Friday, April 04, 2008


so how much of your culture do you think is important to the rest of the world? when you go for a run through the park, or when you sit down at the dinner table with your family, do you think anybody else would see that as interesting? living here in el salvador, i don't think i've ever examined my daily activities more. the more i think about it, i definitely think i've gone through at least three stages of cultural examination since arriving in this country. why am i even interested in "cultural examination?" as some of you may know, i majored in history and social studies and minored in anthropology. (i should have majored in anthropology, but i thought that i wanted to teach social studies in the public school system, hence the history/social studies double major. by the time i realized i was probably not cut out to teach formally (in a school), it was a little late to change majors. so i settled for the anthro minor.) anyway, i took as many anthro classes as i could and immersed myself in cultural anthropology which is why i am fascinated with the study of culture and why things work the way they do and why they are the way they are.

but let's get back to el salvador. when i first got here, everything was new and i accepted nearly everything. i never really had time to think about the differences because i was so inundated with the salvadoran food, the language, the living arrangements, the customs and the people that i scarcely had time to really analyze anything. i just ate the pupusas and sopa de frijoles and tortillas, tried to learn the language, used the latrine, appreciated the mosquito net, kept in step with the funeral procession as it wound itself down the road for two miles, changed my sleeping habits by going to bed at 8:00 at night along with the rest of the cantón and grew to love my host family so much that i cried when i had to leave them. this learning experience carried over when i moved to my new home in apaneca and had to learn some things all over again. salvadorans in molineros are different from salvadorans in apaneca....the molineros salvadorans are warmer, they're more accepting, they use the word "charamusca." the apanaquenses are more reserved, they like you, but it takes a lot of time to get them to admit it, they call charamuscas "topolligos," they make their tortillas small and thick, they're poorer, they wear winter hats and scarves.

but then i moved into the second stage of examining this culture and that was of taking on their cultural norms. i started using the word "púchica" all the time, i made sopa de gallina almost every weekend, i got up at 5:00 a.m. just to get a bag of fresh pan frances before the panaderia ran out of bread at 6:30 a.m., i knew the words to most reggaeton songs, i looked forward to dancing to cumbia, i quit calling kids "niños" and started calling them "bichos," i took on salvadoran phrases like "muchos días no vela" and "primero díos" and "gracias a díos" and any other phrase including "díos," i stopped buying all my groceries at the supermarket and started buying them on a daily basis from the tienda down the street from my house ("give me two eggs, one onion, two tomatoes, etc."). i, in a sense, became a salvadoran.

now here i am in the present, and my third (not sure if it's the final) stage of cultural examination. i like to think of this stage as cultural appreciation; appreciation for my own culture. believe me, when i left the united states in 2005, i wasn't a big fan of my home country for a number of reasons: the war, politics, stereotypes. but now, i feel like all i do now is see the differences between my american culture and the salvadoran one. i see the good things about the united states. in any situation that presents itself to me, i think about how it differs from the way we carry things out in the united states: the education system, the way they do things at the post office, prenatal care for expectant mothers, what to expect at hotels and stores, etc. it's like no matter how "salvadoran" i become, i have still managed to hang on to my own cultural norms, those that i grew up with. even though i don't see situations that occur here as abnormal, i still examine them and think how different they are from the united states. when i really sit down and examine this way of thinking, i realize why it's difficult to be in peace corps. you essentially become accustomed to TWO cultures and separating them and acting accordingly can be very tiring. sometimes i have to remember that i'm not IN the united states, i can't expect salvadorans to understand my "ways" and those things that are second nature to me in MY culture.

