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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100 Posts

It’s been 3 years since I started this blog. When I began, I had never visited Sub-Sahara Africa. I had never even worked in a real job. This is now my 100th post and so much has happened since. I want to make sure I reflect on these experiences so that I learn from them and I pass them on.

I was supposed to come to Kenya for just 6 months. Working for The Paradigm Project, I researched energy-efficient cookstoves around East Africa. After writing about infrastructure development in the Congo for my senior thesis project, I had to put my money where my mouth was and get involved. In reality though, I saw my experience as an extended working holiday, something adventurous I could do before getting on with the rest of my life. I didn’t imagine I would get committed.

This reminds me of my parents’ approach towards Japan: for the 16 years we lived there, we were always supposedly leaving in 2 years. You could use this as an excuse to remain uninvolved (they did not), but at some point, I think they woke up and realized that this far away land had become home – leaving was harder than returning “home”. It certainly was for my siblings and I, who knew no other home. Although my African experience is far from 16 years, I see how it happens. People in the States say they can’t imagine living here, but I’ve learned that life becomes normal wherever you live.

After working for another company in Kenya that sold energy-efficient household goods such as solar lights, water filters, and cookstoves, I decided it was time to return to the US. I had no idea what awaited me, but wanted to entertain any possibility. Somehow that opportunity again came in the form of Kenya, (among coaching high school tennis and becoming a Japanese-speaking tour guide) this time starting an aquaponics pilot project in Nairobi. If you’re interested, read more about our project at The Food Source. A year after leaving “forever”, here I am again. Life in Africa is a constant concoction of loving and hating the place, yet it’s also true that somehow it gets under your skin.

Besides work, there were so many personal life experiences that I will never forget. I got into a riot in downtown Nairobi, rocks and teargas from mobs and police flying in every direction as I sat helpless in traffic. One time I had a bathroom emergency and used the toilet paper-less ladies room, only to have a crowd waiting outside by the time I finished. I got conned and robbed at least once each. I took buses from Nairobi to Johannesburg, stopping to volunteer along the way and see incredible places like Victoria Falls. I was denied entry into a particular country and subsequently interrogated thoroughly every time I returned to the United States.

I’ve done a lot over this time, and although I often wanted to leave, I’m thankful I stuck it out. I am a different person as a result. Earlier I talked about being involved vs. being committed. As Martina Navratilova says, “The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved: the ham is committed.” Likewise, changing a place like Kenya – even a little bit – takes sweat equity, blood and tears, a living sacrifice. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s challenging and it’s long. Sadly, I’m not sure I lived in Kenya long enough or worked hard enough to change anything significant. Just like short-term mission trips, this experience was probably more about me than the people I came to help. Although Kenya will probably never be my “home”, I now know what it takes to make a difference, wherever that may be. Here’s to always being committed to enact positive change through our lives. And another 100 blog posts…

Bridging the Gap: An Influential Professor from my days at Azusa Pacific

Bridging the Gap: An Influential Professor of mine, Matthew Browning, from my days at Azusa Pacific when I knew absolutely nothing!

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.