While watching tributes to the one and only Michael Jackson via international media this week, in Ghana, the comparisons with Elvis were frequent.
Godwin: “Who is this Elvis?”
Me: “Elvis Presley.”
Me: “You know, Ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…”
Godwin: “I do not know.”
Me: “Really? You’ve not heard of Elvis?”
Me (pausing a moment): “What about The Beatles?”
Me (suspicious): “Are you pulling my leg?”
Godwin (annoyed): “I’m not touching your leg.”
Me: “I know. I mean: ‘Are you kidding?’’”
Godwin: “What about?”
Me: “About not knowing The Beatles.”
Godwin: “Why would I be kidding?”
Me: “It’s just. Wow, imagine there’s no Elvis.” (D’oh! No puns…)
Godwin: “OK. Let’s hit the toad and frog.”
Me: “You’re funny.”
While it’s astonishing (for me, at least) to discover a nation where no one I spoke to, this week, knew of Elvis or The Beatles, Ghana boasting its own rich musical culture, anyway, this exchange gives you a taste of our number one challenge: communication.
The thing that still bewilders me is that ideas, experiences and perceptions that seem to have been hard-wired from birth—from Elvis to expressions like “pulling my leg”—have virtually no frame of reference in my life here.
Indeed, when I once remarked that someone had “a kangaroo loose in the top paddock”, Godwin asked, “What’s a paddock?” There are no “paddocks”; land is hardly fenced.
You see, communication is as much about language as it is culture, and we’ve had some rip-roaring arguments because of it. Misinterpreted semantics, that is.
So I dropped idioms altogether for a while. I believe, however, that building a mutual frame of reference ought to be half the fun. I mean, I take pleasure in foreign cultures because of the differences in how we think (and also because they teach me that universal principles—love, trust, kindness and forgiveness—hold true everywhere, in spite of our differences). So, I do include idioms carefully and occasionally.
And Godwin teaches me local proverbs. “Ntek, Kantek, Aniwanpehd” is “Kusa” (another language) for “If I pull and you pull, the calabash will break.” Essentially, if we keep fighting, then the relationship (symbolized by the calabash) will collapse. So, stop fighting!
For his part, Godwin is hammering away at Aussie slang. “Frog and toad” is rhyming slang for “road”. “Kitchen sink” replaces “drink”. He endeared himself hugely when he declared: “Let’s hit the toad and frog and have a sink in the kitchen.”
Personally, I struggle with Frafra, his main language. Frafra’s philosophy is: “Why make a two syllable word when we could have fun with six?” Gomatiataho (rainbow) sounds Japanese (my second language, so it clicks) but I’m having trouble with its array of breath-suffocating words.
On a serious note, I asked Godwin how he thinks he’s changed since we met: “I am better at listening and less likely to jump to conclusions while you talk. I now cross-check by asking questions instead of assuming based on my own interpretation. And I think you’re more tolerant of my round-about explanations and less impatient now,” he said.
I agree. And I know more than ever that mutual understanding is achieved best when I listen first, with my heart, and then speak—with “calabashes” of mindfulness.
One of our simple pleasures is creating meals exclusively from local ingredients, like we create nonsense language from silly conversations.
Me: “Mpo-oheya.” (Thank you—you must choke on the “o”s)
Godwin: “Mpoka kaboi.” (You’re welcome)
Me: “Was that ‘cowboy’?”
Godwin: “Mpoka KA BOI.”
Me: “Sounds like ‘COW BOY’.”
Godwin: “Mpoka ‘BLOOOONDIE’!”
He means Clint Eastwood (aka. “Blondie”) in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly—also a recent discovery for him.
And that’s how we’re creating “Fra-lish” (and building that mutual frame of reference) even if I can’t quite use it with the feisty old market women (who whisper slyly, I now understand, about my “wonderful hips” when I go haggle: Differences in the feminine ideal—now that’s a whole other topic…)
On the blog This is Ghana you can read more about Gayle and Godwin’s life in Ghana. Especially interesting at the moment are the posts on Ghanaian reactions to Obama’s visit last week.
Read more stories of cross-cultural relationships from My Partner is a Foreigner
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