A Sharper Image

They say the best way to learn another language is immersion…go live in a society where no one speaks your first language. Yes, I can attest that it is as exciting, terrifying, difficult, and crazy as it sounds. And for me, it was actually a much longer process than I expected to really become fluent. Overall, language has been the most challenging, frustrating, and enlightening part of my job.

Take this example of when I had been in my new home for just 3 months, living in Peru for a total of 6 months:

Six months in Castellano: A 5-year-old professional

First of all, trying to be a professional in a language that I’ve been speaking only for about 6 months is ridiculous. I can’t think of a better word because it is a mix of hilarious, frustrating, challenging, exciting, and…just ridiculous. I know I have good ideas to share, but when I share them I sound like a 7-year-old. And half the time I don’t understand what other people are saying so I have this really weird look on my face because I’m concentrating so hard to try to understand what they are saying. They are probably thinking “what’s wrong with her?”, but they actually say, “She doesn’t understand what I just said.” And the funny thing is that I do understand that part. And usually I understand the topic, but can’t pick up the details.  

It’s a really weird world to live in. A little bit frustrating when I’m trying to gain respect as a professional and when I really want to be a part of the team and help out but have to ask people to repeat themselves when they are already pretty busy and pressed for time. But people are typically pretty awesome at being patient, speaking slowly, and explaining things. And it’s really cool when I am able to share knowledge and help solve problems, and have more fluid conversations with people. It is definitely worth it (“vale la pena”).

If you wear glasses or contacts, maybe you have experienced that moment when you put on a pair of glasses with the correct prescription and suddenly the world is so much clearer! Without your glasses (or the right prescription), you were living fine, getting around, but with the right glasses…wow! A whole new world! A sharper image! Fine edges, more brilliant colors, more detail! The world suddenly seems so much richer!

“I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.”

Every few months I have that experience, not with my vision, but with language. As my vocabulary grows, I begin to understand the world around me on a deeper level…even still at 2.5 years living here. It’s amazing how the dinner table conversations with family have changed from a blurry 70% of understanding the conversation to 99%.

The same has happened in my conversations with friends – suddenly in addition to just catching the drift of the conversation, I can also pick up on how their word choice adds humor or certain sentiments to the conversation that I just wasn’t able to pick up on before. Those blurry edges are becoming sharper, and I can now see the different tones of the colors! (And I realize every day how much patience everyone has had with me, considering my lack of understanding before!)

Maybe you have experienced something similar when reading a book, with a dictionary at your side. Sometimes you come across words that you don’t know, but you can guess from context clues what the word means, so you continue reading. But then when you take time to look up the word, you realize its full meaning and it actually gives the sentence – and sometimes the story – a richer meaning that you would have missed out on if you hadn’t understood the full meaning of that one word. (Or every now and then you find you were completely wrong about the word’s meaning in the first place!)

This adequately describes my verbal life as well. I usually don’t realize it when it happens, but sometimes I don’t understand every single word that someone says, but because I understand 95% of the words, I can continue with the conversation not even realizing I didn’t hear or understand one word. (This isn’t unique to speaking in a second language; the human brain is wired to fill in the blanks of what we don’t see or don’t hear, and that’s why optical illusions exist.) Usually it works out perfectly and helps the conversation flow, but every now and then it leads to a misunderstanding when that missed word was important in the communication.

It’s easy to get frustrated when someone doesn’t understand us when we’re both speaking our first language, but I’m reminded that we still come from different contexts and even the same words can have different meanings and connotations for different people. (More on this in the next part.)

I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.

It makes me extra grateful for the people that have a little extra patience with me. And it reminds me that we all do have different levels of understanding, communication abilities, and contexts, and it really is worth being patient with one another to try to achieve successful communication – to more fully understand each other and appreciate where each person is coming from.

Part II. Language is more than words; it’s concepts

One thing that I have learned (and now I see daily examples of this in action) is that communication is based not only in language but in what we already know, our schemas, our preconceived notions, past experiences, etc.

For example, one day, 6-months into service (and craving vegetables having been practically vegetarian before moving here), I decided I would try to order a vegetarian version of what was on the menu (knowing full well that the odds of success were low…but wanting to give it a try anyway.)

First I ask if I can have the “cau cau” without the meat part (cow’s stomach lining) because it comes with carrots and peas and potatoes, which sounded good to me. She looked at me confused and said no that was not an option.

