A Zookeeper in Action: When Locals Help Explain Foreign Behavior

As a Third Culture Kid living in Africa, I would sit in the shade with my father when visitors came.

One day, a trusted employee named André stopped by.

As was normal in the Mossi culture, discussion unfolded at length in a friendly manner, while we drank cup after cup of water.

When the conversation wound down, André at last stood to leave.

It was only then that the aim of his visit became known.

The Favor

A wedding was approaching, and André wanted to ask my dad for help in transporting bags of sorghum (a type of grain). 

The pair sat down again to discuss.

My father told André that while he would like to help, he was unfortunately very busy and couldn’t take the day off that the bad roads would require to transport the grain.

André left and, from that day onward, their relationship was broken.

My father’s trusted employee and cohort now avoided him like the plague.

My father wondered what he’d done wrong. He felt helpless and couldn’t change what happened.

He also couldn’t find fault in what he had said or done. 

He understood he’d had a monkey moment but wasn’t sure what his blunder was.

He really was busy and, on such short notice, couldn’t accommodate André’s request. He had explained and apologized for this.

No matter how hard he tried, his relationship with André didn’t improve.

At a loss, my father sought out his zookeeper for assistance.

The Zookeeper Explains

Freeman Kabore was born of noble blood from Ouagadougou.

He spent time studying in Europe and so had familiarity with both cultures; the perfect quality in a zookeeper.

When my father told Zookeeper Freeman about what had unfolded between him and André, Freeman taught him something about Mossi culture.

An important request like this one should not be refused upon sight.

Instead, one should take the time to consider the request – or at least have the courtesy to appear to take the time to consider it.

If my father had told André, “I will think about it. Please come back tomorrow, and I will let you know,” and then, the following day, kindly declined, this would have been acceptable in Mossi culture.

To the Mossi, this face-saving formality shows your friend the respect he deserves.

Being delivered a direct “no” is considered rude and inconsiderate.

With help from Zookeeper Freeman, my father learned an important norm of the Mossi culture, one that would save him from further monkey moments and help him maintain valuable friendships.

Next week, we’ll talk about Third Culture Kids: the ultimate zookeepers.

The Zookeeper: Your Intermediary in a Foreign Culture 

As a foreigner in another culture, we are caged monkeys in a zoo.

This is a common theme in my blog and particularly in my book, I am the Monkey.

As monkeys in the zoo, we look outside our habitats and wonder at the strange animals called “humans” – i.e. the local people whose culture we’re living in.

Why are they staring at us all the live-long day?

The noises they make are odd. The fur they wear is multicolored. Their actions are diabolical.

But of all the humans who gather around our cage, there is one that we can identify with: the Zookeeper.

How Zookeepers Behave

Unlike the human spectators who throw peanuts at you, the zookeeper gives you real food.

More than that, she knows when you’re hungry.

Instead of making strange noises and pulling faces at you, she approaches you normally, she moves naturally.

As a monkey, you don’t fear the Zookeeper, because the Zookeeper doesn’t cause confusion.

Though she is not a monkey, she understands monkeys, and you understand her.

This is the type of person you need when integrating into a foreign culture: a local who understands you and who you understand too.

You may not speak the same mother tongue, but you are still able to communicate well enough to get by.

Cultural Food

The Zookeeper can feed you the cultural food you need to help understand their culture.

Good zookeepers understand both cultures well enough to hash out any differences and help explain their own culture in a way to which you can relate.

Knowing both monkeys and humans allows the Zookeeper to build bridges, providing explanations for behaviors and mental models to aid understanding.

Zookeepers can tell the humans, “You’re making too much noise and scaring the monkeys.”

They can tell the monkeys, “The humans don’t mean to alarm you; they’re just excited to meet you.”

They can tell the humans, “Don’t feed them; they just ate.”

They can tell the monkeys, “I know you’re not hungry but feeding guests is part of the human culture.”

Through understanding and effective communication, the Zookeeper is the intermediary between the two worlds, aiding both the monkey’s integration and the humans’ ability to help this foreigner integrate.

Next week, we’ll look at an example of a genuine zookeeper in action. 

Celebratory Food: How Dishes are Tied to History & Religion Through Sacred Stories

A soup of unleavened bread.

A crescent-shaped pastry.

A turnip harvested in the prairie.

What do these three foods have in common?

They’re celebratory foods made important through tradition and the stories we weave.

