Sunday, February 28, 2010

Banana Bread and My Identity

This weekend my friend Colleen and I started out on our first solo-cooking adventure in Dakar. Goal: banana bread via Great Grandma’s recipe. We paid too much for ingredients at the fancy grocery store before making a few friends at the small “boutiques” closer to home. My family watched with raised eyebrows as we made the dough. (So you eat bananas and bread together? You make bread and put bananas in it? The bananas are in the bread? You paid how much for that?)

The dough stayed overnight in my fridge and we took it Friday to the English Resource Center, where we’ve been volunteering. We christened the oven’s maiden voyage there and discovered there was no temperature guide on the knob. This led to a crispier than desired (read: black), but still-good-in-the-middle loaf, which we carted back a few kilometers home to share with our respective families. While my family was appreciative, I don’t think that they got the same joy out of the experience that I did.

Finally, I created something here! I’m no longer just a blob that observes and absorbs my surroundings and sometimes mumbles intelligibly. I make banana bread therefore I am!

Okay, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but let me explain. Today, I was given the chance to cook again, this time a meal for my family. I made two of my favorite things, a balsamic vinaigrette salad and pesto bow-tie pasta. However, I kind of got my feelings hurt in the midst of making it because it seemed every time I turned around they were correcting me. (Put more salt in. Leave it in longer. You did what?)

I was a little distraught. I know I’m not a great cook, but pasta is easy right? And I know how good salad dressing should taste. Then why don’t they like it? Well, welcome to cross-cultural living Emily- it’s just different. And that’s okay.

Let me repeat that. It’s just different. I’m just different. You’re just different. Here I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me (or with them) when really, I’m just hitting my head against the wall of culture.

I’ve been angsty the last few days, in the midst of my cooking adventures, and I kept on trying to figure out why. I think I forgot for a minute that I’m in Senegal. These people do not understand me or my banana bread. We’re all trying, and I really have a great family, but I’m the minority here and that means that I have to bow to Senegalese tastes, tools, and ingredients when I cook. And I have to adjust to Senegal in the rest of my life, most of the time whether I want to or not.

Cross-cultural living is not easy (although I think these thoughts apply to moving in country as well). Sometimes it seems impossible to express myself here, to engage and give of myself. I think it’s natural as human beings to want to have meaningful work. But for now, my role as a student minimizes opportunities for “production”. Cooking may seem like small stuff, but I guess I’d rather experience some of these things cooking than in a huge project where I tried to bulldoze through cultural ignorance. Perhaps getting your cooking criticized is needed for while before you can understand how to really relate to people and work alongside them towards a common goal.

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