Small town / fish bowl life

Went to Diego airport today to see friends off.

Any visit to the airport means seeing familiar faces and them seeing you.

I realise I’m already getting used to the fact that this is a small town and your life is on show. In London people would know what I was doing because I told them, not because they saw me do it. So different people could know about my important professional milestones, drunken nights out, visits to the doctor, tripping over in the street, personal relationships etc.

In Diego, it’s always safest to assume that everybody knows everything.

An unsuspecting visitor, used to a cosmopolitan environment, may just see a sea of anonymous faces and not realise they’re all part of a closely linked net.

How are we all connected to each other?

Well, the fingers of large extended families reach far and wide, feeling deftly for information and gossip.

Also, the upstairs, downstairs phenomenon of domestic staff provides both the means of gaining inside knowledge and motivation for sharing it.

The itch to gossip about celebrities, so prevalent in the UK at the moment, is satisfied in Madagascar by gossiping about the better off – Vazaha or Gasy.

In a country where all regular forms of communication are mind-bogglingly ineffective (internet, post etc.) bush gossip, i.e. word of mouth, seems to race around Madagascar with death defying speed and accuracy.

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Talking to myself – lonely expat behaviour?

I have started talking to myself in public again. The last two weeks have seen a resurgence of this habit, a behaviour I developed in Madagascar in 2006, but had lost during my stay in England.

I didn’t really notice I did it until I returned to England. I found myself doing it in shops and having to laugh it off when I got noticed.

It took about a month back in England to stop doing it.

So, why has it started again?

Self talking situations

I do it to a certain extent in the house but I’m most aware of it when out of the house. A typical situation might be the market.

Much of it is harmless enough; reciting what I want to buy – a sort of memory aid.

“Right, I need to get potatoes, carrots and beans”

However, it also moves into expressing opinions:

“Ooo, those pineapples look nice. Bet they’re expensive though.”

And it’s often used around some interaction with another person.

“Hmm, she looks like she’s having a hard day.”
“Shouldn’t those boys be in school?”.
“Ah, it’s the man who always tries to rip me off. I know your game mister.”

And sometimes it’s me expressing opinions on Madagascar life in general as I walk through the market:

“Oh my word, could there be any more chaos?”
“As if life wasn’t difficult enough already, they have to make the umbrellas low enough to poke my eye out.”

Etc. etc.

Why do I talk to myself?

I imagine it must give me some feeling of protection and buffer against the stress of being out and about in another culture.

I probably feel less alone and different by doing it (though no doubt look like a fruitcake). By expressing opinions I know my friends would share, I bring my ‘normal’ into the situation. Whereas, in fact, I am the thing that is not normal.

It also gives me a sense of power because I am speaking in a language that they do not understand. So, they can talk about me and I can talk about them. I often do it if being stared at.

Sign of stress?

It would appear to be a coping mechanism which shows that there is something to cope with. This highlights the underlying stress that is part of being an ex-pat. In England, I can switch off because:

  • I blend in
  • I understand 95% of what is happening without having to think about it
  • I speak the same language
  • I know exactly how my behaviour is interpreted.

So I can think about what’s in my head or just the unusual things that happen.

The percentage of things that are becoming automatic and understood instead of confusing is increasing.

However, daily life is still far more tiring than back in my own familiar culture.

The last 2 weeks have also been stressful as I’ve been ill and thus feeling tired and fragile.

Now I am well again, we’ll see if I will stop or whether talking to myself is part of the ongoing stress of expat life.

How to listen to someone

How do you show that you’re really listening in England and Madagascar?

England

  • Make eye contact
  • Make listening noises (aha, yup, indeed)
  • Ask questions

Madagascar

  • Look at the ground
  • Remain silent

Thus an English person listening to a Malagasy could be perceived as:

  • Wanting to speak themselves
  • Trying to dominate
  • Being disrespectful
  • Intrusive by asking questions

And a Malagasy listening to an English person could be perceived as:

  • Bored
  • Trying to indicate you should shut up

I’ve had some excruciating nights out with groups of timid Malagasys where I’ve kept trying to instigate conversation by looking everyone in the eye (thus assuming the dominant position), asking questions and filling silences. At the end of the night I’m wondering why nobody else was helping me create a group dynamic and they were probably intimidated the whole night.

As an English person this has also caused problems in my relationship with my partner. I cry out frequently ‘Are you listening to me?’.

Public speakingOnce you get used to everybody looking bored it can be quite liberating when you’re speaking in public because it means that there’s no point assessing body language – you just keep rambling on and on and on (Malagasys like a good long speech).

The Village leader in the photo kept talking for about an hour as life went on around him. As you can see, he’s enjoying himself.

I’m good at rambling on (as this blog will testify) and choose to interpret people’s bored expressions as respect…and not boredom. Must remember not to do this when back in UK.