History, religion, and spirituality play a part in creating the lore and sacred stories behind our favorite holiday meals and treats, as well as our everyday gruel.

From Jewish passover to Viennese Christmas, let’s take a trip around the world with these celebratory dishes.

Jewish Matzo Ball Soup

Enjoyed during Passover, Matzo Ball Soup is presented at Seder supper.

In celebrating a holiday where the Hebrew slaves were freed from Egypt, the symbolic meal represents this tale in the Biblical Exodus.

The Jews ate unleavened bread when fleeing, which is represented in the Matzo.

The dash of bitter horseradish symbolizes slavery’s bitterness.

Austrian Vanillekipferl

The Vanillekipferl is a pastry that’s shaped like a “kipferl” – or crescent moon.

Originating in Vienna around four centuries ago, the pastry’s lore says that the kipferl was developed by Austrians to symbolize their victory over the Ottoman Turks, whose banner held a crescent moon.

Funnily enough, the Vanillekipferl’s shape was developed into other pastries – specifically, the croissant which found its way to France.

The French adapted it with puffed pastry, creating a whole new spin on the tasty treat.

Blackfeet Indian Prairie Turnips

Various native tribes in America viewed certain foods as sacred and tied them to important lore.

Prairie turnips, for instance, were believed to come from the “Sky realm” by the Blackfeet Indians.

Feather Woman (Soatsaki) learned how to harvest prairie turnips from her mother-in-law, the Moon (Ko’komiki’somm).

She then returned to Earth to spread the word, making the prairie turnip a staple in Blackfeet cuisine.

Food + Stories = Tradition

Each of these foods has its lore, and its lore is what makes eat bite special.

From the symbolic nature of the Matzo Ball Soup to the celebratory nature of the crescent-shaped Vanillekipferl to sacred staples like maize to the Mayans or prairie turnips to the Blackfeet Indians, the rich stories that accompany such foods keep the oven hot.

And they keep our traditions cooking.

Intangible Cultural Heritage: What Foods Does UNESCO Deem Worthy of Singling Out?

We can divine so much about a culture from their monuments, homes, pottery, and other physical objects and structures left behind.

From Incan temples to Egyptian pyramids, archeologists and other anthropologists are able to piece together the values and norms of past cultures through the tangible cultural heritage they created and built.

In other words, tangible objects – the visible branches of the cultural baobab – allow experts to infer theories about the culture’s invisible roots.

Intangible cultural heritage does the same.

So, what aspects of cultural heritage are considered “intangible”?

Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as including:

“traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

Moreover, in order to check all of UNESCO’s boxes, intangible cultural heritage must be a) traditional, contemporary and living at the same time; b) inclusive; c) representative, and; d) community-based.

Food falls into this category.

What Can Food Tell Us About A Culture?

“The best couscous is my mother’s.”

Recently in 2020, UNESCO approved couscous as an intangible cultural heritage of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.

The four North African countries submitted a joint application for their signature dish which originates with the indigenous Berber culture.

Their successful application put couscous on the map, not only as an item of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, but as an “example of international cooperation.”   

Made of durum wheat, corn, or barley, the preparation of couscous involves a ceremonial process, beginning with its cultivation and ending with its consumption.

After the cereal is grown, semolina is made by grounding the seeds. It is then rolled by hand – with plenty of olive oil – and steamed over a special tool called a couscoussière.

Apostrophekola-real, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Large batches of couscous are often made in a big bowl, as the semolina might be eaten over days and in various ways.

Seasoned often according to regional preferences, variations include couscous mixed in with a meat stew, with chickpeas, with various veggies, with turned milk.

Image by Patou Ricard from Pixabay 

A special seasoning blend called Ras El Hanout, which combines over a dozen spices, some specific to the region, is often mixed in.

The importance of couscous in every aspect of North African culinary life means that the dish is brought out for nearly every traditional occasion – weddings, family reunions, holidays – as well as for basic daily meals.

What rice is to many Asian countries, couscous is to North Africa. The versatility of the dish is part of its cultural heritage.

Gastronomical Dishes & Methods

Whether its the tradition of Korean kimchi-making, known as kimjang, or the art of Neapolitan pizza-making, known as pizzaiuolo, every culture has their own food traditions that could be considered intangible cultural heritage.

What are yours?

Food: A Universal Language

A plate of Italian pasta.

A dish of Japanese sushi.

A bowl of Ukrainian borscht.

