Trip Start Sep 02, 2007
92Trip End Dec 25, 2007
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We had the port preps for Ecuador this same night, but they really weren't anything to speak of. Leo, the associate dean or something, always gives us the power point done by the port agent and then Kim (to almost standing-ovation applause) gives us some more safety information and explains the public transportation systems and our Ship-to-Shore-Sheet (yes the name is as much of a problem as it sounds like) and the times we have to be back and all that. They always last too long but the idea is well-intentioned and I appreciate the information. We were supposed to have a salsa lesson after all that was over but it was really late and Carla was sick so we didn't end up having one. That's about all the events of the whole day.
So... reflection time. Lucky you. It was interesting to see, in both Guararé and Embera Drua, the performance of the people's culture. It was especially apparent in Guararé, at that first folkloric night when they were all dressed up. All of the women were wearing dancing clothes, polleras and the like, but then men were wearing farm clothes and all carrying tools and each one in turn mimed the actions associated with their respective tasks. It was strange to experience so much culture at once, cultural experiences that would normally occur over a long period of time. It made me wonder how much you can really learn about someone's culture, I mean really learn about it, in so short a time. Maybe we're not learning about cultures at all, maybe we're just getting a taste of them for the sake of perspective. I know that's what we're here to do, but we keep saying how we're learning about all these cultures we couldn't possibly really know that much about. We come back for these debriefing sessions and end up making all of these inferred guesses about things based on what we saw, not what we learned.
Now the people on the ship, I feel like we're learning about cultures that way. For example, I have a couple of friends from Morocco, two in my residential community and one in class, and they all participate quite a lot in discussion and I feel like I've been able to learn quite a bit about their cultures. My intercultural communication class, as boring as it is, has actually facilitated a lot of opportunities for that. It's my most culturally diverse class, except maybe Global Issues which is a joke and wouldn't matter anyway because nothing ever happens in that class. There are people from Morocco, Mongolia, Sweden, the Virgin Islands, China, Canada, the US, and Ghana. We get into some pretty interesting discussions when the class really gets into it.
Through all this I've come to grips with one of the other reasons I came on this trip that I didn't really register before, and that is to not only learn about other people's cultures but to discover my own. The professors keep asking things like "how does this match up or conflict with your culture" or "how is this particular trait expressed in your culture" and other related questions. I always have to say I don't know. Is it because I live in it and take it for granted that I don't know what my culture is? I find myself here in this very close proximity to so many other people, people who are just like me but live very differently, and I still somehow cannot describe or quantify or clarify my culture for myself, let alone when pressed in class. In a boat full of English speakers, native or not, I find myself without a language and without a cultural identity. A family identity, sure. Absolutely. A personal identity. But a cultural identity? I just can't pull one out of all this. We have all these multicultural nights where people are sharing their culture and traditions and the importance of all of the intricacies of their "culture." What would an American "cultural night" look like? If the students from Guararé were going to come to the United States for one week to experience our culture, what would we show them? Pictures from the Revolutionary War? Cultural history we have. But what about right now? What is our culture now?
Everybody around me is wearing similar clothing to what I see at home every day. The food is basically the same. What is American food, anyway? Burger and fries, coke. Apple pie. We have jazz music, that's something. Gabriel won't let me claim musical theatre because that's more British than American. I'm not sure I buy that though. Our language isn't unique either. I hear all these languages around me and watch people interact with others who speak their language - even Gabriel and Lucía, who are both fluent in four languages, speaking with other people who speak French or Italian or whatever - and there is a bond there, something special that I can't even touch because every single person on this boat speaks my language.
It's not about having a secret code to keep others from hearing what you say, although it is an easy solution to things like that. Lucía and Livia, Alaine's roommate from Paris, speak in French all the time in our room and I have to fight the tendency to think they're saying something they don't want me to hear. I know they're not. Liz understands French, and so does Rachel, and when they're hanging out in our room too they can tell me what the others are saying. I can understand enough Spanish to get the gist of what Gabriel and Eduardo are saying, or Lucía and Shirani and Federico. Usually Shirani tells me what they're saying when they're speaking in all Spanish and I'm just a bystander that can't understand. But I want to share that with someone on my own.
Our last night in Greece we had a big party to have dinner and meet all the other people before we got to the boat. I was sitting with a guy from Denmark, Mark, and at one point the other two guys from Denmark came over to meet him because they'd heard there was another guy from Denmark on board. The immediate change in interaction when they started speaking their own language was something I can't explain. It was really subtle but enough to make me envious, and it was the start of this feeling that I can't really explain, this feeling that my "culture" isn't one at all. I know that's wrong, that of course I have a culture and all that, but... oh I don't know. Maybe it's because it's not unique. Or I don't see it as unique. Maybe America has spread itself all over the world, so that so many things that were once important to our culture are now present everywhere and no longer really a cultural thing because of the simple magnitude of the people who share it.
What can we really claim for America, do you think? Jazz. Broadway. State-sponsored political drama. Hamburgers, French fries, coke, and apple pie. Baseball. American Football. Democracy. Sort of. The nuclear family. Fast food restaurants. Consumerism and capitalism. Freedom of speech and wire taps and email filters and government checks of library records. Freedom of religion but not of marriage. The War On Terror. Now we have a new issue entirely: it's not about what the culture is so much now, as how we feel about it. When I came on this trip I seriously considered how people would think of me as an American. I was cautious about telling people where I was from. Now I desperately want to be proud of my culture and my country. Before I didn't care. Now suddenly that's something that really matters to me.
Everywhere we go people ask, "Do you like my country?" On the ship, people say "In my country things are this way." My country. When I say "Where I come from" it comes across as arrogance. When others say "In my country" it comes across as pride. I wish I could be proud of my country. I know there are things to be proud of, but too much of that for me is in the past. I have learned the meaning of appreciating the place one is placed in and of taking advantage of what you're given or stuck with. Why can't I do that at home too? I hope I find America on this voyage, despite the fact that it doesn't visit and in fact travels so far away. At this moment I am closer to home than I will be for more than 8 months. I'm not sure how I feel about that now. The final motivation to finally commit to studying abroad was a desire to get out of the country. I didn't know this is how it would follow me after I left.