I raised my eyebrows as I looked at my husband. “You’re going to waste your one ‘why’ question on this?”
“Doesn’t count!” he said emphatically!
“Does too!” I replied.
We stood there like two children in the middle of the dusty road in back of our apartment, the afternoon shadows of the mountains creating shade despite no vegetation of any kind. A lone chicken had begun to cross the road toward us, only to confront my husband midway, squawk indignantly, and turn back to the other side.
The ‘why’ question was the age old question with a Kurdish twist: “Why did the Kurdish chicken cross the road?”
It was this that I responded to.
We moved here six weeks ago. After a whirlwind of closing the doors, windows, and chapters on one life, we traveled thousands of miles to a completely new one with little that links it to the old besides us.
We could not be more delighted to be making our home here in Kurdistan. We are in a small city that has welcomed us in wholly and completely and we are grateful. But because we wear our own cultures like body suits, tightly fitted to our form, there are times when we are assaulted by cultural differences, some big and some small.
In an essay “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong” writer Joann Pittman walks through a series of tips for expats who are learning to live well in their adopted countries. It is an excellent article, and well worth keeping bookmarked, but the best advice of all is unforgettable. She gives a numeric limit to the number of ‘why’ questions you are allowed to ask a day. The number is one. That’s right. One ‘why’ question per day. And I will tell you – it is a life saver. It is a marriage saver. It is a friendship saver. And it is genius advice.
She says this: “One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) ‘WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?’ Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one ‘why’ question per day.”
One ‘why’ question a day.
Think of how many times you ask why in your home culture. Chances are that it is far more than you are aware of. Now think about being removed thousands and thousands of miles from your home culture, and being in a culture where you don’t know the language, the rules, or the culture. Yet still – one ‘why’ a day.
So if I use it poorly, I’m done. Like “Why did it take us three weeks to get our residence permit, and it only took that other expat one day?” No. NO. NO. Bad why question. Bad. Because who knows? And does it really matter? These governmental procedures are way, way out of our control.
It just happened that way, and don’t worry about it. We now have our residence permits. We have our passports. We are happy.
Here’s another ‘why’ question with no answer: “Why did they put our western toilet over a Turkish toilet so it rocks back and forth?” Also not a good ‘why’ question. We will never learn the answer to this.
“Why are you charging us an extra five thousand dinar for our mint lemonade?”
Answer: “Because you had the nuts.”
“But we didn’t ask for the nuts.”
“Okay. Then we won’t charge you the extra money.”
Now that question was a good why question! That question had an answer.
“Why are all the tire stores together?”
Bad. They just are. You might just as well say “Why aren’t the tire stores together in our home country?”
The good ‘why’ questions are the ones that help you better understand your host culture, and thus be able to enjoy and adapt and live effectively within that host culture.
The not so good ‘why’ questions are the ones that are often based on cultural superiority. The ‘we do things better where I come from, so why don’t you change your ways to be like ours?’. This may be painting broad strokes on why questions, but my experience tells me that it is not. When we learn what is behind a particular way of doing things, we are better able to understand it, even if we don’t agree with it.
If we limit ourselves to one ‘why’ question a day, we take ourselves away from constantly questioning and instead put ourselves into a posture of learning.
Let’s face it – there are some places and situations where we could ask ‘why’ all day long. I just left government service in Massachusetts. Believe me, government and state institutions around the world are not that different. There are always too many employees to be efficient. There is always too much bureaucracy, and there are always too many leaders who don’t care. This was true in Massachusetts, and it’s true here. I wasted a lot of time at my job in Massachusetts asking ‘why’. Why, for ten years, did I have no support to go to continuing education events? Why was there so much bureaucracy? Why. Why. Why. I should have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day while I was there.
Instead I waited until I came to Kurdistan. And in Kurdistan I am enjoying life so much – partly because I have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day.
So people – One ‘why’ a day! If you’ve crossed cultures it’s a necessity. If you haven’t crossed cultures, try it anyway! I guarantee that your life will change!