Traditional dishes from around the world bring together many elements of the culture on a plate.

They’re like a sensory representation of the larger culture.

And even better – cuisine is a great conversation starter, because it’s rare that food is taboo.

No Food Taboo

Unlike other cultural areas – like dress, honor, sexuality – there isn’t much taboo surrounding food.

Every culture loves their traditional dishes, and every culture wants to talk them up.

Bring up religion at the dinner table, and you’ll be walking a minefield.

Bring up sexuality in some cultures, and you’ll likely be shown the door – or at the minimum, be on the receiving end of some death stares.

Bring up food, and nearly everyone will be overjoyed and will love to share their favorite dishes, their cultural heritage.

Food is not a hot button issue (unless you’re arguing which pizza is better: Chicago deep dish or a New York slice).

And you can talk about food all day, because not only does it vary across cultures, it varies across regions of the same culture.

For instance, a pizza in Northern Italy will be prepared with thin crust; the more south you go, the thicker the crust gets.

How it’s prepared, the regions’ special touches, what special treats are made for celebrations and holidays.

People of every culture are exuberant about sharing their food; this is one area of conversation you can be relatively sure about.

Food Culture: France vs. Denmark

Discussing one’s food culture can also reveal some pretty interesting discrepancies between countries and their approach to food.

As we talked about last week, the how, when, why, and with whom of food can give you some hints about the broader culture itself.

Danish Professor of International Marketing Dominique Bouchet knew this and so compared the differences between French and Danish food culture.

As one might expect, significant differences exist.

The French view eating as a social experience.

The importance placed on food is reflected by their language, which has a broad vocabulary for food, eating, and even specific tastes.

The Danes view food more as a source of nutrition and energy. Pleasure and the social experience takes a backseat.

While you might see a French person touching and smelling fresh ingredients at a market for a good deal of time before they purchase their products, you’re unlikely to see a Dane do the same.

What we eat and why we eat is a major indicator of who we are.

Bouchet writes:

“Fresh oysters and red meat are seldom appreciated in Denmark, whereas in France exactly red meat is perceived as being more alive, and thereby more powerful and appetizing. The animalistic aspect is seen as something positive in France and Spain, whereas the associations in Denmark and Germany are more in the direction of death and morbidity. The reaction is one of disgust, and therefore it is desirable to kill each and every trace of what is disgusting in a process of frying, boiling, or pasteurizing.” 

With food, our cultural differences are bolded and italicized.

This is why sharing food is so important to cultural integration.

If you are inquisitive and observant about your new culture’s food habits, you can deduce much more about a culture than just their food preferences.

You can discover the deep roots of their baobab.

Food Culture: What HOW You Eat Can Tell You About Culture

Do you eat your dinner at the dining table, or do you eat sitting crosslegged on the floor?

Do you share a communal dish of food, or does everyone have an individual plate?

What utensils do you use – a fork, spoon, and knife; chopsticks; your hands?

With whom do you eat? Family, friends, with only your own gender?

The answers to these questions are part of your food culture – and to a larger extent, your culture as a whole. 

On the surface, you see only the limbs of the baobab – the cultural norms – but the details of your food culture can tell you something deeper about the roots (i.e. your cultural values).

The Presentation: Food Plating

Another aspect of food culture is the amount of care put into food presentation.

One study delved into the differences between American, Italian, and Japanese food plating preferences.

Titled, “Looks Good Enough to Eat: How Food Plating Preferences Differ Across Cultures and Continents,” the study found that Japanese participants prefer more formally arranged plates, while Italians and Americans prefer more casually presented food.

The researchers concluded that this springs from the respective cultures’ individualist versus collectivist natures.

The Japanese are a collectivist culture, so formality and identical presentation may have roots in the Eastern collectivist tradition.

Italians and Americans are individualist Western cultures. Self-autonomy and informality, even in how one’s own plate is presented, may be rooted in this mindset.

The study also noted the fullness/emptiness of the plated food.

The Japanese and Americans’ plates were relatively empty, while the Italians preferred very full plates.

The researchers concluded that the preference for empty plates might be related to the Japanese and American ideal of open space.

How, When, Why, With Whom?

Food norms can tell you a lot about a culture, so when you’re trying to understand/learn a culture, consider these norms to understand the culture’s deeper values

Practice this with your favorite culture – or even your own.

Ask:

  • How often do you eat? How long do you take to eat? 

