"Aha!" moments of cultural exchange

"Aha!" Moments of Cultural Exchange
By Wendy Ward
Jan. 2, 2015

Every week, a group of señoras meets for fun and learning. This week’s meeting was especially sweet because we had some major “aha!” moments in cultural exchange.

One señora taught the group to make bread and, while the dough was rising, I taught them to make passion fruit marmalade. With the smell of bread baking in my oven, I gave a talk on U.S. culture. The idea was the brainchild of my best friend and fellow Volunteer Tiffany, who had much success with this in her own community. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to do this; it definitely broke some barriers and opened some eyes.

My rustic, handmade U.S. map offered perspective on the size of the U.S. compared to Paraguay (which is the size of California) and subsequent population differences. They were shocked to learn that U.S. families have one or two children on average, compared to between six and eight in Paraguay. They were also surprised by 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 U.S. family. They were horrified to hear that a typical working person gets a half hour for lunch (literally, their jaws dropped at the thought; who could eat lunch that fast and at the office without your family?? CRAZY!). At one point, 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....” To hear 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 knew one another. Mine went something like this: “Before coming to Paraguay, I expected everyone to have black eyes, black hair and be short.” Reality: Paraguay is a melting pot with influences from Germany, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Spain and more. You can find black hair and blond – sometimes red – short people and tall people.

Before coming to Paraguay, I expected the food to be spicy and based on rice and beans like Central America. Reality: food here is bland. 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.

Before coming to Paraguay, I expected a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, and little meat. In the U.S. 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 not grown in the shade. During citrus season, there is more fruit than can be consumed, and citrus is difficult to preserve. In between pear, mango, citrus and grape seasons, 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 at times.

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 fun afternoon with the ladies and a victory in cross-cultural understanding!

Wendy Ward

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