Reflections from Paradise

  1. While abroad, I confronted many different cultural and ethical norms. At first, before being in country, I was not sure how drastic of an impact they would have on my ability to complete my project tasks or on my overall experience. Once I was in country, however, I realized that these differences can play a major role in your experience. The main difference that was most prevalent and affected our work the most was the idea of “island time.” Here, in the states, we are accustomed to and expected to work on a specific, rigid schedule. Once we create a schedule, we stick to it. In Trinidad, at least when it comes to my experience in Matelot, this was not the case. Our meetings with the various village groups rarely started on time and rarely lasted the exact scheduled duration. For example, when we were scheduled to meet with Matelot’s Police Youth Club they were more than forty minutes late. This became a challenge for our team because it came across as a lack of stakeholder engagement. Even though they were willing to answer any of our questions, they seemed unaware and/or disinterested in the purpose of the project. To come back to the aspect of time, at the very beginning of the week, dealing with the uncertain schedule was actually more frustrating than I expected it to be. As the week progressed, to deal with the difference, our group learned to anticipate a late start and to have our materials prepared more thoroughly beforehand in order to maximize the time we did have. I would be wary of stereotyping the entire island of being on “island time” though. On our company visit to KPMG, the employees were very timely and seemed to be on a very structured schedule for our visit. When they mistakenly thought we had an extra hour for the visit than we actually did they seemed to get stressed and were unsure on how to accommodate the change. The other big cultural norm that affected me the most were the gender norms. I did not realize how prevalent gender roles were going to be. I know none of it was meant to be offense but on numerous occasions my physical capabilities to complete a task such as a hike or moving luggage were questioned because I was a woman. Also during a craft making session our teamed was group based on gender; the boys made chains while the girls decorated bars of soap. To manage this difference, I just tried to the best of my ability to pull my own weight and not be defined by my gender.
  2. I think the main new perspective I gained about global business is that despite different cultural norms and business customs, respect is above all. Even when business traditions vary, if you just make a simple attempt to be respectful and kind, you will be well received. Now not everyone will agree with this opinion, but based on my experience, I find this to be true. I believe this to be true because at the end of the day, people are people no matter where you go and everyone wants to be treated kindly and with respect. Even if you mess up some of the customary actions, if the other party sees that you are trying to be nice and respectful, they will forgive you and you can have a successful business relationship. Engaging in global business I think also greatly strengthens your project team. I think over the course of the week in country, I learned more about each of my team members strengths than I did over all the time spent together in Pittsburgh. By being in a foreign environment, our team really had to step up in order to be effective. During our stay in Matelot, we were faced with many different challenges. For example, for our visit to the school our team was awkwardly placed in front of an assembly of students and expected to lead a discussion with 30+ students. Originally, we were under the impression that we were just to meet with the vice principal so we could ask our questions and gather some demographical information. However, instead, we were put in front of a bunch of students and expected to lead a conversation with them without coming across as awkward or offensive. Our team had to think creatively on how to handle this awkward situation and we had to support each other in order to keep the conversation going and get through the assembly as painlessly as possible. That being said, it of course did not go perfectly but thanks to Christy and our whole team’s ability to remain team players we carried one another through the experience. In terms of how my perspective of global business is changing, I think I have come to realize just how vital it really is. I used to be more under the impression that you could engage in global business and have international partners but now realize it is less of a choice and more of a necessity. While abroad I saw how important products and services from other companies were to Trinidad. For example, even in the countryside village of Matelot at the literal end of the road, the snack bar was full of snacks from American companies. Even though this seems like a simple observation, I think that it shows truly how interconnected we all are. Every country has something different to contribute and we can all lift each other up by working together and engaging international relationships.
  3. Due to my previous experience of travelling abroad, I did not think there was going to really be much I would learn about myself. I thought by this point I knew everything there was to know about myself. That could not be any further from the truth. This experience in Matelot was unlike any I had ever had before and, therefore, taught me a lot about myself. For example, I have always viewed and seen myself as an outgoing person. Usually, I easily approach people and am not afraid to make a joke of myself if it makes another person’s day. However, while in Trinidad, while I was still fairly outgoing, I realized that I became far more reserved than I usually am. I noticed that I became much more shy and quiet when I would talk with most of the locals. When I reflected on this change in behavior I attributed it to a fear of causing offense. The more I think about it, the more I find it to be true. Because I was afraid of not being understood or coming off as offense due to the cultural differences, I pulled back in my behavior. While my intentions may have come from a good place, I regret the fact that I kept myself back. I think if I remained truer to who I was I would have been able to make more genuine connections with the people there. I think this would have been true because the one person I was not afraid to be myself around was our guide, Andre. Because of this, the connection was better and I was able to learn more about the culture and Trinidad & Tobago overall through our conversations with one another than through any of official tours or conversations with other locals. In terms of what I learned about international service it is that avoiding the idea of just “deposit and leave” is a lot more difficult than I expected. For example, the major service component of this trip was the building of the library sponsored by Amizade. Almost every day of the trip we would spend about three hours painting and/or adding different components to the structure. At the end of each day, I could not help but feel like I was just depositing some labor and then leaving. Sadly, this was true. We were adding drainage systems and structural elements none of us were qualified to do. So who were we to just come into this community and think we would be helpful and do this work when there were many qualified people in the town looking for jobs. Overall, that aspect of the trip was poorly executed and every time groups complete work there I can not help but think that it comes off as if we are all-knowing and should take part in the library’s construction. In reality, we just slowed down the locals who already had everything more than under control at the site. Another aspect about this international service that left a bad taste in my mouth was that it seems that progress on the library is only in effect when Amizade groups are there to assist. When no groups are present, progress is halted. If this is correct, it is not a good look for Amizade to halt progress just so students can have something they can feel good about doing when in Matelot. The library should be completed as soon as possible so the community can receive the most benefit. Despite this aspect of the trip, overall, I think Amizade’s Matelot program offers great opportunities for growth for the community and the students involved.

And as our tour guide Andre (or more commonly known as Aloo Pie) says, Matelot is truly a “paradise.”