This summer, I traveled to a small island off the coast of Africa near Madagascar. The plan was to go to Mauritius for an internship, specifically a cancer awareness project, where I would work with students from all over the world. People on my project were from India, China, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the UK, Canada, Kenya, Botswana, and the U.S. When I wrote about my experience in Mauritius this summer earlier this year, I needed to express a lot of overwhelming information. I had recently returned, and I was still adjusting. I thought I had become more aware of other cultures, which I had, but I had not fully processed my experience and its effect on my perspective. Now that I have more distance from the trip, I can look back at myself from two months ago and see what I have realized about American culture, about other cultures, and about my own culture. I want to use this paper to delve deeper into my understanding of cultural difference, which this class has helped me to explore.
During my childhood, I lived in Severna Park, Maryland, where I lived a goal-oriented, structured life. I was always busy. As a kid, I got good grades, played sports after school, and tried to please my parents. Most of my peers were white, middle class, and had involved parents. As I got older, the pressure to perform well in school and in sports increased. I joined the cross country and lacrosse teams in high school. The cross country team required hard work and dedication, but the lacrosse coach required even more. We not only had three hour practices every day, but my coach asked us to practice additionally before or after practice. She told us that if we wanted to succeed at this sport, we needed to dedicate extreme amounts of time and energy to it. The competitive environment of the community spurred state championships and a formidable school reputation. The emphasis on success applied to grades as well, of course. My parents encouraged me to get good grades and SAT scores so I could get into college, and this was a trend among my peers. Since I had always loved and valued learning, and getting good grades was one of my strengths, this seemed reasonable. Toward the end of my high school career, however, I started to question the healthiness of my community, but soon I was off to college.
When I started school at UNC, I was immediately struck by the diversity. The first person I met was my roommate, who had just flown in from Beijing. Immediately, we started comparing our cultures and figuring out how they were different. Just by living with her, I picked up on more differences, which I enjoyed discovering. I met people who I found interesting because they did not share the upbringing of my specific community, so they thought about things differently than I did. At the end of the year, a friend introduced me to AIESEC, an organization that allows students to travel all over the world for internships. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to meet more people from other cultures. I ended up deciding to go to Mauritius, where I would live in a house with 20 other people from around the world.
I arrived in Mauritius on June 13th. The first week seemed incredibly long, probably because of the adjustments I made. As I learned this year from researching perception of time for my English presentation, time feels slower when trying new things. Though I ended up loving the people I lived with, at first all of our differences were difficult to accommodate. I needed to adjust to Mauritian culture, but I also needed to adjust to another foreign culture — living with people from all different backgrounds in a small space.
The first adjustment was communication. Our team leader for the cancer awareness project, Ghirish, was supposed to send us pictures of the intern house where we would be residing for the next seven weeks. The pictures were never posted. When I arrived at the house, I saw that it had four rooms for us to sleep, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. Very quickly, I learned that the toilets rarely flushed, they flooded, the showers worked only periodically, we did not have space for our belongings, and we barely had space for ourselves. This was not what I or my fellow interns had expected. We immediately complained to Ghirish. However, the wifi at the house worked only periodically, and this was the only way for us to communicate with Ghirish and anyone else. We didn’t know where to get food, how to use the bus system, if our area was safe enough to walk around and explore, how to fix the dysfunctional elements of our house, etc. Because of my unfamiliarity with the area and the difficulty of obtaining information, I felt a little helpless. The lack of structure of my life in Mauritius compared to my life in America became apparent immediately.
