After living in Kampala for ten weeks, I’ve started to re-assess what it means to live cross-culturally. As I write this on a bright Saturday morning, I’m sitting in an air-conditioned coffee shop, drinking a caramel macchiato. Yep, that’s right. Kampala has air-conditioned coffee shops that serve caramel macchiatos.
I debated whether to tell you that. Sometimes I want people back home to keep their exotic image of my life here intact. I want them to imagine me buying all my groceries at the open-air market, (conversing the whole time in fluent Luganda), scrubbing my clothes by hand in cold water, traipsing through dusty roads and dirty trash piles to get to work, holding poor baby orphans as often as possible.
But as I’ve said before, that’s not a completely accurate picture of my life here. I meet friends for dinner at nice restaurants; my apartment complex provides a daily cleaning service and wireless internet as part of the rent; I can even go see the newest Harry Potter film at the movie theatre.
In many ways, I do the same things that I would do back in the States –I sing Christmas songs way too early in the year, I go running, I hang out with friends, I go to church on Sundays, I bake cookies and eat too many of them, I never know what I want when I go shopping and usually end up making a bad decision, I spend too much time blog-surfing on the internet and not enough time reading the books on my bookshelf.
The longer I live here, the more I’m convinced that it’s not necessarily the big parts of life that change when you move across cultures. Adapting to life in a different culture is often more about the small things- both the wonderful small things that give daily life a touch of the exotic, and the frustrating things that can derail your whole day.
I still go running, but I run on dirt roads in the cool of the morning, reaching the top of the hill right as the sun bursts through the early morning sky over Lake Victoria. Yet even as I admire the sunrise, I’m dodging potholes and careless bus drivers, cursing the motorcycle drivers who make it their goal in life to run me off the road and prove that they have the right of way.
I still am horrible at every kind of shopping, but it’s not a big a deal when you can buy new jeans for $8 and can pick a four shirts for the price of one second-hand shirt in the States. In order to find such bargains though, I have to make my way downtown through the masses of people and motorcycles and busses, step into the maze of tiny stalls of second-hand goods carrying everything from prom dresses to cooking pots, and be willing to barter to death with the seller.
I still sit in coffee shops and sip caramel macchiatos, but instead of working on a class paper from college, I’m editing our monthly field office report, an update of IJM Uganda’s casework that will be sent early next week to IJM headquarters in DC. And then instead of hopping back in my car, I’ll make the dusty trek back home to my apartment along the busy thoroughfare of my corner of Kampala, and by the time I arrive home, I’ll be so sweaty and dusty that this time in air-conditioned coffee shop will be a distant memory.
So is my life still cross-cultural? Yes, definitely. Is it still exciting? Of course! Is it difficult sometimes? For sure. But the great thing about living cross-culturally is the way that all these small things combine to make a life so rich, so vivid, that despite the frustrating parts, life is still incredibly fulfilling. It’s similar enough to life back home to be manageable, but different enough that almost every day, I get hit with the realization: “wow, I really live here.”