We all feel the need to be in control. We like to know where we are, what is going on, and how to act.
When we are thrust into situations without knowledge or power, it is tempting to want to rush back to a place where we know what is happening and can be prepared: our comfort zone.
Sometimes, we have to resist that urge. Don’t know what the day holds? That’s alright. We need to be okay with the inability to present ourselves in the way we would like. It is not the end of the world if you cannot always be the socially adept, on-top-of-it-all person you would like to be. And I believe there is nothing that can teach this lesson quite like cross-cultural engagement.
The summer before my Sophomore year of high school, I went to Côte d’Ivoire on the west coast of Africa. My church has a connection to a Bible school in Korhogo (the largest city in the north of the country), and through our contact there we were connected with a local village that was building a new church. We put together a team, raised funds for materials, and went to help with the construction. It would not have been culturally appropriate for women to help with construction work, so we decided to divide and conquer. The men would go to the village and help with construction, while the women would stay in the city and paint bedrooms in the newly built dormitory for a girls’ vocational school. One more thing I should add: I was the only girl on my team. I was 15 years old with a superficial knowledge of French, and I would spend the days alone painting walls with three Ivorian girls.
As one can imagine, I was apprehensive about being by myself in a foreign country and spending the day with strangers, let alone strangers who did not speak my language. On the first day I showed up to the school and was introduced to the girls I would be working with. They were around my age. We had to wait a while for instructions on what to do, so we sat around and made our best attempts to get to know each other. Between their little English and my un peu de Français we could barely talk to each other, so much of the time was spent in uncomfortable silence. As we sat in the heat with the flies circling us, they picked up my phone and started to look through my pictures. I was a little surprised, because that’s not something anyone would do in the US. However, I didn’t really mind, so I went along with it and pointed out my siblings as they came up through the camera roll. When the missionary and an African man who must have been in charge of construction came over to get us started painting, the girls voiced a concern (translated by the missionary) about me ruining my nice clothes with paint. Worried about making a good first impression, I had chosen an outfit that was a little nicer than the grungy work clothes I should have worn. And now, rather than helping my confidence, my clothes were just another thing which made me feel awkward, unprepared, and out of place. I assured everyone that my clothes would be fine, and we got to work.
Our job was to paint the upper half of the bedroom walls and add a border of shapes along the bottom edge of the paint. The missionary showed us with a stencil where she wanted them to be: “comme ci.” The construction worker created a makeshift scaffolding with a base of two oil drums that revealed some green under a paste of dirt. These he straddled with a board, placed two five gallon buckets atop that, and finally balanced another board between the smaller buckets. He motioned for me to try climbing it first (either wanting to honor the guest or laugh at the American?) and the group chuckled as, feeling a little embarrassed, I held my breath and mounted the wobbly structure in my skirt from Goodwill.
As the week passed, we became adept at scrambling up and down our “scaffolding.” We also were able to communicate a bit more via google translate, broken French and English, and lots of hand motioning. Through it all, the language barrier and different ways of doing things meant that it took me longer than others to recognize what was happening and how to respond.
As someone who likes to know what is going on and cares a little too much about how people view me, I was initially nervous about being thrust into a situation where I didn’t know the unspoken cultural norms and didn’t have the power to explain myself to others. I had to get used to people laughing and not knowing whether it was directed at me or not. It was necessary for me to go with the flow in every situation even when I had no idea what was around the corner— be it toilets that didn’t flush or rice with sauce that was the same shade of green we used to paint.
I remember one day, a woman working in the kitchen sent one of my Ivorian friends on an errand and I was brought along for the ride. As usual, I didn’t know where, why, or what was happening. I just followed her out of the gates of the school and we walked down the street of rust-red soil. I had no easy way of asking what we were doing, so I simply enjoyed the walk and took in the sights of babies tied to the backs of mothers, motorcycles piled with people or produce, and various storefronts along the road. After a few minutes, we came to a tiny shop open to the street and stacked to the ceiling with food. We bought a giant can of crushed tomatoes and went back to the school. I did not know what was happening, what to do, and was unable to speak. But I went with it, and I was fine.
Before traveling to Côte d’Ivoire, I had always considered myself as an easygoing person. However, being alone in a foreign culture forced me to be content without control. I was awkward. People laughed at me. I could not explain myself. But, we found things we had in common. We laughed together, too. I went out of my comfort zone and eventually grew to be comfortable. I learned that when you can relax and go with the flow, you can find ease in places you never thought you could.
At some point, we will all find ourselves situationally lost. As much as we like to have knowledge about our surroundings and control over the day’s events, there are times when—either physically, mentally, or emotionally— we will have no idea where we are or what will happen next. However, simply taking a deep breath and embracing life can lead us to see that we do not need to have control over it all. By leaning into uncertainty, nerve-wracking situations can become enjoyable; and you can proclaim “C’est la vie,” even if you do not know what you just ate for lunch.