The way that I reacted to life in Mauritius initially was different from how the other people in my house did. Everyone was disappointed with the state of the house, and we all tried to resolve its problems, but that was probably the only reaction that we all shared. Since it was difficult for us to leave the house at first, we had to entertain ourselves there. One of the difficulties I had cooperating with people in my house stemmed from my value of following rules, getting sleep, and living in a clean space. Ghirish wrote a list of house rules, which I felt were important to follow. While I was making an effort to maintain my lifestyle of structure and cleanliness, others did not share this agenda. My Indian housemates immediately bought loads of alcohol and a music system. I ate dinner around 6 or 7 pm, washed my dishes, and entertained myself with other people in the house, while the Indians were busy drinking or smoking. By 10 pm they were very drunk and hungry. They cooked dinner, ate, continued partying, and left a huge mess in the kitchen. When I would try to go to bed around midnight, I could not sleep because they were still partying. The loud music and the smell of cigarettes kept me awake for hours. In the morning, I would inspect the disastrous house with irritation. Lifestyle differences such as these made me dissatisfied at first.
Additionally, while I was used to easily making plans at home, making plans in Mauritius was a totally different endeavor. I was used to being able to text, call, get on Facebook whenever I wanted, and I was used to fast responses. When we did finally make plans with the AIESEC team, I learned to add at least a two hour delay to when they picked us up from the house, and not to expect to do what we had planned. I learned that Ghirish and the other Mauritian AIESEC members loved to say, “I need to confirm,” to avoid being held accountable for anything. I learned that more likely than not, we would not accomplish what we set out to do. Since I was wired to set goals and try as hard as I could to achieve them, the relaxed attitude of the Mauritian people seemed negative to me. The Mauritian AIESEC members did not seem to mind that we were inefficient and unproductive. I felt uncomfortable with our lack of productivity, my lack of control over my schedule, and my lack of knowledge about how to live in Mauritius.
My attitude reminds me of the Demetria Martinez’s poem that begins, “Sometimes frightened I run back to the familiar streets of English” because of the speaker’s tendency to cling to the culture of a familiar society. It seems that the speaker of this poem speaks multiple languages, but she reverts to English when she wants to make things go her way “at the bank, store, government office.” When she uses English, she is productive and can move “mountains.” In this language, she feels that she belongs in what is most likely an American society. Since “streets” are ways to travel, get somewhere else, move, this suggests that when she needs to make progress in an American society, she uses English. To me, “English” represents the norms of an American culture. In Mauritius, I, too, tried to run back to the “streets of English,” or the familiarities of my culture. My situation is different, however, because I was not actually immersed my culture. When I viewed my new lifestyle in Mauritius with the perspective created from a childhood that emphasized organization, accomplishment, and efficiency, I saw only the flaws. Since the values I had grown up with were not necessarily shared by this new culture of my household in Mauritius, I felt like I needed to integrate my values into this new home.
When the speaker participates in the activities that she does in English, she can talk about what she accomplished in a quantitative way. In Mauritius, I was looking to make these kind of quantitative accomplishments. When I found that most of the time I probably could not, I found this unsettling. The speaker says she is productive “not by faith but by precision,” aiming these words “between eyes.” She is focused and calculated in a way that seems almost like pointing a gun at another’s head. This could symbolize the emphasis on competition in an American culture. After some time in Mauritius, what I came to realize was that I was trying to operate solely by precision, and not by faith, like in the poem. I am not referring to faith as religion, but I was missing out on a kind of spirituality around me that did not require quantitative productivity; it had to do with intimacy, relationships, flexibility, and acceptance. I learned that I did not have to be quantitatively productive to still be productive in a way that was just as valuable.
Soon, I adjusted to the mellow culture that lacked organization, efficiency, and the type of productivity that was familiar to me. I learned more about all of the people living in my house, and how their own cultures affected their transition to Mauritius. The Indians, for example, were acting so wildly because their parents were very strict at home. They were all from higher castes, which seemed to have more rules. They were not allowed to drink, smoke, have friends of the opposite sex inside their houses, let alone date. One girl was supposed to be a vegetarian because her caste required it, so she kept her meat-eating habits a secret. I learned that the youth of India were pretty progressive, but that most grandparents were still very conservative. The generation in between tried to keep peace by keeping their children on a tight leash. The Indians wanted to use their time in Mauritius to be wild and carefree.