Cau Cau. Image from: https://decomidaperuana.com/receta-del-cau-cau/

So then I explained that I would like to eat a dish with just vegetables, so she nods in understanding and excitedly says “we can make a salad with lettuce and tomato and cucumber”. While that sounded good, I needed some sustenance in my life too, so I tried to explain that I’d like cooked vegetables with some rice maybe. I ask if they can make me a plate of vegetables like onion, carrots, and peppers, like “lomo saltado” without the beef.

Lomo Saltado. Image from https://wapa.pe/hogar/1264144-recetas-preparar-lomo-saltado-comida-gastronomia-peruana-almuerzo

Confused again, she shakes her head no and says “like beans and rice with vegetables?” For a split second I think she has finally got it, but having already experienced that many people’s idea of vegetables is lettuce and tomato and cucumber, I knew I needed to clarify before I get my hopes up. So I asked, “Will the beans be made with onions, carrots and peas?”.And like I expected, she says, “No, it comes with lettuce, tomato, and cucumber”. Realizing we are speaking the same language but not speaking the same language (and to her I’m probably being a difficult customer), I agree and ask for the beans and salad.

This same concept misunderstanding has happened to me too. I work in the municipality office and so paperwork is pretty much everyone’s life. And the mother of paperwork is the “cargo”, which is the copy of the document you keep for yourself and have everyone sign to verify they’ve received their copy. When I first arrived, I had 3 different people at three different times explain this concept to me, and I understood the words they were saying, but I just couldn’t get the concept. Since I didn’t have experience with the process and for some reason couldn’t imagine the concept (I guess I was just too used to the world of e-mail and digital documents), I couldn’t understand the meaning of what everyone was telling me.

Then there is the water system operator that I work with that is really hard for me to understand; I rarely catch 75% of his words and am always subconsciously filling in the blanks to carry a conversation. (And this is still, after 2 years of being here!) However, I have about 10 years of experience in engineering and rural water systems, so when the operator was explaining some technical issues about his water system, with the 75% of the words I caught, I understood him more quickly and thoroughly than my team members, who are native Spanish speakers but are much younger and just have fewer years of experience in water systems. In this interesting case, I understood something better than my native-speaking companions simply because I was more familiar with the concept.

These are just a few examples of daily occurrences where communication across cultures is made more difficult because we have different schemas – different experiences, memories, priorities, things we’ve thought of before and things we haven’t ever thought of.

I think this is so important to realize for a few reasons…

“sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before”

It takes a different mindset to understand something that you haven’t experienced before or haven’t learned before. To understand something new, I’ve noticed my mind has to be open, like I’m sitting in a classroom trying to understand something completely new, trying to connect it to my past experiences and sometimes just taking in some new information on faith, with an open mind. Usually, my mind is not in this mode – it is in the mode of trying to understand things based on my past experiences, as quickly as possible.

When I hear something new, I try to relate it to something I’ve experienced so I can understand what is happening, how someone else might be feeling, or how I should react. But this method of understanding isn’t always the best or most appropriate way to approach communication, because sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before. Or maybe I have experienced something similar so I immediately relate their experience to an experience I’ve had before and I am sure I understand them… but actually I end up misunderstanding and maybe offending them because their experience actually had differences from mine and I didn’t take time to try to understand that difference because I was sure I already understood them.

This happens all the time in our relationships, both on an interpersonal level, and on a larger political level. I think this is a component to the problems the US is having right now when discussing race relations, immigration, and police brutality. While we can try, the reality is that white people don’t know exactly what it is like to be a person of color, especially a black man, and those of us whose ancestors migrated to the US many decades ago don’t actually understand what it’s like to be an immigrant. If you have never experienced life as a person of color or a minority, it’s likely you haven’t experienced the blatant or the subtle racist comments and attitudes that exist in society, directed at you and who you are. If we are too quick to say that we understand the situation of racism in the US, we most likely are not even close to understanding the reality.

However, if we take a lot of time, through many conversations with many people of color and minorities, in many different scenarios, and with a very open mind every time – with that mentality open to trying to understand an experience we have never have had – we might be able to come closer to understanding what racism really is, and what forms it takes, and then we can start to create ways to live together better, to create a more peaceful and more just society.

