Breaking the Rules in 3 Cultures

As Americans, we like the idea of breaking rules. It feels anti-establishment and counter-cultural, like we’re sticking it to the man and coming out just a little ahead. We use phrases like “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission”  and “rules were made to be broken” to demonstrate this defiant, independent attitude. Interestingly enough, I believe America’s rule-breaking mentality actually makes it harder to break the rules. There are more lawyers in the state of Texas than the country of Japan and probably the continent of Africa because in America, catching rule (or law) breakers is now an industry.

Japan is a little different. Most Japanese wouldn’t dream of breaking the rules because conformity and loyalty are of the utmost importance. Japanese work culture dictates that you stay longer than your superiors because leaving early would be a sign of disloyalty. Falling asleep at work is viewed as a positive development because it means you have labored for the company to the point of exhaustion. In fact, some workers fake falling asleep at work to convince people they have been working hard! In this sometimes absurd culture, local proverbs like “The nail that sticks out gets hammered” demonstrate Japanese attitudes toward breaking the rules.

Perhaps counterintuitively, in Japan it’s easier to break the rules, especially for someone like me who can never fully conform to society anyway. For example, everyone knows that the best skiing is under the ropes. But in Japan no one goes there! I spent entire days snowboarding outside the boundaries. Occasionally ski patrols caught me but I would reason with them in Japanese, apologizing profusely and lamenting my foreign ignorance. At other times (I am somewhat ashamed to admit), I used the language card and only spoke in English. They would point at the rope, cross their arms into a big X, and be on their way.

Finally there is Kenya, where some would argue there are no rules. I would say there are rules, but they often exist to extort money from ordinary people, like when I was talking on my phone while driving. The instant I saw a police officer I jerked the phone away, but just a moment too late. She gave me a lecture about how dangerous it was to talk while driving (even though I was inching along in traffic) and eventually said she could either take me to jail, or I could give her 500 shillings ($6) for lunch. I chose option C and pleaded with her to forgive me this one time since I was from America where the rules were different. Employing my usual strategy when dealing with African police, I simply wasted enough of her time that she let me go.

Now to my point. Wherever you are, I think it’s important to think outside the box to create the kind of life you want. That often involves breaking rules, at least society’s rules on the right career path or who you’re supposed to be or how you should live your life. I like Frank Zappa’s quote when he says,

“If you end up with a boring life because you listened to your mom, dad, teacher, priest or some guy on television telling you how to do you S***, then you probably deserve it.”

I’m not encouraging anyone to break the law or wear Guy Fawkes masks. I just think nonconformity goes hand in hand with living intentionally because everyone can do something special, unique and interesting with their lives. But before you do that, people will think you’re crazy. To me, that is what breaking the rules is all about: finding that unique thing that you were called to do, even when other people (and sometimes yourself) tell you it won’t work. I am slowly learning that purpose for myself and I am trying deliberately to pursue it. It’s risky, but it’s the way I strive to live my life.

I will leave you with one more quote, this time from Sir Winston Churchill:

To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour

 

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The Merits of Being a Tourist

I usually hate the idea of being a tourist. The standard I try to avoid is the stereotypical Asian tourist: whirlwind travel of as many places as they can cram into an itinerary, awkward bulges created by fanny packs in bad places, cameras slung around their necks incessantly snapping every angle while forgetting to really take anything in. You’ve seen them. Ironically, I now herd these people around, although I try to have a positive influence by helping them see much more than big mountains or famous sites. Travel should change you. Helping people be affected by the places they experience is my mission as a tour guide.

That’s why my last day in Kenya was a strange experience. Over the last two months, I felt I had become a local, even on “the other side of town” where I lived and worked on our project. Although I rarely saw another white person and am under no illusion that I would ever fit in, I knew the routines and was comfortable enough following them. I had an informed opinion on Kenyan politics. I could speak enough Swahili to differentiate myself from the common muzungu. I knew the matatu routes. Besides the color of my skin, I was on my way to becoming a local.

Then a big group of muzungus came from the US and disrupted my world. We overlapped for only one day before I left Kenya, but in that day I experienced many things I hadn’t since I first arrived, almost 3 years ago. All of the sudden, I was no different from any of them, a tourist. During our overlapping day, each class at the school where I worked recited a poem or sang a song in honor of the visitors in a huge gathering. Afterwards, we stood in a line and hi-fived kids for a good 30 minutes before dishing up rice and beans for lunch. Later, we visited an orphanage where kids sang more songs and performed dances. In letting life become normal in Kenya, I had not made time for simple things like hanging out with these kids. It took the mission trip mentality to get me to do that.

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

The wonder and curiosity of being a tourist is something I want to capture and incorporate into my every day life. Why is it that wherever we live, we often stop experiencing new things? Life becomes routine and monotonous, when every place has so many things to keep us growing and learning for a lifetime.

