As crazy as it sounds, this past week solely has made such an impact on my personal life and on my outlook on the project as well. The trip had some ups and downs but overall I feel so lucky to be a part of this opportunity. The trip also left me with an even stronger desire to do well and help the people of CEOLI. I believe that this post-trip reflection will help me do just that. It will aid me in recapping what I have learned this week about the country, doing global business, and myself.
In Blog 2, I wrote about some cultural norms I may confront abroad. I happened to confront most of them:
First off – language! So many people in Bolivia spoke only Spanish that when I met someone from the country who spoke even broken English, it was startling. Being in Bolivia really tested my somewhat Spanish speaking abilities. Only two or three of the PBSC members had a basic Spanish vocabulary at their disposal. The rest of us spoke little to none. I believed this to be the first and and biggest cultural challenge we would be faced with. Overcoming this was difficult, we were almost completely dependent on our translator, context clues and body language. I remember many times someone would say something to me and I would either have to decipher it through the few words I understood, my Spanish translator on my phone or call one of the in-country aids, such as Jean Carla or Natalia or Adrianna, to help me. In this situation, body language was vital. It was important to show attentiveness, like nodding while listening, and to show kindness, like eye contact. Eye contact was surprisingly difficult and awkward. It felt natural to make eye contact with the translator and use phrases like “can you ask him if he…” and “what does he think about…” but I had to keep in mind that my end goal was to talk to the person I wanted to gain information from. My theory that this would be the biggest cultural challenge was correct.
As stated in Blog 2, the challenge stated above was the only challenge I knew on my own to exist. The following challenges I learned from either the Cultural Smart! Bolivia book or the various handouts and reading assignments from the Service Learning Organizations class.
The next cultural challenge I anticipated while conducting business is the differing ways we as United States citizens approach a business project compared to the ways Bolivians approach a business project. We conduct business in an impersonal way. We like to sit down and immediately start on the task at hand and the only goal in our mind may be that we need to finish the assigned task. This is normal for us, it is the method we are most used to. However, I was concerned that this method of conducting business may come off as harsh, cold and even rude to Bolivias. Bolivians like to start off on a more personal note. They tend to get to know the person- his family, his lifestyle, his hobbies- before they sit down and conduct business with that person. I believed that this would be a notable challenge since the bare nature in which we conduct business is very different to how Bolivians conduct business. It is a challenge, however, that we needed to pay close attention to and try to overcome since we as consultants don’t want to come off as rude and hasty in a country where being personal is important. As prepared as we were for this challenge, I personally did not encounter it very often. Most of the information collecting was during a pre-determined meeting and was conducted in an interview-like style. It was far from a personal conversation. However, there were glimpses at this Bolivian-style business. For example, when the pool group was interviewing Ronald he would sometimes ask us personal questions in the middle of our interview such as “do you swim yourself?”. Another notable example was when we were given a tour of Cochabamba’s downtown area and our Amizade tour guide told us that grocery shopping was a mainly relationship building activity. One would go to a grocery stall not because of prices but because a customer has a long lasting relationship with the vendor. A customer would go in and not only purchase produce but also stay and chat with the vendor.
Another cultural norm I anticipated being a challenge to conducting business is the fact that Bolivia is currently a third world country. I mentioned in Blog 2 that this is a large umbrella description that covers various other differences between Bolivia and the United States. Bolivia may not have the same resources or views on how business should be conducted as we do. I predicted that although each country has their own way of conducting business, the difference will be even more pronounced between the United States and Bolivia due the difference in scales of our economy. I pointed out that we need to be extremely careful in how we position ourselves in a situation like this. We cannot go in with the mindset of us teaching them because we are “superior” or “smarter”. There is a great amount of learning and teaching that can go both ways. We cannot simply just walk into a country poorer than us and impose our way of living and doing. We must be careful to always remain humble and remember that in the end, the Bolivians are the ones living in that country and we are simply visitors who are providing a service. I believed that this would be a challenge for me personally because I have never been to a third world country. To manage this challenge, I tried my best to word my questions delicately in hopes that I would not offend them. I kept this in mind especially when I was asking about their finances and other sensitive information regarding the business of CEOLI.
The interwoven nature of culture and business practices in Bolivia is yet another cultural norm that I anticipated to become a challenge. Although this challenge was mentioned in Blog 2 as well, I did not encounter this. We were told cultural information from advisors while in Bolivia but I personally did not happen upon an interwoven nature of culture and business practices.
Lastly, the fact that Bolivian women have difficulty rising to positions of power is an additional cultural norm difference I believed we would face while conducting differences. I believed this would be a challenge because many of us may see this as old-fashioned and unfair. During our trip, we met with more women figureheads than men. However, the men did hold higher positions. That is all I could takeaway from this cultural norm but our lecture with Dr. Schwartz gave our group deeper insight.
I can definitely say that my perspective on global business is changing. Before this service learning project. I thought that all one needed to do before successfully conducting global business was to be knowledgeable in the culture of the country. However, as outlined in the “Act Local or Global?: Comparing Student Experiences in Domestic and International Service-Learning Programs”, there is much more to it than that. It was my first time in South America so this different opportunity to work with people from a distinct and different ethnic group decreased my preconceived stereotypes. Throughout our trip our group actually found out that some of the facts in the Culture Smart book were incorrect! Conducting global business also improved my problem solving and critical thinking skills. For example, upon arrival we were informed that the pool is currently not in use as it is going through a remodel and expansion. This directly challenged me and the rest of the group working on the pool. Our deliverables would stay the same but we now had a whole new tangible object we were working on.
The first personal learning I expected to obtain was political knowledge and interest. One of the course articles points out that the first anticipated outcome of service learning is the learning of political facts. Certain research suggests that knowledge is a catalyst to political interest and involvement in class, gender or ethnicity. Additionally, political learning is more likely to occur when the information is directly relevant to someone’s immediate environment. I can definitively say that knowledge and interest has expanded since my trip. From seeing and asking about the NULO graffiti plastered all over Cochabamba, to seeing political posters, and to hearing Dr. Schwartz talk about Bolivia’s current political status and activity, I gained a lot of insight from people actually from Bolivia. This stream of knowledge was different than what I was given in class or through the Culture Smart book in that it was from “the horses’s mouth”- people who are actually affected by these politics and policies!
Another personal learning I expected to obtain was intercultural competence. Research shows that those who participated in service learning projects improved their cultural intelligence faster than those who did not. This may be attributed to the fact that more time and attention is paid to the course content in a service learning course. This courses also helps develop intercultural SKILLS rather than competence or awareness- both of which are easier to develop in a cultural setting. After our in-country aspect of this course, I can say that I have obtained life-changing transferable intercultural skills that I really could not have gained elsewhere. There is something so different and enlightening about going to a different country, being at their service, and having the trip tied to a university course.