(Header image from http://jacksonvillevisionclinic.com/lenses/4115670)

House Arrest in Peru

Last Sunday, 22 October, I was under house arrest. Not just me, but the entire nation of Peru. Across the whole country (or to be precise, all the urban areas of Peru, or 75% of the population), no one was permitted to leave their house between the hours of 8am to 5pm. We were told we could be detained by the police if we were out in the streets.

Nope, this wasn’t a terrorist scare, or some oppressive government scheme, it was the census.

Just like the US, Peru conducts the national census every 10 years. Volunteers (that receive very small incentives) go door to door to collect demographic information so that citizens and institutions have a sense of how many people live in the country, what languages they speak, what ethnicities make up the nation, what kind of work they do, etc. But, unlike the US, all businesses close for one day every 10 years, and people are required to stay in their houses and wait for someone to come administer the census at their houses.

I was a little sad about this because I really like to go on bike rides on my Sundays, but I was also kind of excited because I’d never experienced a day of house arrest, I mean “census”. I know we have census in the US, but honestly I don’t remember ever participating. I certainly don’t remember an edict saying we had to stay home all day on census day. (FYI: Wikipidia says that the next census in the US will be in 2020 and will mostly be conducted by the internet.) Anyway, I figured it would be a great opportunity to catch up on some blog posts and spend some time with my host mom and dad.

The night before the census, I went for a run (since I was going to be stuck inside all day the next day I figured I should take some preventative measures against cabin fever and enjoy the outdoors a little). When I got back from my run, I couldn’t believe my eyes – at our dinner table, I saw my host sister Betsy and her family (her husband and my 2 nieces) who live an hour away in Villa Rica! They had come as a surprise, to pass the house arrest day, er census, with us! Since Betsy had come over, my sister Kathia who lives 20 minutes away also came over with my 2-year-old nephew. And my brother and his girlfriend and her son stayed the night too.

The next day, census day, felt like Christmas! The whole family was in the house (which has never happened before…someone is always missing for some reason or another), the kids were playing and watching tv, mom was in and out of the kitchen preparing pachamanca for lunch, a big group of us played a card game, and we all caught up and laughed and jokingly complained while we waited for the census people to come.

Inconveniently, they came to census us right at lunch time. A young man of about 18 years old arrived, and the poor guy said they weren’t even providing him with lunch. (Lucky for him, we brought him a plate of pachamanca to enjoy.) He “interviewed” each of us, one at a time, and even I got to partake in the census – which was basically just answering about 10-20 demographic questions while he filled in the answers on an official workbook that reminded me of exam workbooks that we had to fill out when taking a test like the SAT or ACT. (Am dating myself here…are those exams electronic now like the GRE?)

Since we had a house full of 4 different families, it took a little while to finish, but it went smoothly. And at 5pm sharp, after enjoying 8 hours of quality family time (the perfect amount of time for a family to enjoy each other’s company before they start driving each other crazy), we all fled from the house – my sister Betsy went back to Villa Rica to prepare for work the next day, my mom, dad and sister Kathia went to the farm to take care of the pigs, my brother went who-knows-where, and I went to hang out with some friends by the river.

The next week, the news was full of census stories: the census volunteer that fell in love with a censee (cute); someone sexually harassed by a censor (terrible!); and apparently this year, unlike past years, they didn’t make it to all the houses because they didn’t have enough volunteers; (word has it that they didn’t give the volunteers enough incentives so some didn’t show up at the last minute…based on the poor guy who came to our house and hadn’t had lunch, that sounds pretty accurate.)

Anyway, I am really glad I had the luck to be here to experience the census “house arrest” that only happens every 10 years. Even though at first it sounded a little strange, and maybe even a little draconian, it turned out to be a really great experience! This way of being, and way of living – making the most of whatever comes your way – is something I see over and over here in Peru, and something I really appreciate. People could have been up in arms, interpreting this as an infringement on freedom, a forced day of being bored or sad, locked inside; but instead of making a mountain out of a molehill, they made lemonade out of lemons, and a relatively normal day was turned into a huge family celebration, which turned out to be a great and memorable day!

Processing the 2016 Presidential Election (Part 2: Peace Corps Intercultural Training)

In my last post, I attempted to process what happened last week with the election, why I (and 50 million other Americas) are so ridiculously upset, and what we could possibly to do now. I also promised to share some things from Peace Corps training that I think are really applicable in this situation. It’s interesting that, up to now I am having to apply this training more in the inter-cultural context of the US than in my experiences living in Peru.

