The number one, most difficult, thing for me to adjust to about living in a different culture is my super friendly nature. I was always raised to be friendly to everyone. Make eye contact, smile, say hello, be friendly. I’m that Southern girl that’ll strike up a conversation with the person behind me in line at the supermarket. I’ll spend 20 minutes in a gas station because I struck up a conversation with the cashier. It’ll take me an hour to run an errand that should only take 10 minutes because I have so many conversations along the way. I love people and I talk to everyone. It served me well in the restaurant business and made me lots of friends in the States.
That trait of mine does not work to my benefit in all cultures. You may have trouble adjusting to different foods, a new language, different fashion, different levels of cleanliness, or any number of other things about living in a different culture but, for me, I struggle with avoiding eye contact and not smiling at people. It goes against the very person I am. It goes all the way to my inner core.
A woman sitting alone here in Benin is obviously just looking for a man. Why else would she be out alone? But I get depressed when I just sit around the house all the time and I simply must go out. I take a book or, on Sundays like today, I take my computer and work on my book. Men will never leave me alone. I can’t go anywhere without being constantly annoyed. They follow me around in the store, the follow me down the street, they demand my phone number several times a day. Give me your number. The most common pick up line I hear here is “You’re my queen, you’re going to have my babies.” Sometimes they bother me so much I have to find a security guard and ask him to tell the guy to leave me alone. I pay $100 a month to work out at a gym when my favorite form of exercise is walking but I can’t walk here because they won’t stop harassing me.
That’s when I don’t look at them. If I make eye contact it’s even worse. The same thing happened in China. Making eye contact with a man is an invitation. It’s sooooooooo hard for me. My first instinct at all times is to talk to anyone near me. If someone looks at me I smile and say hello. It’s who I am. But here, and in China, I have had to break myself of that. I’ve become colder, more distant, and I don’t like it.
It’s so different here in Benin than it was in China. Life and especially the idea of beauty is so different from than it is in China. It’s been a nice boost for my self-esteem. In China I was called fat and ugly several times a day. I cried a lot. I was once told I was too fat and ugly to be in public and I should lock myself in my apartment and not come out again until I lost weight. I once walked into a clothing shop I knew wouldn’t have anything to fit me but I wanted to look at the cute clothes anyway and the entire staff accosted me and shoved me out of the store all the while telling me I was too fat and ugly to be in their store and I was bad for business. The kids around our apartment complex called me the fat foreigner. I sank into a pit of depression so deep I was unsure I’d ever be able to climb out. I did join a gym but the people at the gym were really mean to me and that made me quit going. I don’t know about you but having the gym trainer call me fat and ugly didn’t motivate me to work out harder, it motivated me to stay home in bed and eat. All of their abuse only made me gain weight and cry all the time. It didn’t have the effect they intended.
Here in Benin it’s different. It’s my normal Sunday afternoon routine to go out, sit on a restaurant patio, and write. I’m working on a book. As of the time of this writing I’ve been here an hour. I have a collection of 3 phone numbers from men that wouldn’t leave me alone until I agreed to take their numbers. It’s always the same: the walk up to my table, loom over me, the more bold ones pull up a chair and sit down at my table without asking, and say give me your number. I say no. They say give me your number. I say no. They say give me your number. I say no. Then they say I’m going to give you my number. I say I’m not going to call you. They say I’m giving it to you anyway. I say whatever. They try to talk to me but I ignore them. If I talk I give very short answers trying to get rid of them. Here’s my nice collection of trash I’ve collected today.
I’m never going to be happy cooped in up in my house all the time. I simply must get out. I try and try to avoid eye contact and not speak to strangers but it’s so difficult for me. Even when I know if I look at that guy and smile at him he’s going to think I want to fuck him sometimes it happens instinctually, before I can stop myself.
I must admit being in an environment where I’m not constantly called fat and ugly has worked wonders for my mental state. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time and I’ve lost almost 40 pounds since moving here. Being called beautiful as many times a day as I was called fat and ugly in China has does wonders for my health. As I’m typing this I have to keep my eyes on my screen because there’s a guy sitting across from me that’s staring at me and every time I glance up for a second he gives me creepy sexy eyes.
People ask me all the time what’s the most difficult part of living in a different country? That’s it for me. Not making eye contact, not smiling, and not being friendly. It’s hard. In Europe people don’t smile at each other but when I do they just roll their eyes and mutter something about Americans under their breath, in China it’s an invitation to call me fat and ugly, in Benin it’s an invitation to fuck. I don’t think I look forward to anything more on my yearly visits to America than being able to smile at a stranger and just have them smile back and keep on keeping on.
Before anyone goes and calls me mean or racist you should understand that I am ever so aware that the problem is me. I’m living in their country and in their culture and I’m the one that has to adjust. I’m trying. I really am. An entire nation of people is not going to change to cater me. I get it. I’m just writing about my experiences and what it’s like for me to do all the traveling and living in different cultures that I do. You ask all the time what it’s like. This. This is what it’s like.