Friday, July 25, 2014

All Americans Drive Hummers and All Dominicans Dance Bachata: Thoughts on Culture and Stereotypes

By Sarah Fiske
InteRDom Correspondent, Sarah, has recently completed her undergraduate studies in Political Science at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. She is participating in the 2014 10-week InteRDom Summer Program. You can read more about Sarah and her participation in the Correspondent Program here.

The other day I did an interview about my internship for InteRDom and one of the questions I was asked was “What makes the DR unique?” Having been to many places (in North America, Central America, Europe, Africa and Asia), I thought I was well equipped to answer the question, but the more I think about the more I realize it is a very difficult question.

Yesterday, "mi suegra" (useful Spanish word for significant other’s mother) and I were talking about food and she started talking about Russian salad. Russian salads are common here. You can get them at the “Chinese” restaurant to go with your plantains and wontons, they are traditional around Christmas, at buffets, and large events like pot-lucks. But, I have yet to encounter any Russians here.

This got me thinking about culture and the nuances of culture. I would have never imagined Russian salads to be a traditional food in the Caribbean, but we live in a globalized world. Russian salad has become a part of the Dominican culture. We often limit culture with our stereotypes – the Dominican Republic culture is vibrant and colorful – filled with dancing and coconuts, rum and beaches. They love family and fun, and time is a fluid concept – often now is more important than later (in less politically correct terms, people are always late). US culture is fast paced – filled with fast food and fast schedules and peanut butter. Customer service is good. It is work oriented and independent (in less politically correct terms, people are self centered).

Sometimes I find we get so caught up in judging differences that we don’t recognize our shared values as people. For example, in the US we may judge the Caribbean culture for apparently being less work oriented – maybe we wonder “don’t they want to keep climbing the ladder to make a better life for their families?” But here, in the DR, someone might wonder “everyone spends too much time at work in the US, aren’t they neglecting their families?” Both people are trying to care for their families – a core value common to all people. So, the answer to the question of what makes the DR unique is this: expressions.

Here, people more often express their love in plantains more than peanut butter and jelly, people usually choose to dance salsa instead of swing, people often care for people in time rather than material, and kindness is to care about people’s lives not to keep a professional distance. It is a vibrant and fun. These differences are good, they make the world colorful, fun to discover and they teach us a lot.

Let me quickly say what I am not saying here. I am not saying we need to move from one end of a spectrum to another. If we tend to disregard immediately differences as bad I am not advocating for immediately accepting them as good. We need to take a balanced approach and be aware of our cultural biases as we critically consider other cultures. Judging things is okay – in fact it is a critical and necessary survival skill that we employ everyday (I shouldn’t walk alone here at night, I should talk to this person about this matter, I’ll ask the cop for directions, not the drunk etc.); the problem is blindly judging.

At the end of the day, there are two points that have been reinforced for me here. First, we need to look below the surface. Often we find common values underlie the superficial actions. For example, the young American woman with her baby in the DR might be criticized for taking the child out in the midday heat, but the young Dominican woman in the US would be criticized for taking her child out late after then sun has set and the heat has died down. Culture is more nuanced than we realize, and sweeping judgments of people and cultures are dangerous assumptions. Secondly, we need to appreciate other cultures and not fear them. We live in a globalized world today and we can either embrace and benefit from it like Dominicans have embraced and benefited from Russian salad, or we can reject them entirely and miss out on many potentially enriching lessons and benefits.

In 1926, Ruyard Kippling wrote this poem. I think it still applies today.

"We and They"
By Ruyard Kippling

Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? --They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While they who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn't it scandalous? ) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

Do you have any “we’s and they’s”? I know I have some. Sometimes I can think I’m immune to making negative cultural judgments or assumptions because I have traveled a lot or because most of my friends are international. How naïve of me! I often find myself thinking that I have better ideas, or ways – not only culturally but also personally. I rewrote two stanzas here that could apply to me.

We eat organic peanut butter
On whole, seven grain bread,
While they who get their nutrients from the tree
Think we’re wrong in the head?

We like our lives efficient,
We keep our schedules tight.
They may view our lives deficient
For working on our computers all night

Your homework: Write your stanzas.

Here are two cultural collages I put together of things that people who are foreigners may think about of US and Dominican cultures.  Just a visual aid to think about cultures, perceptions.  Chances are if you are American you don't own a hummer, always eat bacon and McDonalds and likely don't ride in rodeos, but I bet you have had Thanksgiving dinner and watched a football game. Similarly most Dominicans don't go to traditional dance shows for their entertainment or decorate their house with these street paintings, but I bet most have seen a baseball game and have had sugarcane juice.  I hope you find this discussion on culture interesting as I did. Remember to think critically and appreciate both your own culture and others.
US Culture Collage: All images free domain
Dominican Culture Collage: I took these images from the Ministry of Tourism site and are free domain images.
Until next time,


Thursday, July 17, 2014

1000 Words

By Sarah Fiske
InteRDom Correspondent, Sarah, has recently completed her undergraduate studies in Political Science at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. She is participating in the 2014 10-week InteRDom Summer Program. You can read more about Sarah and her participation in the Correspondent Program here.