Confianza

Only when there is a foundation of love and respect can real conversations happen and can real change take place. This is one of the core concepts Peace Corps trains us in – confianza, or trust/confidence and respect, are foundational for any of the work we do. Without this, we are just an outsider coming in trying to change things because we think we know better than the people living their lives everyday…without respect and building trust, we will try to do projects that don’t make sense, and people will nod their heads to please us, but when we leave, our work will not last. The first thing we have to do is really listen, with an attitude of respect. (The Ted Talk below explains this nicely.)

Integration

Peace Corps aims to prepare us to assimilate and build strong, real, lasting relationships, to step outside of our comfort zone and try new things, and to expose ourselves to new ideas…all without endangering ourselves, losing sight of our own values, or doing something that goes against our core values. It is not easy, and it is not a science, but it is something that we have to learn to do when we work with, live with, interact with people very different from us. In our diverse America and in this rapidly globalizing world, this is becoming more important than ever.

Intercultural Competency

One of my favorite things that Peace Corps shared with us was the “Intercultural Development Continuum”, which describes the following phases of intercultural competency:

Denial Being comfortable with the familiar. Not anxious to complicate life with “cultural differences”. Not noticing much cultural difference around you. Maintaining separation from others who are different.
Polarization/Defense Strong commitment to your own thoughts and feelings about culture and cultural difference. Incomplete understanding and fairly strong negative feelings or stereotypes about people different from you, often leading to distrust of, and tendency to be judgmental about cultural behavior or ideas that differ from your own.
Minimization Recognizing other cultures with differences in behavior and ideas and recognizing that people are pretty much like you, but such that you assume that you understand the situation the same as a person from another culture, without recognizing the full extent of their experience and situation.
Acceptance Recognizing your own culture and different cultures as various ways of experiencing the world, and understanding that people from other cultures are as complex as yourself – their ideas, feelings, and behavior may seem unusual, but you realize that their experience is just as rich as your own.
Adaptation  Recognizing the value of having more than one cultural perspective available to you, and having the ability to take on the perspective of another culture so that you can understand or evaluate situations with either your own perspective or that of another. Able to intentionally change your behavior to act in culturally appropriate ways outside your own culture.

 

I had never really thought of adaptation to other cultures being a clear and different step that comes after minimization and even after acceptance. I think a lot of us were stuck in denial before this election, and a lot of us in polarization/defense as well. I hope that from here we can pull ourselves past minimization (where we assume we understand others’ perspectives and minimize the value of their voice, especially their complaints or call for change), and into acceptance and adaptation.

Adaptation

One common occurrence of those in the “adaptation” phase is intolerance of those in other stages on the continuum. I think this is where a lot of us are now, and this is our challenge – to understand and accept that people are in a different place, a different stage on the continuum, for a variety of reasons, and we will need patience, love, and respect, while at the same time working to break down barriers and promote understanding and tolerance.

different-levels-consciousness

So that’s the theory, but how do we put this into practice? Here’s one example, just in time for thanksgiving. And another. Please share more in the comments section!

Recommended Reading: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High

Processing the 2016 Presidential Election (Part 1)

I think we are all tired of talking about the 2016 presidential election (I am anyway), but at the same time, I have to admit that if I think about it, I am still upset. Clearly we all need to process what happened, and what we do next. Sure, this will be a little different for everyone, but I want to start the conversation, and I want to share my perspective as a Peace Corps volunteer and share some of the things we learned in training that I think are really applicable. And I also want to share these thoughts publicly to remind myself of where we are now, because we often have the chance to grow the most from the things that suck the most, and I certainly hope we can make something good come out of this, because I have a feeling we will need it.

In a way, this article is an extension of my Facebook post from immediately after the election – a follow up to answer the question of how we can bridge that gap to be an America that places more value on love, acceptance, and respect.

Why are we so upset?

I’m not going to lie; I cried. And then felt ashamed that I was crying over an election. Never in my life have I cried over an election, and I know people who have never cared about politics before, as well as my political junkie friends, all who were similarly distressed and even literally depressed by this outcome. Why are we so upset…like REALLY upset. Like going-through-a-breakup or losing-a-loved-one upset. Clearly this isn’t like any other election.

