An Aggie in Ethopia: Bursting the Bubble
June 22, 2013, 9:38 am by Katheryn Hoerster
Americans talk about a bubble of personal space that we like to keep unbroken and brightly polished. We don't like it when people rub up against us in the subway or lean in close to have a conversation (those dang close talkers) or even let a hug linger a moment too long. I'm no different. I've never been a hugger and when I meet Europeans, I blatantly thrust out my hand in an effort to avoid the kisses they so like to divvy up among strangers.
When I moved to Ethiopia I thought I might be able to keep my prized personal space intact. Of course Ethiopians are not so aware of others when sitting down on busses, waiting in lines or even just speaking to acquaintances, but still, I imagined I could explain that I like my space. Ha! While I still can't say that I like the way personal space works (or rather, doesn't) in Ethiopia, I've come to accept that no amount of explaining or pushing or backing up will save my bubble. In its current state, my bubble reminds me of a deflated Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, its character colorful but barely recognizable, being drug along the route as though it still mattered. At this point, there are more people laughing at my attempt to keep my balloon in the parade, rather than give up and just dance along without a care.
Last week I encountered an amusing situation that essentially required me to drop the cords connected to my deflated balloon and carry on without it. I had arrived early at the bus station, grabbed the coveted front passenger seat of the minibus and dozed off while waiting for the other seats to fill up. Before long I was jolted awake by what I can only describe as a poof of white blankets and scarves climbing over my lap to get to the middle seat. No problem, cute little old lady, you don't need to ask me to let you in. After arranging her garments so that they only covered most of me, she put her hand on my leg and asked me something about sleeping. I didn't really understand so I just said yes. I leaned back, closed my eyes and turned up the volume on my iPod. A few moments later I felt the friendly old woman messing with by bag, which was sitting in my lap. She jostled it around, turned it over and got it arranged just how she wanted it. Then she lay down on my lap and went to sleep. There was nothing for me to do except smile, rest my arm over her back and go to sleep myself.
This minor incident was nothing short of entertaining because it demonstrated so perfectly the nonchalance that Ethiopians display when dealing with personal space. But for me it was also an important reminder that being open to a change in attitude can open the door for experiences that both put a smile on my face and allow me to better understand the people with whom I live and work. Were it not for the wrinkled, smiling old soul that didn't worry about a silly, American bubble of space, I would feel a little less connected to Ethiopia than I do now.
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