Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What They Call Themselves 'Round These Parts

Before heading overseas, I sat through a bunch of the standard Army Afghanistan 101-style cultural briefs.

Don't gesture with your left hand. Check.

Don't expose the soles of your feet. Roger.

Don't ask about female members of the family. Check-raj.

And remember, an 'Afghan' is a person from Afghanistan, where as an 'afghani' is a unit of currency. Don't confuse the two, or you'll come across as just another ignorant American.

The first three I knew from Iraq (though it might surprise you how little police and soldiers there care about those rules, or how often they violated those rules themselves), but the last one I hadn't heard before, so I stayed careful to remember it.

Then when I got here, I heard a few people point out in a thou-shalt-not sort of style after hearing someone call a person from here an 'Afghani' that it was culturally insensitive, and wrong.

Except here's the funny part -- I started to notice that when the people from here referred to other fellow countrymen, while speaking English, they used "Afghans" and "Afghanis" interchangeably when referring to other people from here.

In fact, I heard it enough times that I had to just start asking them, every chance I got. As it turns out, the distinction isn't really something they think about, or care about. Yes, the currency unit is the afghani. As for the people, every Kabuli (yes, that's the term!) that I speak with tells me the same thing -- it just doesn't matter.

So I have to laugh a little at the idea that people putting together some of the basic Army cultural training are far enough removed from the culture itself to be emphasizing stuff that just, well, isn't so.

1 comment:

kad barma said...

My company's HQ is in Germany, and the amount of cross-cultural ignorance on display between even Germans and Americans is remarkable. I can only imagine how deeply it goes in a non-European culture. I found the only reliable way forward is as you've hinted you understand as well--you have to ask a native.

For years I was fortunate to have a colleague who was raised in both Germany (her actual nationality) and America who understood the cultures from both sides, and could speak without a trace of an accent in both languages. Americans never dreamed she was German, and Germans always assumed she was purely one of their own. It was a never-ending source of amusement to me to see how instantly and completely she was underestimated by both sides. (She was always the only person in the room who actually understood what was going on, being the only person in the room who could correctly see the cultural biases for what they were, and how everything going on was being interpreted on either side).

Of course this is of little use to her when working with Indians, (another of the more numerous cultural groups in the company), so the joke is never far from being on all of us.