Americas

Being “American”: A Hard Habit to Break

I was warned about many things prior to coming to Barranquilla, Colombia with the Peace Corps six months ago:

Your life will be a fishbowl—everyone will know exactly what you do, from what you had for breakfast to what you do in your “free time,” all the way to down to the particulars of your latest bowel movement.

There will be an adjustment period— it might take a year before things really start clicking into place.

And finally, Your experience is what you make it—easy to say, although ultimately a bit too vague to be useful.

As much as I prepared myself in regards to these things, however, I wasn’t quite prepared for the transformative disassociation that comes from living and working in an entirely new culture. My role here is not only to co-teach English in a public school and support Colombia’s bilingual initiative, but also be a liaison between the United States and Colombian cultures.

But how, exactly, is this supposed to play out in daily life?

Culture, anthropologists say, is like water to a fish—ever-present, the context for all we do, and yet, unnoticed until one is yanked out of it and placed within a new one.

After living in different cultures, some differences are easy to spot. In coastal Colombia a few such variations include: the coast’s incredibly flexible concept of time, the importance placed on family (the idea of living alone is scandalous), and that the idea of “privacy” is met with suspicion (a closed bedroom door is considered rude). These have all required adjustment periods (read: are a continuous struggle).

A daily scene from the prior months:
My host aunt stands at the kitchen stove. The smell and sound of sizzling oil fills the air. 10:1 odds, the food being cooked will include a mixture of white rice, beans, fried fish or chicken, fried dough, and twice-fried plantains (patacones), all served in quantities that would prepare a bear to go dormant for winter. My aunt approaches with a smile and a fully laden plate. “Dinner is ready!” Suspicions of portion size and contents confirmed, I tuck into my meal, bidding farewell to my loose-fitting clothing and vegetarian self.

Knowing that my habits, facial expressions, attitudes, smells, behaviors are dissected in every imaginable way, I at first refused nothing. Surely, I thought, accepting the food will help me be a part of the family, will help me assimilate.

Recently (albeit ten additional pounds later), I reversed my acquiescence. “I’m sorry,” I told my concerned, loving family, who was arising at 4:30 am to fry me arepas before I set out for school. “I just can’t eat fried food that early in the morning. Maybe instead, a little fruit?”

Eventually, we came to a compromise—fruit on the workdays, full breakfast on weekends.

But why do I go on about food? Well, first of all, I love food in general, so I am perhaps hyper-aware of the diet-related differences here in Colombia. But more relevantly, I’ve found that in many ways, the food situation reflects much about my situation overall.

When I first arrived, I attempted to be as inoffensive as possible. I tried to enter the river of my host family’s life as a trickle of water—to smile, not ask too many questions. To not request anything separate from what my host family ate, even if it meant eating a weight-gain formulaic diet. I did the same in the public school where I co-teach English with local teachers in school of 1400 students in support of Colombia’s bilingual initiative, attempting to meld seamlessly with the systems currently in place.

Half a year in, things are changing. I’m learning that to be a good host daughter, it’s okay to have a personality, and to have dialogues about things like food (Turns out, my family likes the idea of being healthier, and a few of the women have begun mirroring my fruit-for-breakfast diet!). In terms of my school—well, I’ve decided that we can go no longer without having daily, detailed lesson plans, and that it’s time to insist upon their creation.

Every day, I question whether I’m culturally sensitive enough. Whether I’m doing enough to integrate into Colombian culture. Whether my priorities should slant towards “getting (quantifiable) work done,” as they did in my old corporate job, or if I should place more weight on being the best host daughter and community member I can be.

Six months of living here and I feel as though I’m in a cultural womb—floating as my original American and newly formed Colombian chromosomes mix and match, creating a hybrid still waiting to emerge… How, then, do I mesh my North American, solitary and work-driven culture with the family-based, laid-back culture of the Colombian coast? How do I create, let alone prioritize and accomplish, goals here within the Colombian context for my next 21 months, and yet still keep my sanity—because 24 years of North America, as much as I was excited to enter a new culture and experience all its joys and otherwise, is a hard habit to break.

But after all, my differences are the reason I am here! Colombia’s goal is to have bilingual schools by 2019. My work involves citywide coordination—and because of my background, this sort of coordination is a strength I bring…along with my strange love of privacy and propensity to do work during the evening and night hours.

Here, I will always be considered a North American. But who I really am will be something apart—an individual who can act outside of entirely US or Colombian cultural norms, but with an understanding of both that can give me a freedom beyond what I’d have if I were enmeshed fully in either culture .

Meanwhile, I’ll have accept the daily unknowns as a normal part of life—after all, I hear that things all start to click into place after a year or so…

Emily Fiocco
Emily graduated college in 2010 with a creative writing degree, which naturally led to working at a healthcare software company in Madison, Wisconsin. After managing software projects for a year, she ended her spurt as an American professional to return to what she truly enjoys—traveling, living in new cultures, and non-profit work. Her life in the Peace Corps in the huge city of Barranquilla, Colombia has ironically turned her into an urban dweller. She is learning to make her home in a city that believes in fashion above all else, even during un-air-conditioned 100+ degree heat. Her job is teaching students and training teachers at a large, all-girls school, supporting the country’s goal to turn its schools bilingual by 2019. While here, her spare time activities include hunting down ovens in which to cook delicious, Colombianified food, embarrassing herself with highly gringa dance moves, reveling in the local geographical luxury of consistently labeled streets, and trying to improve her Spanish with the help of the local Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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