This week marked our last Tok Pisin lesson. It was only a six week course but the teachers have tried hard to give us some useful phrases for daily interaction. One thing it has made us think about is the questions we ask and the answers we expect...Back in Wales, we have been used to asking people, 'How are you?' when we see them, but depending on the context, not expecting much more than a 'Fine thanks, and you?' When you think about it shouting, 'How are you?' across a road to someone, without really even slowing your pace, is a bit pointless, but I suppose we are not really asking the question - it is just a way of saying hello. In Tok Pisin you can say, 'Yu stap orait?' and lots of people do, both expats and Papua New Guineans. I have been merrily saying it to people for weeks and feeling glad that there is something I can say that shows I am interested. After that it is harder...but here's the thing - our teacher told us that it isn't really a culturally appropriate question to ask straight out, but it has got into the way people communicate here because it is something that westerners say. When you think about it, it is an incredibly personal question and you want the person asking it not to be thrown into confusion if you say, 'No, actually. Pretty awful.' It all depends on the relationship and relationship is all important here - you can't just launch in with a personal question - you have to build up to that and you have to be willing to take time, even if that is not in your day plan. So what do you say? 'Moning' or 'Apinun' or 'Gutnait' are safe options (although the latter still feels like a farewell to us) for greeting people you don't really know. But what about the people you know a little? Our teacher told us to say what we are doing and where we are going. So if I meet someone at market I could say, 'Morning, I am at the market buying food and then I am going back home.' My immediate reaction to that was to think that it is more polite not to start talking about yourself, and why say something so obvious? But she said it is much less threatening and allows them to just say, 'That's nice,' or tell you what they are doing and you may or may not go on from there. So why is it that there is something inside me that thinks it is potentially a bit nosy to ask someone where they are going, but is totally acceptable to ask them how they are? It doesn't make any sense. It probably doesn't need to, but it is different and I want to adapt so that I don't make blunders or look like I am just relying on those around to adapt to me and be gracious.
On Friday, my yard meri (the lady who keeps the garden looking gorgeous) arrived for her morning with us and immediately addressed me with, 'Yu stap orait?' I can't remember what I said, but I felt confused. I think I must have nodded and then we got into trying to discuss the garden. I did not ask her and to be honest, I am still not sure if that was the right thing to do or not. Even though she wouldn't say that to her neighbour, did she say it to me because she thought that is what I would like and expect, so that when I didn't say it back she was offended anyway? Have we created our own little culture of communication that is more mine than hers, even though I am in her country? Ok. Perhaps I am overthinking this, but it is tricky isn't it? I will just have to keep trying (and making mistakes), as well as acknowledging the grace with which we are so often unknowingly treated by those we are supposed to have come here to serve.
When I return to Wales in a few weeks I wonder if I will think more carefully about the point in the conversation that I ask, 'How are you?' Perhaps if I want a real answer I must build up to it there too and not just blurt it out, so that it actually sounds like a real question that wants a real answer.