As I said before, this conglomeration of people living in a small space with poor living conditions created another culture in itself. We realized that our house would never actually be functional enough, spacious enough, or quiet enough, so we may as well just accept it and enjoy life without showering or sleeping or being dry. Like the Mauritian people, soon we were never on time. The level of effort in anything we did declined. We were oblivious because we rarely slept more than a few hours in a row. We were unreliable, irresponsible, and happy-go-lucky. I had accepted this culture, and I learned to become a lot more flexible.
Soon, we knew all about each other’s lives and what was waiting for each other back at our other homes. We honestly told each other what we thought about anything because we stopped caring about being “bullshit nice,” as I called it. We learned expressions from each other’s cultures and developed our own. My perspective changed drastically since arriving to Mauritius. First, lacking a functional toilet, shower, lights, a bed without three other people in it, and all the smaller things in my life that made it easier made me appreciate them so much more. Soon, however, I pretty much stopped caring about them. What I did care about was enjoying this time of freedom and chaos with people who had become my family.
I learned that it wasn’t necessarily all bad that we were never on time, were inefficient, and were unproductive. I was still developing valuable relationships, learning about other cultures, and learning how to adapt to a new culture. The lack of focus on efficiency and productivity made these things easier because I was not under pressure to perform or complete tasks in a short segment of time. I came to see the value in a less pressured lifestyle. After seven of the craziest weeks of my life were over, I said reluctant farewells to my multi-cultural family and returned to the U.S.
When I got home, it was more difficult to adapt back to my own culture than it had been to adapt to Mauritian culture. When I woke up the first time, I was discombobulated. I glanced around for others but realized I was the only one in my bed, the only one in my room. It still didn’t register. I got up and started walking around my house, looking for the people who were always in my line of vision when I woke up. After probably an entire minute or two, I realized I was back in America, and they weren’t with me. This was a strange experience. How was my brain that rewired? This happened the next three or four times I woke up.
I missed the intimacy and relaxed attitude of my house in Mauritius. I started to question the values of the culture of my community at home and in college, which were similar. I had two weeks at home before I would return to college, a place where time management, productivity, and organization are essential. While before I travelled to Mauritius I only saw the value of these elements, now I saw that intense focus on them hinders deeper connections. I seemed to have left some of my old values in Mauritius somewhere. The first month back in college was difficult because my unstructured lifestyle of the past two months was totally different, and the flaws of my college lifestyle became clearer to me. I was supposed to try to get good grades by pleasing a subjective system. I was supposed to ensure my resume listed extracurricular activities that appealed to future employers. I was supposed to finish assignments as quickly as possible so that I could start the next assignment, a cycle that never seemed to end. I had all of these objectives hanging over me that were supposed to secure my future “success.” Now, the high pressure of my own culture compared to the low pressure of the culture I experienced in Mauritius was apparent to me.
I was uncertain what classes I was taking when I returned to school, and I ended up switching into American Literature. I discovered that my English teacher also criticized our education system and some other general aspects of our culture, and I connected with a lot of the things she was saying. I soon found that the free structure of the class allowed me to explore my own culture and the cultures that I had encountered in Mauritius. We often discussed how American culture is focused on the success of the individual. In Alok Vaid-Menon’s Ted Talk called “We Are Nothing (And That is Beautiful),” he asserts that a focus on individual success weakens our capacity to build relationships with others. He discusses how he did not build a relationship a woman he worked with in South Africa, who had recently died, because he was too focused on his own study:
“I never spent the time getting to know Cym because I was so fixated on being the perfect academic. I was so concerned with success that I glossed over the places where real transformative work could have occurred: the work of building trust, solidarity, empathy. The hard and invisible parts. I shared the same office with her for two months and I couldn’t tell you her favorite color, where she lived, and what made her weep for joy. The only parts of her that mattered were the parts that fit into my own analysis.”
