Thursday, July 23, 2009

Expats, Culture Gaps, and Tourist Traps


My journey is getting closer to end as I finish my sixth week in Nicaragua. It has only become more difficult to define what I've learned. In some ways, I've picked up the specifics- Nicaraguan culture, food, language, lifestyle, etc. But the majority of learning has been more universal, actually. After spending some time with American expats who own an eco-friendly hostel in Jiquilillo, I started to become more conscious about how much I personally create waste and pollution. Interestingly, (by some accounts) our southern neighbor, Costa Rica, is the most environmentally friendly country on this planet (and apparently happiest). After visiting San Juan del Sur, perhaps the most touristic town in Nicaragua, I also witnessed a pretty large contrast between the places that tourism flourishes and the rest of the country. Needless to say, SJDS looked like another country altogether. In all, I formed some ideas for myself. Keep in mind, some of these ideas are merely subjective conclusions I've drawn. I'll expand:

1) I've learned that culture and language barrier are a personality dulling mechanism. When Nicaraguans ask why you are quiet and don't joke more, and this clearly doesn't fit your native personality, you have to explain to them that you are different in your native tongue. It really made me reflect on my experiences with foreigners in the past, where I was given only a small idea of their personality. We tend to think of many (less fluent) foreigners as shy and polite, and we rarely get a chance to pick their brains. A funny thing happens when you are able to surprise people and become more "yourself" in a foreign language. It's quite an empowering feeling.


2) I've learned that the greatest differences in the world are generally between the classes, and across the poorer classes of different nations. As I began to meet more young, wealthier Nicaraguans, many of whom speak English to some degree, I began to realize that we were more alike than I was to poorer Americans. Our ways of speaking, our interests, topics of conversation, ways of thinking and dressing, and underlying beliefs were really not too different. It's the reason why international students at Notre Dame are generally well-adjusted. Once you travel, you start to see that the cities in the world have become more alike. The cosmopolitan global culture has a strong set of universal customs. When wealthy individuals from a foreign country highlight the gap between themselves and their less-wealthy fellow citizens, you start to become more aware of global gaps and your own gaps with other people.

Another observation that I have made is that the greatest gaps between cultures exist between the rural poor. The truly profound differences between America and the developing world, in an overt cultural sense, stand between our rural poor and their rural poor. The idea of distinct music, dancing, cuisine, cultural norms, clothing, and folklore are best exemplified in the rural parts of our nations. Our wealthy urbanites have only become more similar over time. In this regard, students looking to have a eye-opening cultural experience ought to look first in their own cities, in the poorer and more removed parts of America. If they have the chance, immerse themselves in the culture of foreign (less affluent) peoples. Perhaps I am disposed to see the world in a more materialist, Marxian way, but I truly believe that class is the greatest divider on our planet. We ought to acknowledge it.


3) I've learned that we all share so many wonderful attributes that are profoundly human. When you immerse yourself with others who are different, the first things you notice are the differences. For the first 3 or 4 weeks, I felt lonely quite often. Going 4 or 5 days without speaking a word of English can be challenging for the psyche. Then there is a moment of relief when one starts to realize just how small the world is. You realize that 2000 years ago the gaps between cultures and peoples were much stronger than they are today. You realize that written into our genetic makeup are endless attributes that we have in common with each other. In the display of emotion and in social interactions I have found these most profoundly present. Knowing that Nicaragua is a Western, Christian nation, I would love to experience a greater jump, such as Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia, to see what is left of our commonalities.

I know what you're thinking. What does this all have to do with politics?

Fair enough. You've caught me talking about something else, for once. Nevertheless, I challenge you to expand your definition of what is pertinent. After working in the heart of what we call "politics" last summer in Washington, DC, I have little doubt that understanding cultural gaps and economic disparities are any less valuable, and for that matter, any less political. For many of us, it is the latter that we ought to delve deeper to find solutions to our world's problems. And perhaps some of our men and women in Washington could use a little less training in American political machinery, and a little more training in being better global citizens (and I don't mean- by having lovers on different continents, Mr. Governor).

I bid you well,

Henry “Enrique” Vasquez
Masaya, Nicaragua

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice jab at the end with the Sanford comment, Henry. Talking with style but never pulling the punches. Good stuff!