Being dropped in an economically, socially, politically, developmentally, and linguistically foreign country can be a major culture shock. It seems almost essential that all individuals visiting a new country for the first time should study the language, culture, history, and current events of the country prior to their visit. Students traveling should take the initiative or even be required to take courses pertaining to the country.
Of course, you’ll still be able to survive and work in an environment, even if you are completely ignorant of the culture and language, but your experiences and your contributions will be significantly compromised.
Consider the reverse situation when foreigners come to work in the United States. If they can’t speak English and are ignorant of national issues, they are often scorned and looked down upon. Now imagine that they say they are trying to help you. Would you really believe that they could understand your life, your problems, and your point of view? Would you trust them and confide in them to help you find the best way to improve your living conditions? Who are they, what do they know, and how can they ever understand what you need?
Translators can be of immense help, but there is always translator’s bias and a loss of intimacy. Using a translator can be very awkward and it took me a while to get used to looking at the person I was speaking to instead of the translator. I never felt fully connected to the community members through speech. Body language and eye contact can cross many language barriers, helping two strangers connect on an emotional level, but it is frustrating when opinions and potential solutions cannot be discussed directly.
I’m certainly guilty of ignorance. This summer, I went to many countries without knowing the language or being very knowledgeable about the countries’ current issues. Even as a journalist, this resulted in greater culture shock and frustration, and when I was discussing potential solutions with bilingual community members, I had a lot to take in and learn.
The culture shock from America to India was big for me, but the culture shock from India to Kenya, was of no small voltage, either. India made a profound impact on me because it was my first experience in a developing country. The combination of the poverty, underdevelopment, and unbearable heat was not what I had expected from a (according to all the recent news articles and books) technologically rising country. Moving on to Nairobi, Kenya, on the other hand, was a relatively pleasant surprise.
Granted I was not permitted to enter the worst slums in Nairobi by my peers and other community members, due to the danger of a foreign girl walking around in the most desperate parts of a city with an unemployment rate of 50 percent (often not by choice). The Kenyan communities I worked in were one economic class above those in extreme poverty. However, these slums seemed to be in better shape than comparable Indian sections. This was surprising to me, since I had heard of India as a rising nation and Africa as an almost entirely destitute continent. Further descriptions of the extreme differences between India and Kenya will be presented next week.
You can see some of my photographs from this summer in print starting Monday, Nov. 26 in the Weisner Gallery, located on the second floor of the Student Center.