A common thing in PNG culture is to be indirect. Imagine I want to tell my friend that I’d like her to give me her T-shirt. I would say “Hey, that’s a nice T-shirt!” The message would come loud and clear that I really would like to have her shirt. Imagine the potential for misunderstanding since when we as westerners say “nice T-shirt”, we intend to give a compliment and bond with our friend.
These things aren’t new to me and I experienced this many times in town before I came to Kovol, but I still find myself making these mistakes.
Off the top of my head, I can think about me and my coworker when, hearing that someone had just returned from the coast, we made small talk and tried to bond talking about how good the coconuts on the coast are. Our Kovol friend understood from this that we really miss coconut and that we want some. So she went home, looked at her stash of three coconuts she had carried all the way along the trail back to the village, and gave one to me, one to my coworker, and one she kept for herself. We felt terrible, but refusing the sacrificial, generous gift is far worse for the relationship than claiming 2/3 of her precious coconuts!
What a concrete example of the Kovol people’s generosity and care towards us though 🙂
But this is just one of many stories. Somehow we don’t learn or let’s say we don’t think about it. I am a talker and often I am not careful enough to think about what I say. People are expecting me to be like them and solve problems indirectly and so they are listening for those signals from me where I indicate there’s a problem to be solved. So on to my latest faux pas…
We started a small garden a year ago with some tomatoes, onions, sugarcane, sweet potatoes and other things. What we planted was irresistible to the village pigs and chickens who came and destroyed a lot of what we had planted. I was a bit sad looking at my ruined garden and made the mistake of vocalizing my disappointment. I quickly qualified what I said with lots of “it’s no big deal” and “it’s ok; it happens”, but the damage was done. We went into damage control mode as radical ideas such as that of everyone moving their houses a good distance away from us spread through the Kovol villages. That was about a year ago.
For us, pigs getting into our garden is a little disappointing and frustrating. Our side project/hobby suffers a setback, but for the Kovol people who feed their families from their gardens, pigs getting into gardens is deadly serious stuff. Our protestations of “it’s no big deal” don’t convince them because to them it would be.
Putting up a fence around our little garden ended up being the approved solution and all was calm for a while. Over the last months though pigs have been digging just outside the fence, messing up trails, and damaging trees. From our point of view, it’s all fine; we are living in a village after all. So we joke to each other about the pigs digging away at the fence.
When my coworker wanted to start growing seeds in pots, I warned her to keep them on her veranda so that chickens can’t eat the seeds. People overheard. Queue round 2 of “we, the community, need to do something drastic to stop the pigs and chickens upsetting the missionaries”.
Village meetings were called where our neighbours were told that they really should move away with their chickens and pigs. The main pressure was coming from groups who aren’t living close to us and aren’t hearing our reassurances that the animals aren’t upsetting us all that much. Thanks to God that there was one guy who was brave enough to tell Philip about those meetings or we would never have heard a thing about it. Philip was able to convince them to talk directly to us about it and so we could tell them that no one needed to move house or anything crazy.
I was honestly really upset that our relationship which we’re working day in and day out to build was threatened by such small things. I love living close to the people (we all do) so we can learn with them and be with them. It would make our work really hard if the people closest to us moved away. We want our kids to play with their kids and we want to be close to village life and have easy access to language helpers. We expect the pigs and chicken to dig up places. it’s ok. We told the people that and more.
The result of the meeting is that people will stay close to us, and that they should try to move their pigs and piglets, once they get a bit older, somewhere further away.
Also, trees have been planted between our house and the nearest other houses for more ‘privacy’.
We hope the suggestions don’t extend to including the “Let’s build a big fence all the way around the missionaries and designate the area as a station” idea that we’ve heard before, but people feel a pressure to look after us well and so we keep hearing ideas like that 🙂
An unfortunate result of clearing all this up has been that the people pushing for more radical solutions are feeling ashamed because they were actually pushing for something against our wishes. Their heart’s desire is to look after us well and treat us with honour, but they end up hearing from us that they were wrong, and this made them feel bad. One of those leaders even cut his hand accidentally, and I think that accident has a good chance of being interpreted as a sign that he has offended us. If so, harmony will need to be restored by eating a special meal with us, with meats and special foods that are hard to get. I always feel so, so bad accepting these meals because from my point of view there’s nothing wrong; but of course to refuse it would be to kill the relationship 🙁 I feel like I’m taking food from their mouths.
In our training “It’s not wrong; it’s just different” was often repeated regarding culture. Here it certainly is true. In our culture, if you have a problem with someone the right thing to do is to speak to the person directly and sort it out. Here the correct thing to do is to work through an intermediary, and to get them to raise the issue on your behalf. Unfortunately, that means our neighbours are keyed into listening for signals I don’t intend to send. A little comment here and there about the pigs is interpreted as my attempting to solve a problem.
It’s a learning curve for me — to be aware of what we say, and it’s also a learning curve for the Kovol people: we’re different, don’t go looking for signs that we’re intending to solve a problem through an intermediary.. We’re all still learning, and may God use all these misunderstandings, stresses and mess to bring people to Him!
Lois S. · 22/08/2021 at 1:18 am
Wow! That sounds challenging! Relationships have a lot of aspects that are not always readily apparent. Even in western relationships there are indirect/nonverbal aspects that are not considered because people generally know them. Adding cross-cultural aspects that are very different can make things even more challenging. We and they need mental hypotheses, not mental narratives about why people do what they do. We need to check the hypotheses the best we can, rather than acting on the narratives. I will pray for the situation!