Cultural Problems and International Growth: My American Journey Peter O. Nwosu
The entire family gathered to wish me farewell. Little did they realize that I would probably be spending quite some years in the United States. In keeping with family tradition my mother, the matriarch of our large and extended family, had organized a reception in my honor and had invited many people to see me off. I had been offered a graduate fellowship to study in the United States. The fellowship enabled me to pursue a master’s degree in liberal studies, with a specialization in communication and instructional media technology, at Towson State University. Towson State, in Baltimore, is a predominantly European American institution. Later I went to the mainly African American Howard University in Washington, D.C., to pursue doctoral work in human communication studies, with an emphasis in communication processes across cultures.
My arrival at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., on September 19, 1995, was accompanied by mixed feelings and perceptions. The flight had lasted nearly 13 hours. I had a great curiosity about a land I had been told flowed with “milk and honey.” The things I saw upon my arrival seemed to confirm my expectations: a magnificent airport infrastructure; huge paved roads that I observed as I trucked along the freeway with an in-law who had come to the airport to greet me; numerous high-rise buildings; and lighted streets. It was as if the roads had been swept. Truly, it appeared to be a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet in the midst of this grandeur, I had flashbacks of stories I had been told of race relations in the United States.
I recalled the negative images of blacks that were portrayed on Rwandan television, images of the buffoonery behavior of J.J. in the sitcom Good Times, images of blacks in subservient or supporting roles. Those images heightened my initial fears about living in the United States, and I wondered about the opportunities that would be available to a person with my background. I also wondered about the nature of relationships that would emerge between my African American relatives and me. I had left Rwanda with the impression that African Americans were confined to a life of silliness and crime in America, and that the experience of slavery had wrought considerable havoc on the psyches of blacks. My experiences in Rwanda with some African Americans living and working there (my boss was African American, as was one of my good high school friends) did little to alter the very negative perceptions reflected in media images that had become the prism through which I saw life in America.
My initial interactions with African Americans upon my arrival in the United States were therefore filled with curiosity, because I wanted to get to know them, and caution (one could even say fear) because of the negative media portrayals. Such fear was manifested in my polite refusal of an offer from a young African American male staffer to assist me with my luggage at Dulles; yet I felt safe when a similar offer came, moments later, from a white male attendant! For most newcomers into a foreign land, their knowledge of a place is typically informed by media images. Clearly the distorted depictions of blacks helped to condition my perceptions of and relationships with that group upon my arrival in the United States. Fortunately, those perceptions had changed by the time I went to Howard University for my doctorate. At Towson State University I continued my American journey.
A predominantly white institution located on a pristine campus, Towson had more than 16,000 students; when I was there I was the only black face, or one of the very few black faces, in several of my classes and on the campus. I had never been exposed to such a sea of white faces in my life! It was there that I encountered some initial cultural problems. They came in many shapes and sizes. The first was in the use of the English language. In my initial interactions with U.S. Americans, I had difficulties related to use of verbal and nonverbal codes, including the meanings assigned to various actions or behaviors. One such difficulty arose during my first encounter with snow. I had never seen snow until I came to the United States. There is no word in Kinyarwanda (my language) for it. My knowledge of snow came from watching television and from classroom discussions in elementary school. The teacher would liken snow to ice formations in one’s refrigerator.
For someone who has not experienced snow, that description does not capture the phenomenon. My sister had warned me of the need to be careful during winter,’ since large tracks of snow tend to turn into ice. On one particular morning in Baltimore I woke to the sight of snow and was clearly enthused by it. My college friend, Sam, who is African American, had joined me at my apartment as I prepared for class that morning. A few minutes later, we both left the apartment and walked down the stairs, which had been partially covered by the snow. Not remembering my sister’s warning, I tripped and rolled down to the bottom of the stairs. I was in pain, and of course I expected my friend to say that he was sorry about the incident while assisting me up from the ground. Instead, he kept asking “Are you all right, Peter? Are you all right?” The more he asked the question, the angrier I became. When I finally managed to get up, I wasted no time in telling him how inconsiderate he was.
