This morning I made my children soft boiled eggs and served them in egg cups. Yes, egg cups. Watching my children eat their breakfast out of a somewhat obscure dish in the realm of dishes, it struck me as quite strange. I live in the highlands of Papua in a valley accessible only by air and inhabited by thousands of tribal people, many of whom still live in traditional grass roof, dirt floor wooden huts. At the same moment my children were scooping runny yolks and spreading it on crunchy toast, my neighbors would be enjoying their own breakfasts of rice, or instant noodles, or sweet potatoes roasted in a fire.
Yes. In the world I live in, egg cups are strange. But then again so are forks and knives.
We had invited a local colleague over for dinner and decided we’d treat him to a traditional English dinner of Shepherd’s Pie. Actually, if you’re wondering, I am American. My husband is British, but after living in England and coming up to 16 years of marriage, I rather inevitably learned how to cook British food. I make a decent cup of tea too – the proper way. Anyway, back to the story…
Our colleague sat down at the table with us and hesitated to start eating. “Is it ok? Do you have any questions?” I asked. “Well, this is the first time I’ve used these.” he said pointing to the fork and knife beside his plate. My husband gave a fork-holding, knife-cutting demonstration. “Would you like a spoon?” I asked and quickly got up from the table to fetch one.
Another time the mothers of my son’s friends came by to collect their boys. They had all been playing with cars in the living room of our small apartment, and since usually an older brother came by when it was going-home time, I was delighted to have these two women in my home. We chatted for a bit and I offered to show them pictures of my parents and family. They had never met a westerner before and so were quite curious about us.
I stepped out to the bedroom to collect the photos. and as I walked back into the living area, the ladies had opened my refrigerator and were peering inside. As far as they were concerned only shops had refrigerators. I stopped before they saw me, backed up and cleared my throat to give them a chance to shut the fridge before I walked in. They did, and I stepped in to show photos, pretending nothing unusual had happened.
Egg cups…cutlery…. home refrigeration… let’s add buying in bulk to the list, too. I do a big shop once a month and can read the checkout clerk’s thoughts every time, “Do you have some sort of problem? Why would you possibly need that much toilet paper?”
We are in our fifth year in our highland home. I’d like to think I’ve got the hang of living here, but the reality is I probably truly understand about 20% of the cultural happenings around me. The society here is so complex, and I am so bizarre to them.
Back in language school, I tried really hard to integrate. I wanted acceptance and deep friendships. I wanted to be treated like “one of us” instead of “that westerner.” I thought success was in my grasp as I’d made many friends. Then one day I overheard a friend explaining who I was to someone else. She didn’t know I was there listening and said, “She’s that westerner, I forget her name.” I teasingly called her out and we all had a giggle, but still the disappointment remained – she didn’t even know my name.
Five years later, I’m still mostly “that westerner.” I guess I can take comfort in the fact that at this point a lot more people do know my name, but it still isn’t what primarily defines me. Nowadays I’ve given up the integration dream in favor of peculiarity.
You see, peculiar is something I can do. I can serve dinner with a fork and knife, along with the optional spoon, to a friend who does know my name. I can buy 24 rolls of toilet paper and address the clerk’s inner confusion with a joke about weak western stomachs. I can use and explain egg cups, my daughter’s stroller, duvet covers, eating raw greens (aka salad), our gas stove, and a thousand other peculiar things.
Peculiarity is something I can embrace because it’s what I really am. Of course I am hopeful the longer I live here the more I’ll understand the intricacies of this culture. But why fool myself? Someone will probably always want to sneak a peek in my fridge.