Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cultural Change

So I'd like to propose the following question:

Is a cultural practice always "right" if it is an integral part of one's culture and acting otherwise is outside of one's cultural norms?

If that was a little too confusing or vague, let me develop this question...What I mean to say, is that if there is Cultural Behavior A and this behavior or practice is widely used and common practice, does that make it a "right and justified" behavior? If acting otherwise, outside of that cultural practice, would not even be considered because that cultural perspective has been so ingrained into one's way of thinking, and hence behavior, does that make that behavior "correct" if it has negative consequences? Does not "knowing otherwise" or "knowing better" (dare I say) because of a lack of formal education and unchallenged acceptance of one's cultural norms justify the practice of those cultural norms even when they can cause harm to a person, group, organization, or society?....or is this attempt to mathematical deduce a problem with cultural overtones actually a futile endeavor because mathematical reason just doesn't apply to complicated cultural issues. But alas, trying to reason is part of my cultural mentality.

Before I completely lose you, I'll get more specific. Today I was speaking with a worker of mine whose 18-year-old daughter was in town this weekend visiting. Through a little bit of discussion, I find out that this weekend she had been using words that her father didn't like, and while they weren't "bad words," he didn't approve of her using them. At one point, she said the word to provoke him, and he hit her in the face. Hard. She left the house and didn't come back for the rest of the weekend..this morning she left for Tegucigalpa where she goes to university. He hasn't heard from her since and feels bad about what he did, but she was the one to provoke him and he had to show her that she has to respect him as her father, he says.

A little taken aback by the whole situation, I gave myself a few minutes to think and then gave my two-cents. I said, "Hmm. Well, I think that while words can provoke, they never justify hitting or being violent." Wanting to keep the conversation calm, I went on to say, "I know that might be part of my culture speaking, but I think getting violent crosses a line that only words do not." He responded by telling me, "Yeah well that is your culture. It's not our culture. I felt bad about what happened, but it's part of how I respond and to others, it's justified, it's okay." I gave a small pause and said, "Well just because it's okay because of the culture and because others approve, does that make it correct? Just because it's something cultural, does that make it okay?" He didn't respond for a while, but then chimed in saying, "Honduras is different...and you know what, sometimes words hurt more than getting hit." As others' ears started to perk up to our conversation, I decided it might be best to cut the discussion at that. It's true, words can truly hurt and verbal violence is real...and getting into a discussion about violence with a group of 9 women who I'm sure at one point have all been victims of some form of violence was something I was not mentally prepared to embark on yet.

But it made me think, and it made them think. Is something like violence, which is so common and accepted, particularly against women in Honduran society, correct simply because it is part of the typical cultural response? Is not having a formal education, where one learns that violence is not (legally) acceptable, justify this type of behavior or "acts of ignorance" as some would say? Does education even have anything to do with it?

One (adapted) quote I remember from a video on Female Genital Mutilation was from a religious leader in Liberia, who said, "Just because Female Genital Mutilation is practiced and is part of our culture, that does not make it right." But it's so easy to catagorize violence, female genital mutilation, racism as bad, not just, and not acceptable. What about other more subtle cultural behaviors like, for example, gossip?

Here in Honduras, gossip is a huge part of a Honduran non-confrontational culture. When there is a problem, instead of confronting the issue or person, it is customary to talk to someone else about the person causing the problem. There is a fear of confrontation, and so what results is a cycle of gossip that hinders direct communication and hides true emotions. It seems harmless enough, but when emotions and little problems stay inside, they sit and fester...and at some point...it erupts causing much more pain and hurt and drama that would have ensued from a small confrontation at the very beginning. Perhaps this seems like a harmless "cultural norm," but when it involves the communication between patients and medical staff, between co-workers in a health setting where a continuity of care is the goal, it can have definite implications on both the patient and the medical provider, physically and psychologically.

So...is this behavior acceptable? Should it be changed? Do I, as an outsider living in this society, have the right or capacity to try to change that behavior among the people I know? At one point do we respect cultural behaviors and practices and adapt to them because they are part of the "culture," even when it's negatively going to affect the well-being or the healthy communication between individuals, an organization, or a society? Input welcome :)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sobrevivir por Ilusiones (Surviving by Illusiones)

The other Friday evening I was invited by one of my co-workers to her nephew's birthday party. She lives pretty far away, so we took the bus she takes home from work and then stopped at all of her cousins' homes in the community. Finally we made it back to her home. What a little little home. It was so empty, no furniture, only 2 beds and a closet full of clothes from her cousin who is currently "hanging out in the US." As we were chatting, Lesly* my co-worker handed me a little booklet. It was a photo album.

I don't know if any of you know, but I'm a secret photo album lover. Love looking at pictures, love making photo albums (in all my free time which I never have, ha), I just love it. Because it teaches me so much about people, lets me enter their lives, see a part of their life that may have been so wonderful or so painful. And showing your pictures can be something so vulnerable. Sometimes there's a picture that you don't want anyone to see. Sometimes there's someone in a picture you may want to forget...or someone you'll never forget. But sharing photographs is allowing someone to know your past and how that's led you to who you are today.

Anyhow, Lesly handed my this small photo album and I began to look at her life, her primos, her first boyfriend, her son. Page by page, I learned something new about her...the father of her son was in the army, a young strong gentleman who she fell in love with. He died of AIDS 5 years ago. Currently, she lives alone with her 16-year-old son in the small house, surviving, she says. The next picture was of a nice-looking Honduran man, her current love, who calls her and tells her the most beautiful things, so she told me with a blushing squint of her eyes and beaming smile. In the midst of everything, Johanna, she confessed, it's nice to hear those things. It's nice to have someone like that in your life even if you will never actually be with them...even if it's just an illusion. Some of us women here in my situation, well, it's how we survive...it's how we keep moving one day to the next. Sobrevivir por ilusiones.

Sobrevivir por ilusiones. That has now become our new favorite phrase...and it's made me really think about the situation of the HIV-infected single woman. It's hard enough to find a good-standing Honduran man, and when you do and you fall in love, are you able to disclose your infection without sending him running? How do you tell him? DO you tell him? Or...do you just try to keep your distance from him....try to keep you and him from getting hurt? Does that mean you love him from a distance, longing for him? Live as if you were together and everything was perfect? Live, survive, through those dreams, illusiones? Perhaps. Maybe it's those illusions that we can't quite grab hold of that are the dreams that keep us living for the next day hoping that those illusions will one day become realities and that we might just obtain that happiness we long for...

Thinking and analyzing and putting myself in their place, I came to realize that, yes, being in their situation is more difficult and there are definite barriers to relationships for the HIV-positive single woman....but you know what, we have a lot of similarities. I have a lot of similiarities. Sometimes I live and survive for those illusiones to get us through to the next day. Perhaps I and you, too, sobrevivimos por ilusiones. And maybe that's not so bad...helps to liven things up a bit in the middle of the melancholy or simply the middle of the mundane.