what are cultural norms for us, or for me? there are quite a few, but i'll just highlight one of them that has been at the front of my mind for a while. as i've stated before, reading for pleasure here is not really a common activity. in fact, i’d bet that the only book most people read (at least outside of san salvador) is the bible. the teachers in my school think i’m weird because i bring a book to the school and after lunch i’ll read instead of watching the telenovela that they watch. they simply don’t understand why i would want to read a book just for the hell of it. when people see me reading, they almost always say “oh, you're studying?” i try and explain that i’m reading a book because i like reading – and i realize that it’s just totally unexplainable to people here. i love discussing the subject of the books i've read with other people, and sometimes i'd explain a story to some salvadoran and their eyes would just kind of glass over and that'd end that part of the conversation. (there is one person that does understand the whole "reading" thing and that person is antonio's sister, gloria. she loves reading books, and i've even given her a few books, like "grapes of wrath" and "the kite runner" in spanish. i suppose i was trying to meet my own needs by giving her books i've already read, just so i'd have somebody to talk books with! she's a language teacher, so it seems that it wouldn't be so strange that she's into reading, but actually it is, for el salvador.)

what's even more difficult, and amusing in some ways, is to try and explain books like harry potter, a story that might seem impossible to actually happen. i never give up on trying to explain the books i'm reading, but for the most part i get more positive feedback when i'm reading books like "kon-tiki" or "compañero" or "mountains beyond mountains" - stories that are non-fiction. i can at least explain that these are things that really happened, not a story that involves wizards and quidditch. but the point of this is to show you how in my world, reading and discussing books is something i never even thought twice about. i never saw it as something worth commenting on. while not everyone in the united states likes to read books, it is an accepted activity nonetheless. if you're somebody who doesn't particularly like to read, but you see somebody else reading a book, it's not weird.

this idea of cultural differences became a million times clearer to me when i was visiting antonio's mom the other day. we chatted for a while and then she went to make us coffee and told me to turn on the television and watch what i wanted to. i found a channel that was showing a spanish documentary about the yanomami (native south american indians who i actually had studied in one of my anthro classes). i left the channel where it was and when his mom brought in the coffee, she saw what i was watching and was like "oh, look at them! their face paint is so ugly! and look at their ears!" (the yanomami wear wood sticks through their ears and through the skin on their face.) antonio and his dad came home a little bit later and they both sat down and all three of them were absolutely entranced with this documentary. they showed the yanomami cultivating yucca and using their arrows. the documentary went on to show the yanomami fishing with these hollow bamboo poles that had these sharpened points at the end. they construct a barrier in the river and then when the fish get trapped behind the barrier, the yanomami attack the fish with the bamboo poles, sending the fish up the hollow part of the pole. then they deposit the fish they caught in baskets. i sat there watching antonio and his mom and dad as they expressed, quite animatedly, "bien creativo!" (that's so creative!) but it wasn't just a casual, "oh, hey look, that's kind of cool." it was like they couldn't believe what they were seeing. they were completely engrossed in the documentary and i was just laughing to myself because it was like antonio´s family was having its own personal anthropology class that day. it was really the first time i had ever seen salvadorans commenting or analyzing another culture other than my own.

what i realized is that we, as human beings, always compare other cultures to our own. what's even more interesting is that we don't normally see anything interesting or weird about our own cultural norms. i don't see anything interesting or weird about reading. salvadorans think everyone in the world likes beans and queso fresco. there in the southern tip of the venezuelan amazon the documentary crew had cameras and microphones and people with notepads taking down every single thing the yanomami were doing. the yanomami probably thought "why is us squatting on the ground cooking yucca of ANY interest to you?" when you're surrounded by a hundred or a thousand or a million people doing the exact same thing you are, you don't see what's so strange about it. i spent all this time studying OTHER cultures in my anthropology classes, yet i never for one minute considered MY culture as anything interesting. when i get a phone call at the school from someone american, the kids are mesmerized at hearing me speak english. i never got why. when i went home for christmas and visited my mom´s first grade classroom, the kids so wanted me to speak spanish. not like ¨hola¨ or ¨adios,¨ but like a full didn´t matter what i said, they just wanted me to say it in spanish. NOW i get it. english, to salvadorans, is as interesting as some click language in africa is to us english-speaking folks. to those kids in first grade, spanish is this wonderful, different language that i have the privilege of knowing how to speak. i get why people like to stare at me here. i´m friggin´ interesting to them!!! all of our cultures are interesting, even our own, even if we don´t see them as such.

