Occasionally, I get overwhelmed when I think about the fact that we are the only non-Papuan people in the world who speak and understand the Yetfa language. I consider it an amazing privilege to study and learn this language spoken by a tiny little group (about 1000 people) tucked away in the middle of the world’s second largest rain forest. It’s a fascinating language – so completely different from anything else I know.
Equally exciting, however, is learning their culture!
We don’t often spend a lot of time reflecting on our own culture. Just like we probably don’t spend too much time thinking about the increasing number of ‘smile lines’ in the corner of our eyes. That is… until we look in a mirror.
Learning and living in another culture is like a mirror that makes us think about our own culture. Sometimes when we look in ‘the mirror’, we discover good things about our own culture. Sometimes we discover some very disappointing things. Other times we just shake our head and laugh.
Recently I had a head shaking, laughing look in the mirror.
Uriah recently lost one of his baby teeth and a friend asked what the Yetfa do when their kids lose a tooth. (Just the assumption that they would ‘do something’ is interesting.) We hadn’t had the opportunity to discover that yet, so I asked.
Come to find out, they take the baby tooth and place it inside the bud of a buah merah plant. (Now they didn’t explain exactly why, but I assume it is related to the fear that a ‘medicine man’ will use it to do something wicked to them. This is true about cut hair, left over food, and just about anything that is from a person or that he/she has used.)
Of course, after they explained their culture, they wanted to know what ‘Americans’ do.
“Well… ummm… okay… Most people tell their kids to put their tooth under their pillow and that sometime in the night while they are sleeping a little spirit (how else would you describe a fairy!) would come in, take it, and leave some money.”
“WHAT? Americans believe that?! What does the little spirit do with it?!”
“Well… nothing. Nobody believes it. They just tell their kids that. Then the parents take the tooth and leave money under the pillow.”
“Oh… so you deceive your kids.”
“Well… I mean… I guess. Until they get older.”
“So you only deceive them while they are little?”
“Well… I mean… Yeah… pretty much…”
Commence head shaking and laughing.