely not going to like everything they say. Cultural misunderstandings amplify the already-complicated process of day-to-day interactions.
Here is the pertinent example from my life in Botswana: being called fat.
It happens pretty much everyday, almost exclusively with people that I know--nurses from the clinic, women in the community, etc. I have learned that men are also saying that I am getting fat, but they won't say it to my face--mostly because they are saying it in a context of "wanting to get with me."
If I were sitting in the United States reading this, I may be outraged. "How rude!" I may think. "Fat" is an insult in American culture. But, in Botswana, that is actually not the case. These women are complimenting me.
Traditionally, the ideal woman in Botswana is bigger. She has large hips, large breasts and a prominent stomach. It may have something to do with needing strong women to work the lands. Portion sizes are also HUGE here. I came to the conclusion that it is because most traditional Botswana foods are not made to be re-heated. Perhaps this is also a remnant of life without refrigerators. Many families still live without electricity, but not as many as olden times. They pretty much cook every meal from scratch. And everything can be cooked over an open fire, if necessary. So all of the food must be eaten at once. And Batswana men like women that have some meat on them. Needless to say, this is a welcoming society to actually become fat in.
This ideal is changing with the younger generation, especially the students and young professionals who venture to the cities. They do not like being called "fat" and consider it an insult. Perhaps it is the influence of American culture. I am not quite sure.
Anyway...back to life in Shoshong...there are two ways that I can take being called fat. On the one hand, I have gained a little bit of weight, especially in my hips. So I can get self-conscious and feel guilty and start the whole self-loathing process that inevitably leads us all to unhealthy patterns and thoughts. Or I can turn it into a teachable moment.
Teachable moments. They are GLORIOUS. There are many other examples of them, like when people ask me if everyone in America has a maid, or claim that there are no poor people in America. Or when people ask my brunette friends why they have darker hair if they are American. You can either believe people are racist and/or ignorant, or you can understand that they simply do not know. And this is the beauty of teachable moments.
I do not claim to always follow the teachable moments philosophy. Sometimes people do not want to listen and I give up. Sometimes I do get upset, especially if I am having a bad day. But most of the time, this is how the "fat" conversation goes:
Woman: Nnete! You are getting very fat, you know!
Woman: You are! You are gaining weight!
Me: Ee, mma. Mma, just to let you know, saying that in America is an insult. It is not nice.
Woman: Ao! Sori mma!
Me: It's okay. I know that you mean I am montle (beautiful) thata. I am getting African wings! (What they call the fat part of your legs where your thighs and butt come together)
Woman: Haha! (And this usually coincides with some touching of my stomach or hips)
I love having these conversations. Surprisingly enough, it makes me feel good. I have embraced my "wings" and whatever body I will develop while I am here. I will eat the best that I can. I will go running. But some things cannot be helped, and that is okay. A healthy combination of understanding that they are trying to compliment me and teaching them about American culture is the way to go.