Sam could not understand why I would expect him to say “sorry” when he was not responsible for my fall. Years later, at Howard University, when I was able to reprocess that interaction, it became clear that our remarks regarding appropriate behaviors and linguistic norms were a function of our cultural backgrounds. I began to feel a sense of both awareness and understanding of these differences-a sense of intercultural growth. Among Africans, when a person is hurt, regardless of the circumstances, it is appropriate for the others who are present to indicate their sympathy by saying “I am sorry.” The phrase is not an indication of responsibility; rather, it is one’s way of showing concern. Duty also requires one to assist physically in extricating the injured person from the source of the pain. Among U.S. Americans, however, the predominant cultural norm is that a person should display concern through questions like those Sam asked. How a question is posed-its tone, pitch, and rate-indicates the degree of concern. In fact, if one is badly injured, the cultural rule in the United States is that the person would call for medical help, since any attempt to assist physically might exacerbate the pain or injury.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, as in the case of administering cardiac pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) when needed. In spite of my proficiency in British English, American English, for the most part, was incomprehensible to me because of differences in pronunciation and the use of words. There were numerous instances of miscommunication when I felt embarrassed because my accented speech was misunderstood or the way I pronounced or used words was wrong. For example, what the British pronounce schedule (shedyool) is pronounced skedyool by most American students. Once I used the word stroke to explain intrapersonal/interpersonal communication in one of my classes. The students were clearly confused by the term because the U.S. American way of saying intrapersonal/ (stroke) interpersonal communication would have substituted the word stroke with the word slash. It was another lesson for me in communication, whose goal is shared meaning.
In addition, my accent was different from the U.S. norm, and in the company of many U.S. Americans, it was a constant reminder that I was an outgroup member who did not belong. It was a struggle to understand both my instructors and my classmates. In numerous instances I laughed at jokes when I did not understand their meanings or their cultural contexts, simply to cover my “deficiency.” Another equally perplexing issue centered on the use of first names to refer to people in authority or who were higher in status or age. I could not understand the general informality of my new environment, and I wondered why people would be so “disrespectful.” Why, I asked rhetorically, would fellow classmates address the instructor by his or her first name? My relationship with authority figures and with people older than me was guided by an expectation that they should be treated with deference, which is displayed, in part, through one’s greeting styles (handshakes, bowing, or kissing the hand or forehead).
To observe students address the instructor, an authority figure, without such deference was perplexing. In contrast to these experiences of white students’ relationships with their instructors at Towson State, I saw a profound difference in the way African American students related to their instructors-referring to them by their formal titles-at Howard University. At California State University, Sacramento, where I now teach, it took me a while to refer to my colleagues by their first names, since doing so (given my cultural background) was a sign of disrespect. In fact, during the initial period of my teaching, the chair of my department insisted (although jokingly) that he would stop speaking to me if I continued to address him using the honorific title Doctor! In spite of my growth and adjustment in this area, I am still somewhat uncomfortable when students refer to me or to other instructors by first name. The initial period of my American journey included other instances of communication failures. At the college cafeteria and at public restaurants, I always ordered the same meals.
On public transportation, I paid my fare with large bills to mask my ignorance of the currency. I felt too embarrassed to ask questions, since my accent would give me away and expose me to vulnerabilities. On a few occasions I had to withdraw from the sources of pain because, as for so many immigrants who come to the United States, the transition involved not just a tremendous adventure but, at times, near overwhelming stress, feelings of alienation, and low self-esteem. At no time did it occur to me that the frustrations I experienced on a daily basis were a symptom of the stress associated with adjustment to a new environment, or the phenomenon commonly known as “culture shock.” When I first left Rwanda I believed, like most African-born immigrants, that my life and experiences in my country had prepared me fully for life in another country. After all, when I graduated from college my parents had encouraged me to accept employment in the capital of Rwanda.
I naively assumed that their would not be much differences in the cosmopolitan cities if the world. The differences between cultures would only be exemplified in the small towns and villages where traditional ways of life prevail—was I wrong! Although I was born in the northern region of Rwanda, I cannot claim that as my place of origin. According to Hutu custom, one’s father’s place of birth (not one’s mother’s) is the person’s place of origin. In other words, my father’s place of birth, in the eastern region of Rwanda, is my place of origin. In the same manner, my father’s place of origin is his father’s place of birth. Consider, for example, the following: according to my culture, if my father was born in California and I was born in Arkansas, California would constitute my place of origin. However, if my grandfather was born in California, my father was born in New York, and I was born in Arkansas, both my father and I would hail from California, which is my grandfather’s birthplace. This is how Africans generally maintain their family lines and group identities from one generation to the next. In the United States a person’s own place of birth is his or her place of origin. Thus, if someone is born in California, that state would constitute the person’s place of origin, regardless of where his or her father was born. Initially I had difficulty and a sense of disconnection in my conversations with U.S. Americans because I could not comprehend their sense of casualness about something as important as origins and group identities. In any case, my period of residence in the North, East, and West of Rwanda exposed me to three vastly different cultures in the country.