Many Mediterranean countries, for instance, spend hours dining each day, as sharing food is considered an important social event.

  • When do you eat?

The Spanish, for instance, eat dinner between 9 PM and midnight, and it’s a much lighter meal than lunch. This is historically linked to their afternoon siesta and being geographically located in the wrong time zone.

  • Why do you eat?

Some cultures tend to eat only for sustenance while others take more pleasure in eating.

  • With whom do you eat?

While eating is a family affair for most countries, for others this is not the case.

Answering these questions about food culture will help you understand that culture or learn something new. It will help you connect the dots between a culture’s norms and its values.

You Are What You Eat: How Our Food Culture Defines Us

Think about the first time someone shared food with you.

Maybe your best friend offered you his dessert at the school lunch table.

Maybe your neighbor had you and your family over for afternoon tea.

You probably felt more connected to that person, and it wasn’t just about the food. It was about the generosity of sharing and the ritual surrounding it.

Across many cultures, food traditions are ritualized and social.

So, it would stand that when you’re living in a foreign culture, joining in a meal with local friends can serve as a litmus test for how far you’ve come in your integration.

The Importance of Food

Just how important is food to culture?

If you’ve ever been to a cultural-based festival – like a Russian festival in America or an Italian festival in France – you’ll find that food is usually the festival’s focal point.

A culture’s cuisine and the traditions surrounding it (making the food, presenting the food, when and to whom it is served, etc.) are all integral to our cultural identity.

But we are not born with food culture etched into our DNA; it is learned.

Our Culinary Cultural Code is Written

University of Indiana Anthropology Professor Richard Wilk puts this learning process into perspective: 

“Your first relationship as a human being is about food. The first social experience we have is being put to the breast or bottle. The social act of eating, is part of how we become human, as much as speaking and taking care of ourselves. Learning to eat is learning to become human.” 

The type of foods we eat, our preferences, are all learned. They’re programmed into us during the early stages of primary socialization.

Food norms and behaviors are taught early on as a matter of survival. Parents strictly enforce what is to be eaten and what’s NOT to be, so that baby isn’t stuffing whatever he finds on the floor into his mouth.

And the things we are taught not to eat often later repulse us.

Eat This; Don’t Eat That

For instance, in Western culture, insects are for the birds.

As humans, we’re taught not to eat them.

If you are later offered a plate of Korean Beondegi, Japanese Inago, or some other fried insect dish, you’re likely to have a physiological response – and not a positive one.

SadiaK123 from Pixabay 

In fact, just looking at this picture, you might feel a little nauseous.

Culture is powerfully influential when it comes to food likes and dislikes. And the results are fairly permanent.

This is why, when you move to another culture as an expat, immigrant, or refugee, food preferences are often amongst the last cultural habits to go (if they go at all).

And these habits involve not just WHAT you eat but HOW you eat.

Next week, we’ll take a deeper dive into the how.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 3: Transfer & Alter Cues

Think back to your first few weeks in your host culture.

Although excited for the newness of the foreign environment, you felt discomfort.

Out of place and homesick, you sought anything that was familiar – that might make you feel at ease.

Videocalls to your friends and family back home.

Your favorite sweater or blanket.

Even a familiar homegrown location, like Starbucks or McDonald’s.

Whatever made you feel at home again, you chased it.

These are what we call “cues.”

They’re little things that make you feel comfortable and familiar with your environment.

And they will come in handy when dealing with reverse culture shock.

What are Reentry Cues?

As you did when moving to a foreign country, take something of your host country home with you.

This “something” can be physical, from traditional objects that you’ve accumulated to your favorite herbs and spices of the cultural cuisine.

Or it can be intangible, like routines, customs, or values or norms that you’ve adopted from your host culture, like late night dinners or family-centered customs.

Any type of cultural cue can help you adjust to your reentry.

Bring & Alter Cues

You can either bring these cues directly from your host country, for instance a traditional dress, a favorite book, or your favorite chocolate bar.

Or you can alter existing cues in your home country to mirror those from your host country.

For instance, you might alter your diet, adjusting for more veggies, more spices, etc. – whatever reminds you of your host’s foreign cuisine. 

You can alter your surroundings – laying down a carpet or mat made in your host country, for instance.

Or you might alter how you host people in your home or how you approach being a guest in others, according to some of the customs you’ve adopted.

There are many physical and psychological ways to transfer and alter cues that’ll help you transition back into your home country without fully renouncing your adopted one.

