Cultural Differences: Sleeping

There is a phrase everyone should know when they are traveling abroad: “It’s not wrong, it’s different.”  That because when going to another culture, some things will seem so very out of place, and sometimes just plain wrong.  While some things are actually wrong, others are really just a matter of custom, even if they seem incredibly unreasonable.  The Word of God is super helpful at determining the two.

This post is an effort to help explain what it is like to be in a very different place like Madagascar.  I’ll give one example with a story.

I had been in Madagascar for two weeks when I got the chance to go on a trip to the small town of Betioky to share the gospel, and I went with about thirty other Malagasy people.  We didn’t have money for a hotel, but the town let us stay in two classrooms at the school since their classes were on holiday.  So the first night, I went to the classroom where I and about fifteen other men were going to be spending the night.  All the seats had been removed from the classroom, so the whole floor was available as sleeping space.  I had prepared myself mentally for spending the night on the cement floor, and when I got in the room, I found a nice cozy unclaimed corner-spot.  I got my blanket out and had my fleece jacket arranged nicely as a pillow.

But there was one thing I did not understand.  From my perspective, things should have looked something like this in the room:

All sleeping peacefully

But then I heard a voice, and turning around, I realized that things looked like this…

"It's not wrong, it's different. It's not wrong, it's different. It's not wrong, it...

Why in the world would I want to sleep all isolated in the corner as though I thought they were all gross and dirty?  Why wouldn’t I be thrilled that Victor and Crescend had saved me a spot between them on a 4 ft. x 6 ft. straw mat?  Isn’t it much easier to sleep shoulder to shoulder instead of cold and alone?

I reluctantly picked up my blanket and my fleece-jacket-pillow, and got into their nice little sleeping arrangement.  It took me a while to get to sleep.

I think this would strike some Americans as odd.  So might the fact that, on a recent trip to the capital Antananarivo, the Bishop was assigned a twin bed to share with his Malagasy translator.

In Pierre’s house there are five people using one bunk bed and a double.  Either he and his wife or his two sons are sharing a spot on the bunk bed.

A part of all this might also stem from the fact that many other cultures outside the United States practice cosleeping (that’s an official anthropology term, not one I made up) which is where newborn babies sleep in the bed with their mother and keep sleeping there until another baby is born, at which point the older child might move to another bed in the room.  Often at that point, the father might move to the bed with the older child so that child does not have to sleep alone.  This is especially helpful for newborns because it lets the baby breastfeed whenever it needs to and the mother often barely wakes up or perhaps does not wake up at all.  You might think that is strange and backward.  They would call you a cruel and unloving parent since you try to force your child to sleep in their own bed and (gasp!) in their own room.  They would wonder why you don’t like your baby.

Maybe all these things seem totally normal to you.  If not, just remember: it’s not wrong, it’s different.

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