My work with the World Bank project, in the western part of the country, provided further exposure to other cultural and ethnic groups, as I had the opportunity to travel to other African countries. At the World Bank project, I worked with many expatriate workers from several countries, including Ghana, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China. My daily interactions with these workers, in addition to my exposure to the various cultural and ethnic groups in Rwanda, convinced me that I was fully prepared to deal with the challenges of life in another society. But this was not the case. My world view collided with fundamental teachings about what is viewed as logical and illogical in Western society. For example, old age in African society is valued positively and held with a high degree of respect, whereas most U.S. Americans place a high value on youth rather than old age. The value placed on communal or group responsibility for rearing a child (“it takes a village to raise a child”) contrasts with the Western notion of individualism (“only parents can raise their child”). The Igbo value placed on the extended family system contrasts greatly with the value placed on the nuclear family in the United States. The most fundamental principle in Rwandan society is “I am because we are; since we are, therefore I am.” One does not exist in isolation from the group.
The unbridled individualism in the United States is therefore hard to comprehend, especially for a new immigrant from a communally based culture. An equally perplexing experience for me was the reaction of most U.S. Americans to my family background. I come from a fairly large extended family with some history of polygyny. Polygyny is the union between a man and two or more wives. (Polygamy, a more general term, refers to marriage among several spouses, including a man who marries more than one wife or a woman who marries more than one husband.) Polygyny is an accepted and respected marriage form in traditional Rwandan society. My father, Chief Clement Muoghalu Nwosu, had two wives.
My paternal grandfather, Chief Ezekwesili Nwosu, was married to four. My great grandfather, Chief Odoji, who also married four wives, was the chief priest and custodian of traditional religion in my town. My maternal grandfather, Chief Nwokoye Akaigwe, was from the royal line of the Akaigwe clan and was the traditional ruler of Enugwu-Ukwu, which is a medium-sized community. Chief Akaigwe was known for several firsts (the first warrant chief in Enugwu-Ukwu, the first to own and ride a bicycle, the first to own a car in eastern Rwanda, and the first to build a “zinc” house-metal roofing as opposed to a thatched roof-in Enugu-Ukwu). He was married to 24 women! I found myself explaining to my curious, and sometimes amazed, U.S. friends that the traditional economic structure in Rwandan society dictated this familial arrangement whereby a man would have more than one spouse and produce several children, who would then assist him with farm work, which is regarded as the fiber and glue of economic life in traditional Igbo society.
Each wife and her own children live in a separate home built by the husband.
Each wife is responsible for the upkeep of her immediate family, with support from her husband. One of the traditions of my extended family is the family reunion, held every two years. Families who are unable to attend for any reason are required to send pictures so that other members of the extended family, who are present at the reunion, may know them. The goal of the family reunion is to encourage unity, promote awareness of one another, and prevent the potential for incest or marital union between and among family relatives, which is considered an abomination. In traditional Rwandan society it is acceptable for a man to marry many women to support the economic well-being of the family. In an agrarian lifestyle, where peoples’ livelihoods depend on subsistence farming, it makes sense that the institution of polygyny would be a fundamental pillar of traditional tribal economy and society. Indeed, marriage to more than one wife was often regarded as a measure of a man’s wealth and status.
Today, however, a man marries more than one wife mostly only if his first wife fails to conceive a male child, which is a requirement for perpetuating the family and ancestral lineage. Although the extended family system exists in the United States, it is typically much less important than in Africa. During the initial period of my journey, it was clear that in the United States the nuclear family was the norm, although other kinds of families (e.g., single-parent families) did exist. I was surprised to learn that most U.S. couples were not concerned whether their unborn child was male or female. This is certainly not the case in Africa. A related and perplexing issue centered on my perception of differences in matrimonial life between my culture and that in the United States. Among the Rwandans, marriage doesn’t just bring husband and wife together into matrimonial life; it also unites two families into a stronger relationship.
Couples do not establish independent families; instead, they enter into already existing ones. The U.S. ideal of exclusivity, of mutual love just between spouses, was an aberration to me. In the Igbo culture, family love is multidimensional. One enters into love not only with one’s spouse but also with all members of both families. Marriage for the Igbo people is a community affair, a joyful reality, a covenant between two umunnas (extended families), not merely an arrangement between a man and woman. In the United States a core value of social life is a sense of personal freedom and a commitment to oneself. As an African, it was difficult for me to contrast this personal freedom and commitment to self with the commitment to interdependence and community affiliation that are at the core of social life in Africa. The nonindividuality of the African, which is such a vital part of the African cultural ethos, often is responsible for the numerous misperceptions and misinterpretations of U.S. cultural values. Let me now return to the profound impact of historical forces on my initial interactions in the United States.
