Cultural Sh-Sh-Shock. Part II

As I mentioned yesterday, traveling brings out the differences in our social fabric, and sometimes these differences are a little more difficult to get used to.  Even though I was brought up in a Sudanese household, there are a few things that are extraordinarily different when you actually live in Sudan, as I quickly found out, and some of those differences are illustrated below... (Note: I love Sudan, I really do. I was born there and am a proud Sudanese. Some of the below have a slight ironic tone, please take it all in good humour).

1. Communal or family based living

This is a theme that underscores many of the societal differences that I have found in Sudan.  Even though I think my parents did try to engender this concept in their kids while living in Australia, it didn't quite hit home like it does now. In Australia for example, everyone looks out for themselves.  Everyone largely lives their own life, as the individual unit is seen as the most important.  The complete opposite is true here in Sudan and many other "Eastern" nations; the family unit is what matters, or at least the "community" and the concept of doing things for individual success, pleasure or improvement is largely foreign.

This manifests itself in a number of ways, such as:

2. Everybody knows (or needs to know) everything

I am used to being a relatively independent person and making independent decisions.  However, in a community and family unit based society such as Sudan, this isn't how things are done.

If I want to go anywhere or do anything, everyone in the house seems to need to know.  

In my case, it needs firstly to be cleared with the grandma of course. We then check if the place is safe, known and reputable.  An aunt, a cousin or two and another member of the family (maybe even my parents in Aus) also need to be told before I leave, just in case.  If I am late by a minute or two... the phones start ringing.

They tell me this is for my own safety, and I am sure it is, as I don't know the lay of the land.  However for someone used to just "doing things", the level of familial bureaucracy can be slightly ...odd.

It is all part of protecting my reputation of course... because:

3, Your reputation is your life!

There are two parts to this: As I was duly informed by my grandmother when I arrived, my reputation is my most important asset, and if I ever want a good husband (oh lol) and accordingly a good life, I would do everything in my power to be "bit naas", or "a respectable girl".  

This includes:

1. Only going or being seen at "appropriate" places (this includes university, my family's house... and restaurants, with family of course)

2. Not being out at night (sunset curfew, unless I am at a sanctioned event with family)

3. Being able to serve (i.e. Bring tea/drinks/appropriate food out, clean quickly and quietly etc)

4. Being "agreeable"...and so on and so forth.

You get the point.  This emphasis on my "reputation" is quite important you see, as it dictates what people "think about me" and my "marriage prospects"...

Again, for someone who is used to "just doing things because I want to", having to think about what others think of me and what my actions say not only about me, but my entire family is quite a lot to take in while planning an outing.  

The issue is also, not only doing the right thing, but always appearing to do the right thing. So if there are actions that are right but might be misconstrued (e.g. returning home at night, even with family) this is to be avoided at all costs, lest the neighbours talk!

4. No Concept of Privacy

So I have definitely had to get used to a new sense of "sharing", in two different senses.

Firstly, at the University I attend, my property seems to be everyone else's property as well! 

For example, if I leave my bag unattended (or I look away briefly), and I will return to find someone going through my bag to "borrow" a pen or rubber or drink my iced water (which you can't buy at uni....). A classmate once borrowed my phone to listen to a song, and continued to, unapologetically and without permission, browse through all my messages and photos! I was rather shocked, until I realised this is seen as normal!

I stopped her when she started critising my photos ("why are you taking photos of the street?"   "...") and she genuinely looked offended at my taking offense.  It truly seems that there is no such thing as "mine only"...

The second aspect is the concept of personal space.  Being used to (in Aus) having my desk and study space where I zone out and work, not having similar "alone time" here has been quite interesting, as people are around you all the time.  In fact, taking yourself away from the conversation or a get together is seen as odd, because people are very social and community based.  I think of myself as an extrovert, but I do need my space to think...

Maybe all that Australian space makes me spoilt :P

5. (This is a big one) The difference in expectations and opportunities for men and women.

I could write an entire post about this topic and how it has made me feel while living in Sudan.

Suffice to say, as a women who is a mechanical engineer, I am not stranger to people telling me "that's not what women do".

But truly, the limitations placed on women simply because they are women!!! in this society boils my blood.

"It is not safe for women!" They tell me.

"Respectable girls don't do that!"

"You will never get married if you don't learn how to cook!"

"What kind of girl are you if you don't roll your hair!"

"Sport isn't for women!"

"Be more sophisticated!"


Never have I felt more powerless or incapable purely because of my gender.

(To be continued...)

(NB: All this makes me sometimes wonder at my claimed ethnicity. I didn't realise I was such a "first worlder!")

Have you guys had any experience with culture shock, especially from a culture you thought you knew really well??