Somehow it felt like a lifetime ago since we were last in Pittsburgh. It’s crazy how one week could feel like much longer. While I’m glad to be back, never once during our trip did I wish I could go back home. I can’t think of anything majorly negatively looking back despite the challenges and differences that we faced. If I had the ability to, I would have definitely stayed longer.
Cultural Differences: “Don’t put value on differences.”
I’d like to address the cultural challenges that I believed I’d have to face and wrote about before I went on the trip, how I managed working through them, and how they have impacted my experiences and perspective on travelling and life in general.
I realize that when resources told me that people in Trinidad tend to be more relaxed with their way of life, I was not thinking how this attitude applied to even the minor actions that we never give a second thought about. One of our first experiences of this perspective was when we were on our way to Matelot from Port of Spain. In the US, we typically just drive to our destination, especially if it is an important destination. On our drive to Matelot, our driver stopped a few times for minor, unexpected tasks like grabbing doubles (a common street snack consisting of flat fried breads and curried chickpeas), eating ice cream, shopping for groceries, and buying corn and oranges from sellers on the road. At some points, we wondered if we would ever get to Matelot because we kept stopping to do seemingly random things, half of which weren’t even relevant to us students. But in the end, we appreciated those stops. It made us get out of our van to see different parts of Trinidad and allowed us to interact with people on the street. It was actually a great transition from arriving in Trinidad to actually observing the daily lives of the citizens there. And also, why not? If you are on the road anyway, why not stop by a couple places to grab groceries for your family? Why not just rest outside and eat ice cream? Why not pull up and try a new snack that you would not usually see in your home country? When we finally arrived at Matelot, I asked myself, “Why did I believe we were in a rush?” We were not assigned to do anything urgent and I was not in any sort of emergency.
Americans are in a rush for everything. Why do I eat so fast even when I know I do not need to? In the US, it is usually because I only have a couple of minutes of eat a meal before my next class or appointment. This seemingly justified behavior had turned into a habit of mine, which I saw when in my first few meals in Trinidad I would finish almost too fast. I have learned to slow down and really appreciate the food that was made for us and learned how the food connected to and represented all of the different cultures in Trinidad. Even after sharing a couple of meals with my friends when I came back to Pittsburgh, many of them commented how I was not to first one to finish my food!
Probably the most explicit example of us rushing was the pace at which we walked. Matelot has many hills, a lot of which were pretty steep. Somehow we had the tendency to walk up them extremely faster without a sweat compared to Trinidadians. There were more than a couple of times when Michelle and Andre (two of our hosts) had to tell us to stop because “there’s no reason to rush. Slow down, breathe, and watch the ocean or look at the trees.” I appreciated when they would call us out. It made me more aware of my surroundings and made me take a moment to truly respect the incredible nature around us. That’s what we would do in ecotourism anyway – admire the nature and the people that make Matelot so unique and beautiful.
I still like structure. I still like planning my days out and knowing what I am going to do next. Because I was warned that we would have a lot of free time, I adapted to truly relaxing and schedule changes better than I had predicted. I think I would have been more anxious had I not known about this norm prior to going. It definitely was not an easy process, but it was not the most difficult thing to do. This week demonstrated that I do have the ability to take a moment to rest and to adjust to new changes.
The next cultural challenge I believed I would face is difference in communication. Communicating with the DORCAS women or other Trinidadians was not super difficult given that we all spoke English and they have met other American student groups. But there were definitely actions that I noticed that were associated with Trinidad’s relatively low context culture. Michelle would mention a few times that she is not a confrontational person. She doesn’t like conflict and explained that if there were a conflict, she preferred to just fix it herself and move on. Low context countries tend to do the same to avoid damaging any relationships. While Michelle prefers fixing the problem herself, others may try to ignore it altogether, which can be problematic because the unaddressed problem can build into something bigger. Knowing this norm, we often mentioned before talking to Trinidadian groups that we welcomed any positive and negative input they may have with our conversations, particularly when we had our customer service and networking workshops with the DORCAS women and our visit to the high school. Thankfully they were responsive and asked questions when needed, shared their own personal experiences with customer service and networking, and some of the high school students voiced their concerns with traditional tourism and their perspectives on our plan for ecotourism.
