There is little question about it – my 28 months in Peace Corps will be defined by my cross-cultural teaching and learning experiences; moments where I get a live a unique aspect of Cameroonian culture and moments where I get to share a piece of my American culture. However fascinating shared cross-cultural moments can be, I am finding that it is the pieces of culture that translate comprehensively across oceans, horizons, and political boundaries that intrigue me most.
You know them: the moments that make you forget where you are in the world, that challenge your perceived understanding of place, make you do a double-take of your surroundings: cultural crossings.
A church service. The room is lofty, the air, a bit stuffy – slightly damp, the result of a morning rain shower. Passionate words, warm with the voice of a soft-spoken, lively pastor, slice through the otherwise hushed room like a knife. I ignore him – not out of ignorance or incomprehension – I simply want to allow my other senses to grasp at my surroundings. Alas, I am not the only one day-dreaming.
I hear the gentle rustling of small children, peaking around their mother’s shoulders, trying to catch the gaze of a friend to share a muted giggle. Infants, cooing, jabbering, crying, their mothers tenderly trying to console them, bouncing them rhythmically on their laps, embracing them, perhaps a bit too close given the warmth of the room. Grandmothers look on with a longing twinkle in their eyes, sending a wiggle of the fingers or a kiss with the lips in their direction.
I am perched on a hard, wooden pew, much like I imagine the birds I hear, and sometimes even glimpse, darting past windows, are perched on tree branches, their song adding natural accompaniment to the interior church choir.
I sit with my thoughts. Only occasionally am I interrupted. By a hymn, a mutual standing of the congregation, a passing of the collection basket. Where am I, Pennsylvania or Cameroon?
The answer is irrelevant. Just as cultures can “cross” and provide a rich, vibrant, learning and teaching opportunity, cultures can also “cross” and be a commonality and a point of mutual understanding, a neutralizer to the myriad differences that so often isolate us: cultural crossings.
It is these cultural crossings, things so familiar placed in settings so foreign – supermarket dynamics, public transportation taboos, dinnertime with the family – which bring us closer, take the edge off of culture-shock, and allow for the rich, cross-cultural exchange to flourish.
I am very much looking forward to live these moments, both cross-cultural and crossed-cultural, and discover the diverse familiarities that inevitably exist in Cameroon.