Final Stages Before Departure

Hello again everyone!  As the semester nears its halfway point, spring time is right around the corner. The countdown to spring break is finally in single digits. Departing to San Juan, Puerto Rico is only a few short days away. Leaving Pitt to go to one of America’s territories comes with a whirlwind of emotions for my team and myself. For us students, we have a lot on our plates: exams, homework, papers, preparation of reports and most importantly, packing!  Yet, the end of the week will be full of goodbyes to friends and a few calls to relatives for the week away will inhibit us being able to check in with them frequently. The final moments will be in preparation for something a little more important, vital: immersing ourselves into the distinct culture of Puerto Rico.

Being a territory of the United States, the Puerto Rican culture is as regional as any group as the mainland: from the Northeast to the Southwest and everywhere in between, the melting pot of America culminates into the most diverse country in the world. Like the US, Puerto Rico is no exception.  Their own set of rituals and even business proceedings are abnormal to the standard we as Americans experience daily. To further highlight these cultural differences, which may at times become obstacles our group must navigate together, the Puerto Rican norms are into two categories: societal and business.

As small territory just shy of four million people, Puerto Rico stands as a Caribbean island that many view as simply a travel destination. The native people embody the rich, family-oriented history of the island. With a beautiful climate encouraging and active, outdoor lifestyle, our spring break destination will be very different than Pittsburgh, and to that our hometowns. All of these attributes are extremely comparable to that of the American identity that we are so accustomed to, yet some differences stand out. First and foremost, interacting with people at first will cause some discomfort to me. Here in the US, first greetings are often times consist of a wave, handshakes or on rare occasions, hugs. Rather, Puerto Ricans tend to be more welcoming: they will give a longer hug, kiss on the cheek, and stand close to new guests.  They pride themselves on providing a sense of home to all visitors. Personally, growing up in a stern environment, it would be rare of me to even receive a hug from a stranger at first interaction. Adjusting to this friendly and cordial Puerto Rican culture will be difficult initially. As the week persists, I intend to respect the community that welcomes us for the week and adapt to their lifestyles. In another aspect, a major cultural difference is the presentation of gifts to both homes and at business meetings. In the United States, it is very uncommon to arrive at a family or friends, better yet a business meeting bearing gifts of appreciation and respect. This adjustment will inhibit us in a business-sense for one significant reason.  Not bringing gifts, or even yet an expensive one, could establish the precedent of superiority that our clients may view as condescending.  This may bring about a challenge because our client may not be as trusting, and the community may feel undervalued and treat us differently. Both could result in a less productive and meaningful experience if we arrive unappreciative of the natives and their appreciation of our presence.

Understanding the culture differences from a societal standpoint is extremely important for our trip. Of even further importance is how business is conducted in at times a drastically different manner in Puerto Rico. In the U.S.A., business is extremely formal: from timeliness to preparation to respect of higher-ranking executives.  Well, in Puerto Rico, it is not quite the same. Working with Caras con Causa, an environmental non-profit that I touched on in my first blog, will bring about the challenges in completing business with them. First obstacle: Puerto Rico is a very laid-back society. Primarily, in business meetings and transactions they are almost always late. If a meeting is scheduled for 9:00 A.M., be prepared for it to commence around 9:30. This alone will cause distress amongst myself and group. The American business society prides themselves on being on-time, if not early, to enhance efficiency and production. This may inhibit our group from achieving all information to aide in completing our report for them. In a separate aspect, one thing that will pose as a challenge to our goals is how stern they are in negotiations.  Any sign of threat, as simple as folding your arms, will disturb our clients, and hence could deter us from achieving our goals because of a lack of attention to theirs.  With an extremely brief time in the territory face-to-face with Caras, being cordial and respectful of their common business practices will allow us to overcome the cultural obstacles and conduct business in an efficient and productive manner.

Like any trip abroad, there are cultural differences presented in any new destination you travel to. Despite traveling to a subset of America, that of Puerto Rico, there are plenty of areas in wish I can learn and grow more as an individual, and even gain a greater appreciation for the life I have in the US. In order to measure my individual growth, I intend to use the following factors: Knowledge, Strategy, Intelligence (or Action) and Motivation. Simple, yet quite complex.  In a study conducted in understanding the development of cultural competence, these factors were analyzed by those before and after they experienced an abroad-service learning experience. The first, Knowledge, seems quite simple: knowing what is similar and different in each culture. Yet, in my Puerto Rico Service learning experience, I want to learn more.  I aspire to engage with the local community and clients to see their passions and learn from them. Because Caras works directly with environmental wetlands and mangrove restoration, both of those words were foreign to me at the beginning of this course.  Yet, after the trip, I want to be able to share my newfound knowledge of what these terms mean. Separately, I want to answer the ‘why are Puerto Ricans different?” By indulging in the culture and interacting with locals, I will be able to share my experiences to answer the question, and not based simply on research. Next in measuring my growth is using Strategy. This primarily will be measured by my ability to interact with people who are different than me. Will I be able to appreciate the culture, be moved by their “normal behaviors” and gain a greater appreciation for what I have here in America? By being friendly and enthusiastic in the community, I will be fulfilling the main goals that this course embodies: being able to divulge in work where a mutual benefit is present by all parties. For me, the eternal benefit for this experience will be reflected in anecdotes I share and treasures I will carry with me.

Action, in a greater sense, will be measured by how Puerto Rico will affect my everyday lifestyle when I return home. Being in Puerto Rico, an extremely-high context society, will most certainly affect my actions on a daily basis when I return. They rely on fast, efficient, and more often than not non-verbal communication to get things done.  Hand signals and gestures are common forms of communication that assist Puerto Rico in their everyday activities. Being from an extremely low-context nation in America, communication is very slow and drawn out and further explanation and direction is required in most cases.  Carrying the actions back from Puerto Rico back to the US will be a good indicator of contrasts between the two places, contexts, and if it influences how I interact with my peers and family.  Finally, probably the biggest indicator of realizing how much I learned from this trip is through motivation. Service learning, in most studies, reveals a higher drive and aspiration for students to engage in similar global trips, active in community service and an urge to experience a variety of new cultures.  Personally, this factor may not see initial results; exploring similar study abroad trips are not as prevalent with my remaining college years. However, in my long-term future, I hope this Puerto Rico experience encourages me to be an active traveler and partake in similar initiatives: localized non-profit programs. Whether it is building a home in Malawi to environmental-friendly projects in China, the motivation to embark on these experiences will be discovered through my Puerto Rico trip, one that is rapidly becoming a current reality.

Puerto Rico, specifically San Juan and the Cataño community, will serve as more than just as a spring break trip. More than just an opportunity to go and lay on the beach and escape the cold, dreary winter of Pittsburgh. First, it is a chance to meet new people, interact with the community, while also befriending and becoming closer with my team. As challenges await that may inhibit our ability to work as a team and accomplish our goals, we will be able to adapt and learn about the culture together and maintain a high focus on our priorities.  Personally, I hope that this experience will not only fulfill my long-awaited opportunity to study abroad, but much more. I want to be able to share this experience, engage in similar opportunities in my life, while all representing my family, friends, school and country. In a week I will be in Puerto Rico, but for now it is and adios, cannot wait to share my experience very soon!