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Living with Foreigners: Part 2 – Time is Relative

July 22, 2016

I heard an anecdote a few years back that when the Europeans first encountered the Native Americans in the new world, the Native Americans were convinced that the Europeans worshipped clocks. Clocks told them when to get up, when to eat and when to go to bed. Almost every event started and ended in rigid adherence to the almighty hands of the clock. As opposed to simply eating when one was hungry, the Europeans dutifully consulted their time-piece gods before sitting down for a meal.

While I may not hold the same kind of reverence for time as my ancestors, I can say that I am a strict believer in the concept and spirit of Time. More specifically, I believe time marches on in a linear fashion and gives order and structure to our lives.

Much to my annoyance however, my wife and her family are not such firm believers in the concept. For example, while I consistently use a timer when cooking, my wife has a less rigid approach. She asserts that she can just “intuit” when the food is done- which I normally wouldn’t have a problem with except that her intuition is consistently wrong. Wrong to the tune of – I have yet to see her make garlic bread without burning it in 5 years of marriage – wrong.

Now, to be fair I can’t solely place the blame on her. I actually blame her native country instead. You see, in Ethiopia, time really is relative. For example, currently in Ethiopia, it is the year 2008. Yes, you read that correctly. For unfathomable reasons that only Wikipedia can fully explain, the country is living either 7 or sometimes 8 years in the past. While this may be good for counting your age and perhaps even giving the country extra time to prepare for Y2K, it can make for interesting conversations. Rio Olympics ’08 anyone?

Not only is it a totally different year in Ethiopia, but just to add more confusion to the relatively simple concept of time, Ethiopians also actually count the hours of the day  differently.

So while you and I might reckon time based on a 12 hour cycle beginning at midnight and resetting at noon, in Ethiopia they start the day when the sun rises and sets. Therefore while you wake up at 7 AM our time, in Ethiopian time you actually are rising at 1 O’clock. Conversely, if you go to bed at 10 PM, in Ethiopian reckoning, you are actually going to bed at 4 PM. Confused? Exactly. It makes no logical sense unless you happen to live near the equator where the sun usually rises and sets around the same time every day.

This could pose problems if you work in a retail environment. When my sister-in-law was an employee at Marshall’s and was asked what time the store closes, a response of 3 ‘o clock can be met with confusion or downright hostility when the store actually closes at 9 PM and it is technically only 6 PM in the evening. I’m not exactly sure what the customer thought of this encounter. Probably something along the lines of “She’s a foreigner. Obviously telling time is not her forte.”

All this to say, I’ve adopted a policy of always asking if our family events are starting at Eastern Standard Time or Ethiopian Time. Otherwise, we run the risk of starting events either way too early or way too late. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to run to a birthday party for my newest niece. She turns negative 7 today.

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