Friday, December 25, 2009

Breaking Rules

Alice asked us to read an article written by an Oberlin student in one of the college magazines called "Making Peace." The author talks about her experience traveling abroad in Honduras and reflects on the rules and restrictions for Peace Corps volunteers. In both instances, she struggles with balancing safety and the freedom to interact with people. Many delegations and abroad programs enact rules to ensure the safety of their members, and often times more expectations are discovered in the foreign community. For example, a program might tell students not to eat food from street vendors while a community might discourage girls from walking around alone or from interacting with men. It is hard to discern which rules are necessary to follow and which ones can be adjusted in certain situations. On my last trip to El Salvador, one of my issues with the leadership was all the rules they threw at us before even arriving in the village: no eating anything uncooked, no walking around alone, no wearing certain clothes. It bothered me that they were restricting my experience before I even arrived and could evaluate the situation for myself. It made me feel uptight and cautious immediately upon arriving to our destination, as if my primary goal was to protect myself from the hazards of a foreign place. I know they were doing this for our safety and so that we could be perceived in a positive light, but I wanted to happily accept any food they offered us rather than create this boundary that implied I was fragile and different from them. After the trip, one of our leaders told us that when she lived in the village for several months, she did not observe any of the same rules that were imposed on our delegation and that honestly she thought the rules were a little overbearing.

Of course there are rules that are necessary and important to uphold. While the author of the article was living in Honduras, she ignored many of the program's rules because they were limiting her from relating to people. When her host mother prohibited her from walking alone or talking to men, she rebelled and did it anyway. This decision had horrible ramifications, however. By the end of her visit, the community looked down upon her and judged her for being a promiscuous American. When one is so restricted by so many rules, it seems easier to neglect them all and discover the way for oneself. However, there are many cultural differences that we, especially as females, must be aware of when we travel. In many Latin American countries, women work at home and men have professions. The women cook all the meals and serve their husbands first. They are expected to maintain the house without any help and should not walk around alone. This seems odd and is frustrating to us, especially coming from Oberlin where we don't even like limiting people by defining gender (that's why our bathrooms are "gender neutral" and our big dance of the year is Drag Ball). However, I think it is important to be aware of these cultural differences and respect them while we are in Nicaragua. I'm excited that this trip does not have many rules already in place and that I will be able to make those decisions on my own. However, I plan to be very observant when I arrive in the country and want to fulfill the expectations that the community has of me, even if they limit me in some ways.

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