My little sister Estefany in 1998.
My little sister the other day.
Visiting my family in Central America has definitely influenced me over the years. I’ve copied many aspects of the Latin American culture and made them my own. From dance to dress I feel more at home here then I ever have. What is interesting to me is the effect I have had on my family in Central America. Just like I saw in El Salvador, they have taken on some of my American culture.
My bother Ernesto recently told me that his visits to America were some of the most influential experiences of his life. A couple months after we were first were reunited he came to stay with for a 6 weeks while he took english an class in Boston. He came back in 2003 and 2004 to spend the summer. During his trips he got to see what our family was like. He noticed that we were more organized and structured than his family back home. Looking for ways to improve his own life he started to copy us. Copying those ideas had a profound impact on him.
Ernesto, now 31, plays a very important roll in the family business and yesterday he became a proud father. This is not typical for people his age in Central America. Most of his class mates already have several kids are not nearly as organized or responsible as him. In this way he is much more North American. He credits some of his success to his visting with us and his interactions with me. He was able to use certain parts of our culture to improve his life in Central America.
Besides Ernesto you can see my influence on the family and our business. We are some of the most connected and technology advanced people in David, Panama. The business heavily uses an inventory and design database to stay organized. There are computers all over the place which are networked and enable better communication. We have broadband internet in both the house and office. My birth father often skypes family in El Salvador.
My presences and culture has also had some secondary effects. An employee here learned how to be more organized from my brother. He went from being slow and not know what to do to taking an important role in the business. My older sister Eva credits her much of her success in American companies to her knowledge of English, which she learned so she could talk with me.
It’s interesting to see how reuniting with my family has spread our respective cultures to each other. We have both been exposed to new ideas and different ways of thinking. From these differences we have improved our lives and ourselves. I wish more people were brave enough step outside of their confort zone and experience new cultures and ideas.
A couple weeks ago I was talking to some students in a college class. I asked them to guess what my background was. One girl raised her hand and said “Latino.” Then I asked the group to guess again, but this time I told them to base their answer on the way I dressed and talked. Someone else raised his hand and said “white.”
I then asked: “So what am I?”
While I was raised in a white middle class household, I’m not white. While I may have grown up in “white america,” I don’t necessarily feel like that defines me. When people look at me they see I’m Latino. I’ve even gotten extra questioning at airports. I’m sure my appearance had something to do with it. At the same time, other Latinos would call me gringo (white American) because I couldn’t speak Spanish. Their message was clear; you may look like us, but you are not like us. This left me feeling like an outsider to both cultural groups. I used to struggle with it a lot. I tried to figure how I could change myself to fit into one these groups.
What I eventually realized was that I had no culture. I know it’s impossible not to have any culture, but I couldn’t clearly define what mine was.
I know I’m American, but I don’t completely identify with Americans. Growing up there was a strong German influence in my house. At Christmas we would have German cookies and we often said a German grace at dinner. I was even fluent in German at one point. However, as I spent more time in Central America, that culture became a part of me as well. I started to like the music and learned how to dance. I learned the different sayings and copied the way they dressed.
All of these experiences gave me the freedom to enjoy other cultures. Experiencing other cultures meant being an outsider to the group. Since I grew up constantly feeling like an outsider I’m not scared to be only person in the room of a different race or background. I’ve learned how to blend in and mimic the people around me.
I feel like people are too often defined by their culture. Are you in the group or not? Since I’m always an outsider I no longer worry about fitting in; I can experience new ideas or cultures and let them them become a part of me.
During my life I’ve been exposed to many different cultures. I’ve been very fortunate to have lived and traveled to countries all over the world. This has been extremely fascinating because its given me insight into how people all over experience life.
The more I travel, the more I realize how powerful culture is and how much it defines us. It influences us in so many ways that we are not even aware of. I think cultural differences only become apparent when you are constantly being exposed to people in different countries, states and regions. You get to see the differences between the way they talk, dress, interact and even drive. Some of these differences are easy to spot but most are often so subtle that we don’t even realize it is culture.
When I first started going to Central America I noticed that many men and women made stiff hand gestures. When talking or resting, their hands seemed rigid as if they all had arthritis. At first I assumed this was the case because people here work more with their hands. As I spent more time in Central America I started to notice more people making the same gestures; people of all ages who weren’t old enough to have arthritis and didn’t work manual labor jobs. My next thought was that perhaps this was due to culture.
I know that people often share accents, but could they be sharing physical gestures as well? I had never heard about this happening before, but the more time I spent in Central America, the more it seemed to make sense. If this is the case, it’s fascinating to think that culture can influence us on such an unconscious level.
Culture effects everything from how we talk and move to the way we think. In my experience, the way culture impacts our thinking can be both good and bad. It’s good because we need various view points for new and incredible breakthroughs to happen. However, it can be bad because it can build barriers between people and ideas.
When people are confronted with an idea that is outside their cultural expectations it can be hard for them to accept, even if this new idea could help them. This can be very challenging when you are trying to help people and share a different perspective on a problem. It can also make people feel torn between worlds or ideas. Working through cultural differences can be very challenging and can take a long time.
Over the next couple of posts I want to share both my good and bad experiences with culture and the role it plays in our lives. I’ll talk about how growing up in multiple cultures shaped my world view and how I’ve noticed that people can struggle to accept the cultural expectations that have been placed on them.
I’d love to know how you think culture influences your life.