so should i just let go of my cultural norms because i'm living in another country, another culture? i don't think it's possible. it’s very hard to let go of those things that are a part of who i am. using my previous example of reading, at one point, i did attempt to avoid trying to explain that simple cultural norm that i never really thought twice about. i didn't stop reading, but as far as discussing the books i was reading or how much i loved the stories, i tried to give that up, because it seemed as if people could have cared less. they only wanted to know how i lived from california or new york. they wanted to know if i had a car. they wanted to know if i had kids or a husband. they wanted to know how much my camera cost me. they wanted to tell me how windy it was that day.

but how important are cultural norms? is it really that necessary to have people understand my reading of books, along with all the other thousands of things that i'm used to? do i really need to be able to visit the drugstore at 2:00 in the morning if i need to? how about a washing machine? do i need that? what about "alone time?" do i need that? what about my need for choice? i like having choices, being able to make my own decisions....not just accepting the only thing that's available. i like NOT having to wait around for a bus. i do like investing in the future...i don't mean not living my life because i'm so worried about the future, but i mean in terms of things like education and the environment. what about the christmas holidays? do i need dean martin to sing me christmas carols, egg nog, a big old pine tree decorated with ornaments from my childhood, stockings hanging from the fireplace, miracle on 34th street? do i really NEED all these things? isn’t it better to be a part of a world, like the slow, salvadoran one, where people are kind and take the time to talk to you, even if they’re nosy, or even if they don’t really care about the whole “who i am” thing? isn’t it better to live in a world where i’m not distracted by all these other things that used to make up my down time in the states so that i can focus on actually living my life? i can’t imagine giving up reading or listening to my favorite music, but all that other stuff...getting cups of coffee at 9:00 p.m., going to the movies when i want, using a washing machine – do i really need those things? my answer to that is in some ways, yes. why? because those things are part of MY culture. take the holidays for example, while all the christmas shopping and insane rush of people packing the local shopping center is not something i necessarily miss down here, the way we celebrate christmas and thanksgiving and the fourth of july with the mess of wrapping paper and overstuffing ourselves with ham and turkey and pumpkin pie and outdoor barbecues and cold beers...i miss that stuff.

i was reading paul theroux's novel "hotel honolulu" and the protagonist in the book is an author who's well-known, but chucks his life in london to escape it all and moves to hawaii, becoming a manager of a blast from the past hotel. he ends up marrying a hawaiian woman and has a kid. throughout the book, the guy feels lonesome, an outcast even, because he is this author who knows a thing or two about the world, yet is amongst all these hawaiians who have their own culture, own traditions, and seem to be quite at home when together gossiping or talking about things only those in their culture understand. they could care less about the things that HE knows about. they don't want to hear him talk about the books he's reading, or the history he knows or his analytical ways of assessing people. they really have no interest in where he came from or who he is. they simply care about how he interacts with THEM. finally he confronts his wife about it and she mentions something about how he's always got his nose in a book, why doesn't he live a little, get a life, etc., etc. like because he enjoys reading, for whatever purpose - learning something new, entertainment, research - he's making himself the outcast. i totally disagree, though. i feel like it's his culture, where he came from. and by abandoning that, he'd feel even more like an he's trading one culture for the other. if you live in a culture that's different from what you know, what you grew up with, do you have to give up all that past culture to be accepted or feel comfortable in the new one? i don't think it's ever possible to abandon cultural norms that you had for the majority of your life. however, i do think it's possible to have the best of both not abandon those things you love about your own culture, while accepting another culture.

i've come to appreciate the united states a lot more after living here...for a bunch of reasons that i won't go into because this entry is already too long. i'm not talking appreciation in terms of putting american flags on every square inch of my lawn or having a "proud to be an american" bumper sticker on my car or making comments about hating the french or stuff like that. there are things to hate that are extremely american - like excess and arrogance and things like that - but the small things, just everyday stuff that i never thought about before because i'd never lived in a culture that didn't have that everyday stuff. those little everyday things are what i see as our american culture. and i while i do miss that american culture, i'm already thinking about the things i'm going to miss about my adopted salvadoran one.