Different, Yet Similar

After having some time to reflect on my experience in Matelot, I’ve been able to collect my thoughts of the trip and compare them with my expectations. While I thought that my previous international experience and research on Trinidad would prepare me enough to not be surprised by much, the opposite was true. I came to realize that the preparation itself made me expect such extreme differences in culture that I was more surprised about the similarities that I did not expect to find. I’ve also gotten a good grasp on the lessons I learned and how to apply them to my career.

Before traveling to Trinidad, I did a lot of gathering of information about the country and its culture in order to be well prepared for any culture shock that I would otherwise experience. Subconsciously, I made some inferences about the way of life in Trinidad based on my research and developed the expectation that they would be very laid back and not feel the need to get things done; it was very wrong of me to infer this. During our visit in Matelot, I found that the locals were always ready to get a move on and start the day’s activities. While being on time was not much of a priority, I was not expecting to see the enthusiasm that Trinis had towards everything that they did. My expectation of indifference towards doing things was proven false.

Another expectation that I went into the experience with was that it would be a learning experience of how to work with people of very different cultures, and that it would take a lot of adjustment to get used to working with them. As I said in my first blog before the trip, I thought that developing my cultural competence would happen as a result of picking up on the differences between the cultures and recognizing how to maneuver around those. While in Matelot, I realized that the opposite was the case; working and collaborating with the locals was best done through a lens of “we have so much in common” as opposed to a lens of “there are so many differences between us.” This was most evident in our conversations with different groups in the village. One of our first days in Matelot, we met with DORCAS Women’s Group and talked about their goals and difficulties. Throughout this conversation, there was a disconnect between our group and theirs. I think this was due to us coming into the meeting with the thought that we were an outside entity that was there to give advice based on our unique knowledge. This approach didn’t get us far because we really didn’t have any secret knowledge that was the key to their success. In that meeting, we mostly listened to DORCAS talk about their organization and offered them little advice to make progress with.

We finally realized how we were limiting our conversations with the locals towards the end of the trip when we had a long talk with Michelle, the site director, one night. We started the conversation by telling Michelle about the objectives of our project. It felt very transparent because we were able to relate based on our common goals in the project. She went on to tell us about the different obligations she has within Amizade as well as outside of it, which was when I consciously realized the catalyst of our heart-to-heart conversation: connecting on what we had in common. Many of her life’s concerns and stressors were parallel to our own. Michelle expressed the weight she felt on her shoulders to finish her projects on time and push the community toward the path that she and Bridget envision for it, which is something we experience in our group projects. By setting aside our perceived differences, we were able to relate with our cultural similarities. The one expectation regarding this that I did get right in my first blog was that I would leave with increased empathy for others. While I went into the experience expecting that the differences in our cultures would limit our ability to connect, I left with the realization that our commonalities actually gave us much more to work with.

Based on the expectations that I came to Trinidad with and left having heavily adjusted, I learned some invaluable lessons. The most prevalent point that was ingrained in my mind was to keep an open mind in all new experiences. While this is common sense, I think it extends further than people usually consider it to. Keeping an open mind in new situations usually entails accepting that there will be some major differences that one needs to prepare for. This is partially applicable, as it is essential to do this in order to keep from being offensive or having intense culture shock. The aspect of open-mindedness that I think people usually miss out on in a cultural context is considering the possibility that there will not be many significant differences. As I mentioned in my last blog, I found that when connecting with the locals, there was a lot more to explore that they and I had in common than not. In numerous instances, I pointed out a similarity that I noticed in our daily lives which led to some meaningful conversations. It provided a foundation for us to connect and helped us both to open up and explore the more minute differences in our cultures that we wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on. After visiting Matelot, the most important lesson that I walked away with was to keep an open mind to the likenesses that one might not expect there to be between cultures.

Another lesson that I learned on our trip in Trinidad was to assume that new people are friendly and willing to talk. It is easy to avoid approaching and talking to new people, especially when there is an expected cultural or language barrier. Towards the beginning of the trip, I was very reserved and I felt as if the locals were unfriendly and did not want to associate with me. After a little while, I realized that I probably gave the same impression that I was getting from everyone. I started making more of an effort to make conversation with the Trinis and found that they tended to open up very easily. This was most evident when we took a tour of Carl’s estate and saw the different fruits that he cultivates. I asked questions about the processes and history of what he does and showed genuine interest- I could tell that it excited him to talk about his livelihood. He was glad to see someone else interested in what he does and he was more than willing to share. After asking some questions and making conversation, Carl became increasingly friendly and even told us that we are welcome to visit anytime. I found this to be the case with almost everyone we came across. The more interest in the Trini culture that we showed, the more open and willing they were to talk to us.

After considering the lessons I learned and expectations that were met or proved wrong, I’ve thought about how it could all be applied to other aspects of my life. Even though I won’t always be collaborating with people from other countries, it was good to learn the importance of recognizing cultural differences when working with other people. I already had a good base of understanding of how to work with people with different work styles from doing group projects, but now I feel much more comfortable working with people from vastly different cultures. I understand now that with how much there is in common between people from different cultures, you can work with anyone effectively by just focusing on the common goals of the two parties. I’ll be able to carry this through any career, including the real estate finance career that I am pursuing. When I work with someone such as an international client, instead of focusing on associating in completely proper accordance with their  cultural norms, I will stay focused on the our task at hand. By worrying less about being perfectly proper, I think that the tension will be eased on both sides, as I found was the case in Trinidad.

Also, when traveling internationally for work, this will help me to avoid what is referred to as the tourist gaze in the article “Points of Discomfort: Reflections on Power and Partnerships in International Service-Learning.” The tourist gaze in this article is when a foreign visitor approaches the situation as observing a different people in their native environment. It puts an emphasis on the cultural differences between the two parties, causing an inherent disconnect between them. It also creates a power differential, creating an assumption that the visitor stands on higher ground. When working or collaborating with people from different countries, having the tourist gaze can be very limiting. After working with the Matelot community members in our meetings and in the library, I solidified this understanding when I realized that we were most productive and at ease with each other when we thought of ourselves as on completely equal ground.

After having some time to reflect on my experience in Matelot, I have realized how much I learned in a cultural context: I expected that the differences between our cultures would limit our ability to work together. From my experiences in our conversations with DORCAS and with Michelle, I realized that the opposite was true and our commonalities provided more to work with than our differences took away. This taught me the lesson that one should always keep an open mind and try not to assume that cultural differences will pull people apart. I’ll use this lesson in my professional career anytime I am working with people who have different cultural norms. I’m incredibly grateful to have learned this and I feel so much more confident associating with foreigners. It has been an invaluable experience that I will always be able to positively reflect on.