Asking for directions on the streets of Beirut is a bit of a joke. “They” say that if you need help getting somewhere, you should ask at least three people and if there are any similarities, follow those. Problem is, you could ask three people and get three completely different sets of directions. (Although I will say, when you do get good directions, they are totally my kind of directions! None of this “go north on Whatever Road and then head east for 3.2 miles”…. no, we get real directions like “walk until you see the little shop with the suitcases out front and turn right, then go until you see the man on the corner selling lottery tickets….”)
One aspect of the honor/shame culture that we are living in is that when you ask somebody a question (directions, for example), “I don’t know” is generally not an acceptable answer. Which means directions to such-and-such-a-place are often made up on the spot.
I think this is also the source of the infamous “bukra! Inshallah….” which means “tomorrow! God willing….” Drop off laundry to be washed and ask when it will be finished: “Bukra! Inshallah….” which really means in three days. No more cucumbers at the veggie stand? “We will have more bukra! Inshallah…” which could mean tomorrow or it could mean Friday.
We’ve been here long enough that we don’t take a “bukra! Inshallah….” seriously, nor do we follow directions and expect to reach our destination on the first try.
But where this inability to just say “I don’t know” really threw me for a loop was when we were in the hospital with Ruby for the first few weeks of her life. As I’ve been processing the experience a bit lately, I finally realized that this is a big reason it was such a frustrating time.
Our doctor (not the first one, but the one we chose the second time we were re-admitted) was wonderful. She took as much time as we needed to explain what was going on, what we were hoping to see, and what was coming next. But we only saw her once per day. The rest of the time we were in contact with the nurses and residents. Whether we asked or not, we were constantly being told that “after this one more little test, you will be going home” only to have the doctor stop by hours later and tell us we needed to stay another 24 hours.
The up and down of packing our stuff thinking we were going home because that’s what we were told by a well-intentioned nurse only to have that hope dashed when the doctor appeared was emotionally exhausting. And I just didn’t realize at the time what was going on… but as I look back, I see I was just missing a major cultural puzzle piece that would have reminded me that no one wanted to give bad news, no one wanted to say they didn’t know what was coming next. But instead I took the words at face value and as a result was frustrated and discouraged day after day.
Looking back, I can totally see what was going on… but in the moment I didn’t even contemplate what kinds of cultural cues I might be missing. Such is the life of cross-cultural living. Sometimes I feel like we are really starting to adapt, to fit in, and then other times, I feel like I’m totally missing the boat. It’s a never-ending, life-long learning process, that’s for sure!