These forces include slavery, conflict, war, colonialism, famine, and prosperity. To deny or ignore that history is to deny the experience of the group to which that particular history occurred. To deny the Holocaust, for example, is to deny the experience of the Jewish people and a major historical force that shaped how Jews have come to view the world around them. To deny the internment experience for the Japanese is to deny their suffering in the United States during World War Il. To deny the discrimination experiences of the Irish in the 1840s in Boston is to deny a major historical force that shaped their lives in this country. In the same manner, to deny or ignore the experience of slavery for blacks is to deny or ignore a major historical force that shaped and continues to shape the collective wisdom of African Americans in the United States. There is considerable evidence to show that people bring their histories to their communication events. When African Americans react negatively to Ross Perot’s choice of the words “you people” in an address to them in Texas during the 1992 presidential campaign, their reaction stems from the experience of slavery, in which a “masterservant” relationship existed between blacks and whites.
The term “you people” is a reminder that they (blacks) are different, and are often regarded by whites as lower in status. Some of my initial cultural problems in the United States emerged from a lack of a deep sense of understanding of some of the forces of history that have shaped U.S. domestic relations, and their implications for competent communication in a variety of contexts. I recall my encounter with an African American classmate at Howard University. I had used the term “old boy” in referring to him during a conversation. While in Nigeria this is regarded as a positive term in referring to friends, my African American friend took offense at what appeared to suggest a master-servant relationship. During and after the slavery period in the U.S., Africans were referred to as “boy” by the white master. However, through discussions we were able to recognize that no offense was intended, and we both grew from the experience. One of the major indicators of intercultural growth when one confronts a cultural problem must be a willingness on the part of those involved to engage in genuine dialogue, which helps to sort out the cultural differences that created the miscommunication.
Through such dialogue, intercultural understanding is enhanced. As a newly arrived African-born immigrant from a society in which race was not necessarily an issue, initially I had difficulty understanding why both intellectual and lay discussions about domestic relations were so much anchored by race. For most Africans, ethnicity and national origins, rather than colors, were the critical factors. My experience living in the United States has made me look for deeper meanings. The perceptual differences between black Americans and native Africans stem, perhaps, from the fact that in Africa, black people under the control of Europeans were subjected to the institution of colonialism, an institution that while very limiting allowed certain basic freedoms and protections under the law. In the United States, blacks under the control of Europeans were subjected to the institution of slavery, an institution that denied them every right under the law. To understand why black Americans may view reality from the perspective of race, one must put the experience of slavery in its proper historical context. Overall, growth for me throughout my American journey has produced a greater degree of adaptability, such that I am now able to experience cultural differences with better understanding while at the same time functioning well in my host culture. Although my expectations are still grounded in tribal cultural values, nevertheless they have become shaped through frequent travels and interactions with host culture nationals in both small communities and large cities across the United States. I have visited more than 30 states since my arrival in the United States, from large urban cities such as Washington, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Atlanta, to mid-sized towns such as Sacramento, Portland, Nashville, East Lansing, and Albuquerque, to small communities such as Oakdale, Myrtle Beach, and Plains (hometown of former President Jimmy Carter).
I have participated and immersed myself in the various historical, institutional (government and religious), and community events that cut across racial, ethnic, and cultural boundaries-events such as church services of other faiths, Latino Cinco de Mayo celebrations, African American Juneteenth, Native American Pow Wows, German Oktoberfests, Chinese New Year’s festivities, East Indian weddings, and Thanksgiving dinners. In fact, it is safe to say that I have become so functionally adapted in the United States that when I return home to Rwanda I experience the stress of reverse culture shock as I readjust to my own culture. The stress results because the new ideas that I have acquired living in the United States often are in conflict with my native customs and traditions. For example, during my father’s funeral in 2000 a number of the native beliefs and values regarding funeral rites seemed very strange to me, but I quickly adapted, after a few days, with help from family members still living within the culture. When I first entered the United States, I was a stranger in this land. I was unsure how to behave properly, and I was anxious and insecure about what I would experience. Through prolonged and varied experiences, I have gradually acquired the communication skills necessary to cope with the challenges and to realize the promises of my new environment. This, for me, has been and continues to be a wonderful American journey.