Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Culture Clash of Expectations: A Reality Check -- Appearances

One thing I have been discovering and pondering a lot during the past three weeks in Brazil is how my own realities have shaped my reactions to some things in Mexico, Ghana, and Brazil in ways I was not so much aware of before. For example, houses are often crammed together in smaller plots and share adjoining walls. One house is painted one color. One is painted another. Sometimes the colors, to me, do NOT look good together at all. Sometimes, the same house is divided internally into two smaller dwellings, and each half is painted a different color. This has always clashed with my internal senses of order, etc. And I am finally taking real notice of it.

I am not a home owner. I have rented apartments since moving out with my parents, but as I prepare to marry, I am pondering at least a rental property and the new responsibilities that brings. I always shied away from mowing lawns, gardening, etc. as well as other things like carpentry, painting, etc. I will have to learn about these things or hire someone to do them for me. Or my house will not meet my neighbors' or friends' expectations. And probably not those of my wife or myself.

As I drive around Rio de Janeiro, and in Juarez too, I saw many places where houses were dirty, in need of a paint job, some looked run down or poor. But at times, I would enter and find quite charming, nice homes. There's more to looks than appearance, my mother once advised. And that seems to be the case here. Between the torrential rains and the lesser infrastructure, leaving more dirty and dust flying around to stick to wet walls, and the costs of paint, workers, etc. people in Ghana, Mexico and Brazil don't appear to put the same premium on keeping houses looking prim, shiny, and clean that we U.S. citizens do. Or maybe it's just a losing battle and they have their hands full with more important tasks of daily living. It is not something I really thought about until this trip. I just reacted to these things, without pondering why they are the way they are.

Another thing is space. Generally, people seem to live in less space in these countries. In all three countries, you can have 10 people living in a house with two bedrooms, and small ones at that. You can have three people regularly sharing a bed. Even as adults. It is not uncommon. It is not unnatural. It is the way things are. It always seems to threaten my sense of personal space when I think about this. But right now, my fiancee Bianca is sharing a bed upstairs with her cousin and Grandma, her mom and stepdad have a bed, and I am the only one who has my own. I am lucky that way. But that is because I am a foreigner. I also have air conditioning in a sealed room which Bianca, her Grandma and cousin do not have. Truly, I feel guilty. But no one complains, and probably would never dream of it. This is the way life is.

The house is recognizably smaller than the house I grew up in. The entire upstairs is her Grandma's separate space. Millions of people all over the world live with such shared spaces, and it is always striking to me. I am not judging it wrong or bad or terrible or anything of the sort. It is just not how I grew up or how most people I have known in the U.S. have ever lived. It is a challenge to my cultural mores, as a result. And I am pondering more and more not only how lucky I have been but how ignorant most of us in the U.S. are to basic realities for the rest of the world.

Anyway, there is more to looks than appearance in these cases, as I have been learning. And so I have to reevaluate my own perceptions in light of the new information. I have to react to things differently. So many things that are normal to people in these other places -- like having to do something beyond turn a knob for warm or hot water, toilets that don't flush paper, or houses that don't look uniformly shiny and cleanly painted all around the neighborhood or event he same size and shape -- challenge my cultural values. And I have to change and grow from this so as not to judge people in ways that are unrealistic and unfair. That is a daily process, I find, as a frequent cross cultural taveller. I am getting better and better at my inner compass, but I still have a ways to go, and probably always will.

We always have to remember that other people have just as valid an experience of reality as we do even though theirs is far different from our own. I ran up against this recently on a website that claims to be "the most balanced on the web" about Juarez. It is balanced because the webmaster believes everyone who disagrees with him is biased and negative. If you share that view, you will find in balanced as well. For me, it always seemed grossly unbalanced, because it did not share views from other points of view, just the one. I had joined a discussion forum and tried to share some alternative views, but was lambasted by the owner and a couple of other members for my "disrespectful" and "insensitive" views. Certainly some of them know more about Mexico than me. And certainly I have moments of insensitive and disrespectful views, but when I looked at the things I wrote and asked others I knew about them, we felt it was more a case of "dissenting views" than the other two. Certainly, no one likes criticism of things they think fondly or or places for that matter. But some criticisms are valid because they relate to things people may experience or face, even if you don't. And denying those realities is not balanced. It is biased and it is setting people up for greater disappointment or frustration because they were not well informed than if you discuss them realistically. Besides that how disrespectful and insensitive is it to publicly insult someone instead of just sending a private message and suggesting that their comments might appear biased? Especially for a webmaster?

I am not on the site now, but it was really shocking to me to see someone who claims to want the most balanced site rejecting someone who was not fighting with anyone or whose posts had not generated any public complaints, etc. I was not breaking any rules posted on the site, or attacking or insulting anyone deliberately. I just did not agree 100% with the views of the majority, who have a very narrow view of their world and don't like their boat rocked.

If you are going to interact cross culturally, you will have to widen your view. If you are going to interact cross culturally, your boat will get rocked. And if you are going to write about that, people -- hyper-sensitive as they are these days -- will object to it at times. They will insult you, call you insensitive and disrespectful, etc. And they will remain ignorantly unaware of their own lack of respect or sensitivity or that other points of view have any validity. In most cases, freedom of expression dictates that even if you feel that way, you don't discriminate against people. But this was an exception. The webmaster had even suggested he'd like more things from me on the forum like I write in my blog. Then he says I and my blog are "disrespectful" and "insensitive." Either he didn't really read it before he said that or he is a confused person. Whatever the case, you cannot have it both ways.

Most readers, for whatever reason, have not chosen to comment on this blog. I am disappointed by that, as I know people are reading it from the emails I get and responses in other places. And those comments come from both foreigners and U.S. citizens and have been positive. One Brazilian even said he appreciated my willingness to work hard to see things from multiple sides. I am grateful for that. I know I am not successful in every entry, but I do try, and it is always on my mind. Some things are still seen with blinders on that will take time to tear down. It is that way for others looking at my culture. That's not a bad thing.

We need to spend the effort to try and understand each others' points of view to get past all that and work through the conflicted feelings it creates. Most people, like those on the Juarez website, are just not interested in putting forth that effort. I am, which is the whole reason I created this website. If you are, too, and you read this, please comment. If you find something shortsighted or offensive in what I wrote, post a comment. We can discuss. All I ask is (as posted in my disclaimer) that you be respectful and not use foul language. I can deal with contrary opinions. And I am willing to learn from you. But you have to be open to learning too or it won't work.

One final warning: beware of wolves in sheep's clothing...beware of wolves in friends' clothing, too.

For what it's worth...

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