“AHAs” In Cultural Exchange

“The more things you try, the more likely it is that you will try the one thing that will make all of the difference.” – Brian Tracy

September 1, 2014

I walked into the meeting room laden with my microwave-sized portable oven we’d be using to make passion fruit marmalade. As I stepped across the threshold a mischievous señora and her granddaughter let out a loud “BOO!” from behind the door. I screamed, looked her in the eyes, and kept screaming while I put down the oven until I could start laughing. She was grinning with satisfaction. Payback’s a bitch.

Two weeks earlier I’d spied this same señora walking into my backyard with intentions of coming across the front of my house on her way to our women’s club meeting. I slipped around the corner out of sight and when she stepped up onto my patio I jumped out of my doorway with the same “BOO!”, scaring the bejesus out of her. Once she pulled herself together, she laughed and playfully slapped me on the rear-end then proceeded to retell the story- play by play – to every woman at the meeting.

This meeting in particular was especially sweet for two major reasons: 1) they learned that some of them are now quasi-famous and 2) we had some major “Ahas!” in cultural exchange. Let’s start at the beginning…

I was eager to share a biodigester video produced by fellow volunteer, Lydia Caudill, and featuring four people from my community. Last year, Lydia and two other volunteers visited my site to interview families who use biodigesters as a source of cooking fuel and fertilizer. The result is beautiful. While it is in Guarani with Spanish subtitles, I encourage you to take a look here to see how these biodigesters work, hear the guarani language, and get a glimpse of the proud people of Paraguay. There are some things which have no language barrier. My señoras and my Contact (the man doing much of the talking in the video) were on the edges of their seats (until I pulled out my camera then they all tried to sit back and look ‘chill’!), completely absorbed in the video of themselves and their neighbors (we watched it twice). Their sense of pride filled the room unquestionably, especially when I shared that the hope from the producers and staff is to share the video as an educational tool with Peace Corps posts worldwide! My neighbors loved the idea of being worldly famous. And then they joked about royalties. haha

Later, one señora taught the group to make bread then I taught them to make an almost-sugar-free passion fruit marmalade while the dough was rising (recipe here or click on my In the Kitchen page). With the smell of bread baking in my portable oven, I gave a talk on U.S. culture. The idea was the brainchild of my best friend and fellow volunteer, Tiffany (read her blog here), who’d had much success with this in her own community. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to do this. Despite me offering bits of this talk over the past two years, something about sitting them down and feeding it to them in one gulp broke some barriers and opened some eyes.

My rustic handmade U.S. map offered perspective on the size of the US (we don’t often use the term ‘American’ unless it’s “North American” because Paraguayans consider themselves Americans too….from SOUTH America) compared to Paraguay (which is the size of California) and subsequent population differences. They were shocked to learn that US families have an average of 1-2 children (compared to 6-8/family here!), the wide variety of religions, ethnicities, skin colors, languages and social classes. I gave an example of a ‘typical’ day in the life of a US family. They were horrified to hear that a typical working person gets a half hour for lunch (literally, their jaws dropped open at the thought; who could eat lunch that fast and at the office without your FAMILY???? CRAZY!) And when I talked about our health care system that sometimes leaves people needing to sell their homes when tragedy strikes, they looked at each other and one woman spoke up: “I guess we are pretty rich here after all. We have land, animals, gardens, wells for water, fruit trees, crop fields, close families to help during good times and bad, the ability to stay home with our children.” For a people that consistently reinforce to those with ‘more’ the notion “I am poor. We have no money or things.” this was a huge win – to hear these material-poor people suddenly realize – and claim – how rich they truly are …my heart swelled with joy.

We concluded by sharing our assumptions of each others’ cultures before I came to Paraguay and before we began to know one another. Mine went something like this. “Before coming to Paraguay, I expected:

“everyone to have brown skin, black eyes, black hair and be short.” Reality: PY is a melting pot with influences from Germany, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Spain, and more. You can find brown skin and white. Black hair and blond, sometimes red. Short people and very tall.

“the food to be spicy and based on rice and beans like Central America.” Reality: food here is bland and perhaps why people use so much salt (in addition to the heat and sweating factors). Much of the food is based on mandioca, corn, and white flour (tortillas, milanesa, empanadas, pasta). Most Paraguayans don’t like spicy food, not even your standard ground black pepper. Food is more likely flavored with onions, garlic and oregano.

“a diet rich in vegetables and fruits and little meat.” In the US meat is expensive and I assumed it would be here too but most people in the country raise their own meat and they eat A LOT OF IT. Vegetables are difficult to grow because of the poor soil and intense heat that literally fries plants if not grown in the shade. Fruits are feast or famine. During citrus season, as I’ve mentioned in prior posts here  and here , there is more than can be consumed and citrus is difficult to preserve. Pear, mango and grape seasons tend to come together too but in between, there’s not much. And because the roads are not well maintained transporting fruits and veggies to or from the market can be difficult to impossible.

“everyone to ‘roll’ their ‘r’s.” You’ve probably heard Spanish speakers use that beautiful roll in words. Not here in Paraguay. They laughed and said “No, we’re too lazy to do that!”

“I thought your coconuts would be big.” Paraguayan coconuts are small, the size of golf balls. It’s a lot of work for a small amount of pulp.

When it came time for their turn to voice assumptions, their only concern was “What will she EAT?” and after my arrival they were surprised to learn I could ride a horse.

It was another super fun afternoon with the ladies and a victory in cross-cultural understanding!

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on ““AHAs” In Cultural Exchange

  1. A nice read Wendy. I especially like the realization that the Paraguayans are rich, having their food sources and quality time for meals with family. We (North American’s) certainly have a different culture which is not always so healing for the masses. An interesting pause for thoughts on this … It would seem the simple life of labor and family and the occasional “Boo or Two” brings happiness to all and that family and fun and keeping your inner child is key to living life to the fullest. … and where did you learn to ride a horse? or is this just something every Slayer is able to do 🙂

  2. Pingback: On Our Radar: September 5, 2014 | Mid-Atlantic Peace Corps Volunteers

  3. Pingback: Appreciation Day | Somewhere in Paraguay

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