To mark my somewhere-near halfway I thought I’d just give a little photo summary of my time here so far. These pictures are a combination of my phone photos as well as some I’ve found online.

First, the view from the airplane: foggy, I could see the air was thick, the heavy clouds cast shadows on the deep green fields speckled with dots that up close must have been pieces of life: small towns, occasional roads and farm equipment. The occasional baseball diamond assured me I was landing in the right place.
As we got closer to the city I was able to catch a glimpse of the ocean – a rich turquoise for deep waters and a bright aqua closer to shore.
As the ocean transitioned, so did the land. The airport is on the outskirts of the city and I watched the landscape transition from the small houses and yards hidden behind the line of street side businesses to the crowded poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city to a bustling metropolitan zone with city traffic and city buildings. Most of the people with the equipment and talent to capture the city skyline have it copyrighted, but scan through google images and you’ll see.

Since arriving I have gotten to explore different parts of the country from beautiful beaches to the rooftop water pipes.

The Colonial Zone is a beautiful area full of the rich, wonderful and tragic history of the city with the distinguished claim of being the oldest city the Europeans established in the Western hemisphere. Here is a fortress that stood guard over the city wall and river – the original wall was established in 1496 and rebuilt after a hurricane in 1502.

Modern life here is a bustling and I’ve gotten to enjoy everything from shopping in the market to the free zumba class everyday in the park to watching the World Cup at the mall.

I have enjoyed the food – I mentioned before. I also enjoyed my 25th birthday celebration here complete with paella and a delicious almond cake. 
Almond cake

And kittens. There are 5 of them: Bones, the runt of the liter and my favorite; Spiderman because he likes to cling upside down to his box; Favorite, the only one who resembles Momma; Chicken who scrambles to hiding with any loud sound and one more, a voracious little thing, who has yet to be named.

I’ll leave it at this for now. Hope you enjoy this glimpse into life here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Surprising Lessons from Chinese Trade Policy

By Sarah Fiske
InteRDom Correspondent, Sarah, has recently completed her undergraduate studies in Political Science at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. She is participating in the 2014 10-week InteRDom Summer Program. You can read more about Sarah and her participation in the Correspondent Program here

At some point in my day, I had this brilliant idea for a blog post… but it has disappeared into the abyss of lost thoughts, forgotten vocabulary words and disconnected streets that takes up most of my brain come evening. So, given that, you’re stuck with reading about work. I’ll try to make it worth your time though.

Here is a “selfie” of me at work… and for fun, I’ll share the story that goes with it. The other day I had two awkward moments. The first was on the way to work when I tried to pay the share car driver with a quarter instead of 25 pesos! The second was shortly after I arrived at work - and I was caught taking this selfie. Gringo (gringa) level: fannypack.

Anyway, on the computer screen behind me in this picture is a 200+ page document on Chinese trade and investment policy… in Spanish. So if anyone is looking to practice having a Spanish conversation about capital account outflows to Hong Kong, I’m your girl. I tried discussing it with my taxi driver on the way back for practice, but I don’t think he was too interested. Just kidding, we actually talked about the World Cup.

To state the obvious, I’ll share why I’m reading Chinese trade policy in the Dominican Republic ;). I’m working at the Ministry of External Relations (MIREX) in the trade negotiations unit here. I’m working on projects with the World Trade Organization’s trade policy reviews now. The second aspect of my internship is to work on a research project on CAFTA-DR, the Central American, US, Dominican Republic free trade agreement. 

MIREX - Photo credit: Diario Libre

So that is work in a nutshell; I’ll spare you the nitty gritty, but instead share something important I learned at work that I think is relevant to anyone reading this. This is something I learned about myself, and I think it is something that at some point every one of us comes face to face with.

I am a very verbal person. I’m good at speaking and have always had a good vocabulary and been able to articulate my thoughts and points well for people. I consider interviewing to be one of my greatest skills because of this. I’ve always known I had this strength, but what I didn’t realize was how tied in with it my confidence is. At work I have my verbal skills taken away from me. I have to communicate things in a language where I lack the power and precision of words in my native language. I lack the vocabulary to choose carefully what I say; I lack the grammar structure to ensure the subtleties of my speech are there. My handle on the language goes from being as smooth as Messi’s ball handling skills (okay, that is exaggeration, but you get the picture) in English, to that of a small child trying to kick a big ball. I trip, fall, kick in the wrong direction or score in the wrong goal. And with my language handling skills I felt my confidence evaporate.

Often we think of confidence and pride as going hand in hand, but I learned in this case how incredibly important it is to extricate them. My confidence was an important tool that I needed to get through each day in the workplace, but my pride was getting in the way. My pride made me sit quietly at my desk hesitant to ask questions or make friends. Only when I humbled myself could I enjoy confidence and a lack of fear making my work day so much better. At its root, confidence comes from my identity, not from my achievements. It took humility, my setting aside my fear of failure and my desire to look good, in order to act in true confidence.

Thanks for reading this blog. Feel free to comment, question or suggest a topic you’d like to know about.

Later, gators.