One of the flaws of a high pressure society is that we focus on our own accomplishment at the expense of human interaction. Because the culture around us emphasizes organization, productivity, and efficiency, we feel that we need individual accomplishments to be successful. Alok was just acting according to the culture to which he was accustomed. Afterward, he realized that he missed out on valuable fruits of social interaction — “trust, solidarity, empathy.” In Mauritius, when I was immersed in a new culture that was not focused on my own accomplishment, it was easier to have valuable interactions with people. Though we all came from different cultures, a strong bond formed between us. We lived together in a small house and dealt with adapting to a new culture together. Trust, solidarity, and empathy were certainly fruits of our stay. A journal article about different cultures discusses Charles Taylor’s ideas about individualism, saying that “Taylor criticizes the modern ideal of the unbounded individual as an incomplete and problematic anthropology because it ignores dimensions of human identity that extend beyond the self” (Assmann).
The first month after returning from Mauritius, I was highly critical of the American culture I knew. I agreed with Alok and Taylor that my culture did not accommodate intimacy as well as other cultures. One of the differences I noticed in Mauritius between my culture and the culture of the Indian people living in my house was our concept of time. No matter what kind of time-related question that I asked them, the answer would always be “after some time.” I could ask, “When will you arrive at the beach?” or “When will you visit the USA?” and the answer would always be the same. I found this interesting and decided to explore perception of time in different cultures for my English project.
I found that in countries like America, we follow linear time, focused on efficiency, productivity, and constant planning for the future. I found that countries like India follow multi-active time, focused on human interaction and long-standing relationships, rather than the demands of a tight schedule. They do not focus on the time of a meeting or how long it will take, but the fact that the meeting happens. If an Indian is late to a meeting, he likely has a strong relationship with who he is meeting, so it is acceptable. They also believe that if you are having a good conversation, you should finish it, no matter how long it takes.
Just by comparing cultural perceptions of time, I could see how this element would affect so many other aspects of a culture. In America, the pressures of linear time make it important to accomplish tasks quickly. Unfortunately, it seems that intimacy can often be lost in this process. Multi-active time seems to accommodate these values better because people are not always in a hurry to complete tasks; they are more focused on people than on productivity. I think the emphasis placed on finishing a good conversation is important. Exchanging stories, emotions, information, etc. is extremely valuable; it allows people to learn new perspectives, express themselves, and gain insight.
As I continued exploring other cultures, I continued to notice the flaws of the culture around me. However, as I adjusted, I began to realize that just because my culture is not perfect, neither are other cultures; they all have flaws. Now that I have been home for a while, I have realized that I want to incorporate certain values from other cultures to create my own culture. I don’t want to focus all of my energy on being productive in an “American” way, but I also don’t want to sacrifice all of my old values for more intimacy. I think a balance would be most fulfilling.
I am still figuring out how to integrate my global perspective with the perspective I had before travelling to Mauritius. In an interview with Nathaniel Mackey, who wrote From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, Mackey discusses how he includes references in his writing that are starkly different from each other. He says, “The process of bringing things together that are, in the most widely accepted senses of the terms, “disparate” and “disengaged,” bringing them into contiguity with one another, is analogous to the roughness you get and the rub you get when you bring things that are not homogenous together. In that sense, there is a kind of raspiness in the discrepant mix of materials that I have been working with, which is also in the discrepant mix and changes of reference and register that one finds in my writing” (O’Leary). Mackey’s writing is difficult to read if you are unfamiliar with his references because they seem to come from a wide variety of places. The “roughness” of his writing is similar to the “roughness” of bringing cultures together. Just as the cultures of my housemates in Mauritius rubbed together discordantly at first, so do the multiple cultures in the global perspective I am trying to form. In Mauritius, however, we were able to accommodate all of these cultures in a small house, so I have hope that I will be able to do the same in my own life in America.
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