You will eventually have to fully re-adapt to your home country, but you don’t have to altogether abandon aspects of your host country that you adore.

The bottom line: introducing new cues will allow you to ease in, just as it did when you moved to your host country what feels like a lifetime ago.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 2: Managing Expectations

Simply knowing that returning home is often accompanied with its own version of culture shock (i.e. reverse culture shock) won’t help you avoid it, in and of itself.

What will help is to take these steps to reversing reverse culture shock, the second of which is to manage your expectations.

In order to manage them, you must first know what they are.

Think ahead and develop healthy mental and physical strategies for the potential obstacles facing you upon your return home.

The best way to do that is to brainstorm and write it down.

The following lists can help you with that.

Great Expectations

First, consider what your expectations are about your return home.

What changes do you expect – in both your home and in you? How will you interact with these changes, and how will your family, friends, and environment interact with you?

Answer the following questions to help identify your expectations:

  • How will I feel about home? How will I feel about leaving my host country?
  • What does home look like? Will it be like the last photo your memory took?
  • What will be different there? What will be the same? What will I have to get used to?
  • What will be easier upon returning home? What will be more frustrating?
  • How will the people in my life interact with me? How will I interact with them?
  • What are my goals upon returning home? What are my next steps? How will I set out to achieve them?
  • How will my life change? What is my new role at home?

Coping Strategies

After having an idea about what your expectations are, you should prepare some healthy ways to manage them and to cope with reverse culture shock.

This will help you readjust readily to your home country.

If you already have healthy ways of dealing with stress, then use these.

If you don’t, try not to avoid unhealthy habits and prepare some healthy ones, like one/or more of the following:

  • Participate in common methods of stress-relief, like good diet, exercise, soothing hobbies, etc.
  • Organize your time and energy so that adjustment is manageable
  • Communicate with friends abroad and local friends
  • Get involved in community activities or groups to socialize and adjust, such as clubs, sport teams, religious/spiritual groups, community service groups, international groups, etc.
  • Transfer or modify some of the values/norms of your host culture to your home

We’ll talk more about this last bullet point next week, in Step 3: Transferring & Modifying Culture.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 1: Getting Closure

Imagine spending years of breezy beach time in the slow-paced life of a tropical island…

Only to return to your home: a fast-paced city where everyone is in a rush.

Imagine spending years in a country where food never goes to waste…

Only to return to portion sizes that are two times too large, and excess food is frequently thrown out.

Imagine spending years cultivating values and norms that are centered around honor and family

Only to return to an individualist culture that values self-reliance and independence

Returning from life abroad can feel like jumping into a familiar but cold pool of water.

Although you think you remember everything about this pool and belong to this pool, the reality hits you like ice.

The fact that you’ve acclimatized to another culture’s warm waters is startling. Your own culture’s temperature catches you off guard. 

You may not know what hit you.

As we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, this is reverse culture shock.

Expect to Feel Shocked

If you want to get out ahead of reverse culture shock, knowing that it can – and likely will – happen is first things first.

You are here, educating yourself about the issue, which is a GREAT way to equip yourself with the tools to face it down when it does.

Just as you equipped yourself to adjust to a foreign culture and dealt with your initial culture shock, it’s always better to be prepared and expect that you may feel discomfort upon returning home – almost like you’ve missed a step coming down the stairs.

Step 1: Get Closure on Your Experience

Before returning home, prepare.

One essential part of this preparation is to say goodbye and gain some closure with a place and a people that has been your home.

As mentioned in a previous post, those who are ripped unexpectedly from their host culture and forced to return home have a harder time with reverse culture shock.

So, if you expect to return home and have the opportunity to gain closure, take it.

Shared by the U.S. Department of State, actions you can take that will allow you to feel closure include:

  • Getting a proper goodbye in with friends and/or hosting a “going away” party prior to departure; this will allow you to gather your friends’ contact information, if you don’t have it already, so you can keep in touch
  • Snapping pics and videos of your home, your place of work/school, your favorite haunts, and your favorite people
  • Picking up or hanging onto keepsakes that mean something to you
  • Creating an in-country bucket list of sorts and making time to hit up all the sites you’d regret not visiting

These are just some ways to gain closure from this significant experience. 

Leaving can feel a bit like a relationship break-up, so be prepared for a bit of heartache and nostalgia.

Tune in next week for Step 2: Managing Expectations.