11 March, 2008

Pennsylvania Dutch

A few weeks ago I was in Nairobi for some meetings. In Sudan I don't come across many women from a similar cultural background. In Nairobi there are quite a few, and I met a lady who was working with a different organization in a different part of Sudan who happened to be in Nairobi along with a friend who was also living in Sudan. Since there was another guy I work with in for the same meetings as me, I decided to see if the girl and her friend wanted to go bowling with us (one of the nice things about Nairobi). The timing didn't work out for bowling, but we did manage to meet up for dinner instead.

You see, people who live in different environments become a bit socially awkward when they do come in contact with those of similar backgrounds. Since we all were in that category, it's no wonder what became of the evening. It started nice enough as we met them at the apartment and covered introductions a bit before heading to a place in town that has Mexican(ish) food. It had been a year since my last experience with Mexican food, and I imagine similar for the others, so we were all pretty excited about it. About 5 minutes in, Mormons or Mennonites came up and the one girl talked of how Mennonites aren't weird like Amish people. Being from Pennsylvania and near many Pennsylvania Dutch communities, I thought I'd probe a little deeper and ask why she said that. She went on to discuss how Amish can't wear buttons and were weird and backwards. And, although there are Pennsylvania Dutch near to where I'm from, the main reason I pushed the issue is that my buddy working with me is from an Amish background. (Ok, now I know you're wondering how it happened that I came across an Amish guy in Sudan, but we'll not get into that right now.)

While she's going into different things about the Amish that are weird, I start laughing quite a bit and my buddy is also, although not as hard as I am. The friend of this girl catches on and tries to interrupt her, but she keeps going on and on about how the Amish don't use electricity and the men have those weird beards (also funny considering the facial hair I have) and so on. When she caught on that there was something unusual, we told her that my friend was Amish. Of course she didn't believe it at first, and she says, "No way. Are you really Amish? If you are I'm going to feel really bad." And then she went on saying other things that she thought were weird about the Amish and reasons why my buddy couldn't be Amish. The driver's license that showed his last name as Yoder didn't even convince her. Because he was wearing blue jeans, not black, asking if he came by boat, things like that. She really still didn't believe us even as he was explaining about Amish life and how he is from a non-old Order (more progressive) Amish background. It took her calling a couple of our staff with my phone who knew this guy's background before she finally did consider it might be true. But, she still continued to bring it up many times and asked all kinds of questions about the Amish. It was an interesting evening of conversation and education for our new friends. I learned a few new things about the Amish too.

And, although it was an evening centered around the Amish, it was fun to be out of Sudan and practicing my social skills again. The food was good and the girls really were nice. We got to talk quite a bit about NCAA basketball and look ahead to March Madness as well, so that was also fun. As all of my MK friends in university attested to, it's a little tough fitting back in after spending time in other environments, so maybe if I can practice every now and then it won't be so bad when I go back to the States for home leave in a few months.