Low context countries also highly value relationships, and we experienced this throughout the week as we built relationships with the Trinidadians we met. The more we talked with everyone, the more comfortable everyone became. We saw the results of both the DORCAS Women’s Group’s and our attempts of building relationships with each other through numerous interactions. A few of them opened up to us about their families and their concerns about the future of the Group. We talked about life in the US, school, and our families. Whenever we were confused about an aspect of their culture or vice versa, no one was very hesitant to ask questions about it. For example, I remember asking Andre about his opinion on Port of Spain and how different it was from Matelot. He said that he preferred the country. As long as he had a roof over his head, clothes, food to share, and his family (as in pretty much everyone in Matelot), he was happy. “All you need is the basics.” While I feel like a lot of us think we can say the same, how often do we Americans go day by day with just those basics without feeling like we need to check our phones for no reason or talking about buying a new product? This difference is neither good nor bad, but it is definitely a cultural difference. Another example of questioning cultural differences between us Americans and the Trinidadians was when Michelle had asked, “Is it really that hard to be yourself?” when we were discussing the competitive nature of the business school and the US in general in our debriefs. I feel like we could only have these genuine and serious conversations because we had built up this trust and both parties trusted that the other wouldn’t judge whatever answer we replied with. It was almost like a snowballing effect of one party opening up about a personal part of their lives and the other reciprocating, which built up trust without overstepping our boundaries. I definitely want to credit this occurrence to our hosts for being so welcoming and offering us everything that made this experience so genuine and authentic. It wouldn’t have been the same if we were divided by country or if we lead the whole trip by our own American norm of separating business and personal lives.
The last challenge I mentioned in my previous blog post was the lack of technology. In Matelot, we rarely used our phones because there was no service. We only really used it for taking pictures. I was worried about missing out on what everyone back home was doing with break, knowing what the news was, and communicating with my friends and family. After maybe the first day, I learned to appreciate not having access to do all those things. Surprisingly I never thought once, “If we had wifi right now, we could do this task faster,” because most of the tasks we did were discussion-based. Admittedly throughout the week, I would check my phone every once in a while out of habit even though I knew nothing was going to pop up. I was more in tuned with my environment and participated more in conversations that I imagine I wouldn’t have if I chose to be distracted by my phone. I reflected daily by journaling and utilizing our daily debriefs. Some of the kids in Matelot would ask us if they could play games on our phones. At first it seemed harmless until they started to continuously asking us for our phones. Prior to this occurrence, we had already discussed how technology could interfere with relationship building and we did not want to miss the opportunity to build relationships with the children, so we offered other activities to do with them like racing, drawing, or sitting and talk, which all helped a lot in understanding their perspectives of living in Matelot. I compared my experience in Trinidad to my other travelling experiences and realized that I remembered more about the things I did in Trinidad than the things I had done in other countries because when I travel to other countries, I took too much time to look down at my phone to post pictures or tell people back home about my experiences. Why did I feel like I needed to constantly communicate back home when I travel? Why couldn’t I be more present in my current setting? I’m grateful that I was forced to not be so connected with everything in the world for one week. It allowed me to build relationships with the DORCAS Women’s Group and to truly appreciate the scene around me. For my future travels, I will actively put down my phone, even if I do have service to access to social media and the Internet.
I had never travelled for business relations. I had only travelled for vacation, family, or club activities. As business students, we are constantly told that it is pretty much impossible to avoid global business because everyone and everything is connected to each other. I realize that I registered this business concept in theory, but I faced the reality of it when I was speaking to the high school students in Matelot and they expressed their concerns with tourism. One student voiced how she didn’t want anything in Matelot to change to avoid the conflicts that definitely will impact her home. Western societies, especially the US, constantly pushes its agendas on other countries, consciously or unconsciously. Tourism, particularly when its target market is international customers, often comes with gentrification, environmental damage, and changing labor customs. Having such an authentic and incredible experience in Matelot, I understand where that student is coming from. I wouldn’t want foreign business people, who are ignorant about the unique traits that make up Matelot, ruining the town just for the external glory of increasing profit or power. It is important to have that representation in global business projects and understanding the effects that they may have on people’s homes and lifestyles.