I think for the majority of us, the outcome of this election hurts not because of politics, but because of basic and fundamental values that we believe are core to our nation, and humanity – respect, equality, women’s rights, human rights, honesty. And we feel sad that so many of our fellow Americans would vote for someone so openly opposed to, and proud to laugh in the face of those values, to be the leader of our nation, theoretically a role model to our children, and to represent us to the rest of the world.

Greg Popovich (Head coach of the San Antonio Spurs) said it well here,

And I also appreciate how this blogger explained it.

steps-to-peace
Photo credit: Bear Face Beard Oil and Apparel

How did this happen?

So, that is how we feel right now, but what actually happened? Why did he win and who voted for this guy?

First, he did not win the popular vote. Maybe we should take a look at our constitution and how votes count, not because we are not happy with the outcome, but because the system as is doesn’t serve to best represent the desires of the citizens. But regardless of the winner, nearly 60 million citizens did vote for Trump, and I think we need to understand why. I’m sure the people who voted for him are as varied in their reasons as the diversity of America, but here are some explanations I have come across.

Politics not Personality. I have heard that people voted for his policies and not his character. To me, these people either were not informed about his words and actions, or were just not that offended by what he said and did. And from my perspective, to not be offended sufficiently to feel that this person could represent America, indicates that maybe some of these people don’t have much exposure to people of different races, of different backgrounds, who face the real consequences in their lives of being a person of color, of experiencing rape. To me it’s a sign that we need more integration, more respectful, productive and real conversations with people different from us.

captura-de-pantalla-2016-11-16-a-las-15-22-47

Anti-Establishment. I have heard people who were just so opposed to Hillary because to them she represented “the establishment”, and they either voted for Trump, didn’t vote, or voted for a third party. I agree wholeheartedly that the traditional political parties have a lot of flaws and need serious reform, but given two options, how some people would choose a man of such poor character over “the establishment”, I still cannot fathom. But nonetheless, I think it is a good reminder to the political parties that people do want less corruption, more transparency.

Rural vote. And I have heard people who bought his one-liner “make America great again”, and probably agreed with, or were simply not offended by his misogynist, racist, disrespectful, uniformed comments. A great majority of people who voted for him live in rural areas, and here is an article that I think gives some real insight to the rural/urban divide in America and tries to take a first step to bridge the gap in understanding between these two different cultures in America. I can kind of understand how someone who has lived their whole life in a pretty small town, only encountering people with pretty similar religions, pretty similar skin color, would not understand why tolerance, especially of people of color, people of different religions, should be such an important value; whereas city dwellers encounter people quite different from themselves on a daily basis.

Photo Credit: Cracked Blog
Photo Credit: Cracked Blog

(I think I will have a whole separate blog on this theme later, because the rural-urban divide (as well as the indigenous-ruling class divide) is also very real and apparent in my work here.)

So what do we do now?

  1. Grieve, process it, and support each other in our various ways of dealing. Maybe this sounds a little ridiculous, but it’s true that this has really hurt and scared a lot of people, and everyone has their own way of reacting to stress. We have to support each other and try to encourage positive and peaceful ways of accepting the outcome and getting through this.
  2. Accept the reality of it. For me, watching Hillary’s concession speech was helpful.  Also I’m reminding myself there will always be different opinions that we will never agree with. There will always be those people that will never change no matter what we do, that will never choose peace, but we share this world with them too. But people are dynamic beings, and we are always learning and growing, each of us in a different phase of life, dealing with different challenges in our lives. I think it is important to respect and accept wholeheartedly the place where everyone is at this moment of their life, but without losing hope that each person can grow closer to a place of peace.
  3. Unite and start working together on those issues that put us where we are. I think everyone will have a different take on this and will choose to work on different aspects of it.

For me the most important thing we can do is recognize that while we have made a lot of social progress in the last few decades, we still have a long way to go and more work to do. Not everyone will always share our same values, and arguing with people about why our values are important won’t change America. But what I think we do lack is more effort reaching outside of our normal social circles and comfort zones, in the spirit of love and respect.

So if you know any stories  of people stepping outside their social circle to connect with someone different from them, or working outside their social circle to be an ally and better the lives of people very different from them, please share it here. I will also be on the look out and share what I find, and I will leave you with this story of creative connecting from a year ago:

And in my next post, I’ll share some of the training from Peace Corps that I think is super applicable to help in moving forward.