That’s why when I had a 20-hour layover in Montreal, I decided to go experience something. After watching The Netherlands’ 5-1 spanking of Spain, all I really wanted to do was sleep but I rallied, walking somewhere – anywhere. I started out from my hotel until a bus pulled up next to me. Naturally, I entered, having no idea where it was going. Not knowing how to pay for the ticket either, the bus driver and I stared at each other for a good 5 seconds before I just sat down without saying anything. When the bus reached its final destination, I asked the driver how I should pay and he responded by giving me a free ticket – just for being a visitor. Since the bus ended at a metro station, I obviously had to see where it would take me. I picked a station that sounded nice (everything was in French) and got off, walking around for a while before eating fried rice at a cheap Chinese restaurant. As I looked out the window of the restaurant, I listened to Montrealers talk about playing bridge with their friends and different tax laws in Canada and the US.

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

I did make it back to the hotel, and although I was tired I’m glad I became a tourist in Montreal. It won’t be a major event in my life: it’s the attitude that’s important. Wherever we go and whatever we do, sometimes it’s important to be a tourist. You might feel out of place and it requires some effort, but it’s usually worth it.

Monica

Monica, our house-help (Maid) is one of my favorite people in Kenya. She is hilarious and some of my most entertaining conversations have taken place in the kitchen watching her cook.

First of all, she worries about me far too much. If I haven’t gotten home by 9:00 PM, she calls me and asks whether I am okay. If I’m too lazy to shave one morning, she’ll say, “Brother Dan, you need to shave to look smart”. If my shoes are dusty from the previous day, she won’t let me leave home until she’s had a chance to wipe them. In the evenings, she always makes sure I have my cup of tea, texting me instead of walking upstairs to my room. Last night’s said, “Hallo Dan, welcome 4 the cup of t”. Apparently bad texting grammar and laziness are not exclusively American problems. And even though she constantly walks around the house barefoot, if I attempt this daring feat she makes me put on sandals, saying my feet are not used to it.

Monica Shining Shoes

Monica Shining Shoes

She said one of my favorite lines ever the other day when I asked when Josephine and Pastor Brown would arrive home (the family I’m staying with). Straightening her posture like she was announcing the arrival of the Queen of England she replied in her Kenyan accent, “Brother Dan, I do not know when they shall arrive, but henceforth from now on they may arrive at anytime.”

We’ve also had some interesting conversations about Kenya, giving me deeper insight into the culture. I told her that Americans like to be slim but most of them are fat. Then I asked her why Africans like to be fat but most of them are slim. She corrected me, saying “People liked to be fat before because it meant you were rich. Now we know that being too fat is unhealthy. A person should not be too fat or too slim.” I couldn’t agree more Monica.

Then, there is her utter shock at the fact that in America, we don’t eat ugali. “It is my favorite food, I could eat it every day and never tire” she says enthusiastically of the unseasoned boiled cornmeal mixture. Personally, I think it’s just mediocre and could easily imagine life without it, but I didn’t mention that part.

Monica had been asking me to attend church with her for a while (she goes to a different church than the family) and yesterday, I honored her request. Knowing that Kenyan churches are in it for the long haul, however, I made a point of having to leave by 1:00. Leaving the house at 9:00 with Josephine who was driving in the same direction, I jumped out of the car at the “bus stop,” if you can call it that, waiting for Monica to join me. Monica fumbled around in the car for a while, looking for something. Apparently, in a moment of African blondeness, she had forgotten to bring her shoes! Josephine and I could not stop laughing. We quickly hatched a plan and I dropped Josephine off at her church, before taking Monica to buy shoes and attend her church. By 10:00 we were sitting in Monica’s church.

For some reason, evangelical churches in Africa feel the need to blast music as loud as possible and literally scream sermons into the microphone. Kenyans have told me that passers-by need to be able to hear the entire service because they might get interested and come inside. Monica’s church has about 20 members, and as the guest of honor (and probably the only white person who has ever stepped foot in the building) they put me front and center, right in front of the two loudspeakers. I was painstakingly aware of how absurdly loud everything was and I pondered why in a small tin shack with 20 people, we needed a PA system at all. When in Rome and To Each His Own I suppose.

Needless to say, this was not my most spiritually enlightening church experience, but I did it for Monica. As I watched the seconds slowly tick away, I prayed that God would grant me more patience. I also had the sermon to entertain me. From my perspective, the pastor seemed to be shouting out random God-related statements for an hour and a half, occasionally turning back to the Bible passage at hand. Taking meticulous notes for later use, some of his most interesting statements included:

 The devil is mute

I don’t believe in getting old

News is a disgrace to God

In the car I preach to myself

We don’t need government – be governors and senators of the word

Now I don’t want to ridicule, but let’s be honest, these are a bit ridiculous. Going to African church did, however, make me realize that as a result of my cultural upbringing, personality, or maybe attending a Christian university, my faith tends towards the academic rather than the emotional. Despite some theologically questionable statements, Christians in Kenya are undeniably passionate about God. After I left at 1:00, Monica attended the afternoon service, which continued until 6:00 PM. She was happy to stay all day and worship, not thinking about what else needed to be done or having personal time for herself. Sometimes I wish I had some more of that faith.