Visiting Trinidad has definitely helped me become more culturally competent, especially relating to the country life in Trinidad, but by no means am I an expert in handling any and all situations in Trinidad or other countries. I believe the customer service and networking workshops we had helped a lot in regards to intercultural competence because we had the opportunity to exchange experiences related to business with the DORCAS women. While we demonstrated what we considered good or bad customer service or networking skills are in the US, they told us the similarities and differences in Trinidad. We also got the chance to see the DORCAS women apply the networking skills we had discussed during the site visits and it was exciting to see that they trusted our suggestions and had the confidence to perform them in real life. The discussions definitely allowed us to get a glimpse of what possible professional skills they can utilize and implement when executing ecotourism.
DORCAS Women’s Group have the tools and skills to reach their goals. Michelle has worked in a hotel where she had to provide customer service to international visitors so she has experience in international customer service. Everyone in the DORCAS Women’s Group, particularly Andre and Michelle, are excellent at networking, having many connections in Trinidad. They have opportunity to reach out to others through Tobago’s market of tourism, other small non-profits in Trinidad, Amizade, and more. They just need to the support as well as the motivation we have to achieve their goals. It clicked in me that we were there to help transfer that drive we had to the Group and help them continue to see that their hopes are definitely possible. Again, while I knew this was our group’s project purpose, I only really registered it as a theory until I had the opportunity to see the significance of it first hand while abroad.
From this week, I realize I have so much more to learn about global business and I will take any opportunity I can to practice cultural awareness, cultural competence, and self-efficacy. No one is an expert in any of these skills because no matter what we will only have the perspective of our own backgrounds. No matter where I travel, I will have the lens of a middle-class first-gen Chinese American woman and business student along with my other identities and traits that derive from my experiences. I cannot go to, say, Israel and understand what it would be like to be a Trinidadian in that country. But doing research before travelling to another country like we did in class this semester, actively reflecting upon what we did everyday on a trip like we did in Trinidad, exchanging perspectives like we did with the DORCAS Women’s Group and the high school students, and applying the transferable skills and theories that we constantly learn in the class and in our day-to-day lives allows us to be more aware and competent in the country and environment that we are in than we would be had we not done any of those things. We don’t need to restrict ourselves to just doing these things while travelling. We can do them in our personal lives and ask ourselves what we did for the day, what we learned, and how we can apply those lessons in other situations.
Learning about Myself
I learned that I do have the ability to adapt and to be flexible, no matter how stubborn I am about sticking to plans. Especially while abroad and doing a business project, I understand now that I will not know everything about the country I’ll be in and I will not have all the resources that I want to have, but pivoting is part of the experience. I must find a way to handle or manage an unfamiliar situation without all the answers.
This trip also confirmed a lot of traits about myself that I know I must strengthen or work around and taught me a lot about myself that I wouldn’t have really noticed if I stayed in Pittsburgh. I am definitely on the quieter side. I get anxious easily (Michelle had noticed this as well). I tend to listen and observe more than I express my thoughts. If allowed, I like taking my time. I enjoy reflections and having meaningful conversations with others. I learned that when I step away from home and purposefully place myself in a new setting with new people, I am more open to trying new experiences. There had been countless times when I wouldn’t have done something new had I been offered the opportunity in Pittsburgh, like drinking coconut water out of a coconut or actively learning about different plants, but I was happy to say yes and participate in all the activities. I want to bring that back home and to try saying yes to new things more.
I recognize the privilege I have in being able to travel abroad safely and to have such a genuine experience. Before and after the trip, my parents mentioned how they never had to opportunity to do the things I am doing now, but I’m so grateful that they worked so hard to provide the foundation that I have. I am also grateful that I have the resources that Pitt offers and I can choose which ones to utilize. I understand that I should focus on all the things I have, and not what I don’t have, and I should use those things to help others. During one of the final meals together, Andre asked me, “If you had the power, what would you give to help the DORCAS Women’s Group?” I told him that I would give any and all the resources that they would want and need to achieve their goals, whether if it were more funding, more members, emotional support, or anything and more. They had given us everything to make this trip so incredible and amazing, and I would want to give everything and more to them to assist them in reaching their goals.
Thank you to the DORCAS Women’s Group and everyone we met in Matelot for such an incredible experience.