"'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'" -- J.R.R. Tolkien

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Crossroads of Culture

It’s good to be busy again.

Classes are in full swing, and I’m helping to teach English at two different schools.  I spend Mondays and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at the Japanese school.  These are the kids of the wealthier Japanese immigrants, the ones who own massive amounts of farm land and incredibly beautiful homes, even by U.S. standards.  The school is small, and the kids, in general, are eager to learn.  The spend their mornings in classes taught in Spanish and their afternoons learning in Japanese, minus the handful of times each week Veronica—the English teacher—and I come by to throw a third language in the mix.  It’s a relaxed atmosphere: the kids, more or less, pay attention and so Veronica and I can split the classes to work on different exercises or devote a good amount of time to pronunciation or individual activities.  But working in this school—still a Bolivian school—is perhaps just the most obvious reminder of the fascinating crossroad of cultures at which I find myself standing.  Although the Japanese immigrants first came to Bolivia and various other parts of South America after World War II—a direct result of the damage done to the Japanese island of Okinawa—there is still a tremendous cultural divide.  The Japanese worked hard when they arrived here; they turned immense tracts of forest into useable farmlands with the permission of the then-current Bolivian government.  Thus, they found themselves in possession of important economic and natural resources, and soon Bolivians from all over were coming to Okinawa, finding themselves working for Japanese bosses.  Today the divide is dramatically apparent, as the native Bolivians go home to wooden shacks, to bathrooms that flood when the river rises to high, to roofs that do next to nothing when it rains.  The Japanese go home to things very much resembling mansions.  The Bolivians speak Spanish and in many cases a handful of indigenous languages.  The Japanese speak Japanese, and when necessary, enough Spanish to get by.  And, as Katie and I discovered first hand this past weekend what we probably could have guessed at, the two cultures don’t necessarily promote intermingling—we were invited to a Japanese ‘hang-out’, surrounded by Japanese descendants near our age, listening to far more conversations in Japanese than Spanish, and were told that Bolivians weren’t invited, only Japanese were, and we’d only managed to find our way inside because we’d been brought in as guests. 

As you can imagine, the Wednesday and Friday afternoons I spend team-teaching with Katie in the nuns’ school, Saint Francis Xavier (S.F.X.), is a slightly different experience.  Much fuller classes, kids of varying commitments to learning, and everyone coming from much poorer backgrounds.  We don’t have books or a curriculum to use in the classroom aside from what we devise ourselves.  And if it rains, kids just don’t show up—if they live too far away, it gets pretty tricky to walk to school along the muddy roads.        

It’s been a crazy experience, working in the Bolivian school system, navigating what to me seems obvious inefficiency but to others is just the way things are done.  I’m called “teacher” by anyone and everyone who passes me—not because I have any qualifications but because that’s the English word everyone feels they should use to address anyone with white skin.  I’ve had to step in to teach three classes of religion, substituting for the teacher on the very first day of class.  I’ve had to cover for Veronica, adlibbing English lessons for first, third, and eighth graders because she couldn’t get from Santa Cruz to Okinawa on account of blockades.  I’ve gotten to know a handful of internas—girls from nearby communities who live here at the convent so that they can attend S.F.X. and get a good education despite their poor upbringing.  I’ve had to use the little Japanese I’ve learned to communicate with students in class who don’t speak Spanish, although once I ask them their name and verify that they are in fact doing fine, there’s not a whole lot more I know to ask. 

It’s an exciting thing, standing at the crossroads of so many cultures.  I’ve made some Japanese friends, and they’re teaching me a little Japanese.  Katie and I have found a sensei he teaches us karate three nights a week on the side of the road in the dark, barefoot.  I’ve found a new mandolin instructor, and though the going is slow—I’m not sure my hands are made right—I’m back to learning some traditional Bolivian songs.  I’m still downloading and playing U.S. songs for kids to help them learn English.  And, just this week, we came in contact with two really cool South American traditions: Carnaval and Challa.          

Carnaval I’m sure isn’t a new name, but for me it was something I always associated with Brazil.  I guess it’s celebrated all over South America, or at least in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brasil.  Here in Okinawa, it went from the Saturday night until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.  The nuns here were unanimous in telling us horror stories: everyone is drunk; it’s so dangerous; people throw mud and clay at you; you have to go into hiding, especially on Tuesday.  I, at the very least, was a little concerned.  But Saturday night we went out with our Japanese friends to join in the dancing and celebrating in the plaza.  And then Monday we went out ‘to carnaval’—it happens to be a verb in Bolivian Spanish.  We armed ourselves with the tiniest squirt guns you’ve ever seen and water balloons filled with a paint-water mixture.  We hardly started walking down the streets when a car drove by and blasted us with purple paint.  It’s like a three day war: kids are armed with water balloons, paint, buckets of mud, and even oil, running around in gangs and attacking anyone who passes by.  Motorcycles are bombarded; people toss things out of car windows; kids are literally picked up and buried in sludge.  Fascinating.  The trick, we learned, was to look nonchalant.  People might start throwing things at the “teachers,” but always with a bit of hesitancy—they never really knew what to make of us.  Until we started bombing them with water balloons.  Our students, too, were very trusting.  They might come running up at us to attack and then I’d yell, “Wait, we’re on a team.”  That’s how we amassed our gang.  The pictures will tell the story better once I get them off Katie’s camera, but let’s just say we were all sorts of colors and smells when we finally found our way back to the convent.  And I definitely don’t think we were on the losing end of the war.

Challa was another interesting experience.  It’s an indigenous religious tradition that invokes Pachamama, the Mother of the Earth.  The sisters had a colorful argument about it over Sunday’s lunch, and it was clear that the discussion was drawn along regional lines.  The sisters from the more ‘advanced’ Eastern departments saw the event as a pagan holiday.  (The Eastern departments, including Santa Cruz, are known for being somewhat anti-indigenous, economically more advanced, and, at least in generalities, against Evo Morales, the first indigenous president.)  The sisters of the Western departments enjoyed the religious holiday, seeing it as a syncretism of their Catholic beliefs with the indigenous traditions of their homelands.  They went out of their way to assure Katie and me numerous times that they weren’t superstitious, that they saw Pachamama as a manifestation of the one, true God.  On Tuesday morning, when I accidentally found myself in the middle of their ceremony, I found that to be true.  After we decorated the convent with colorful paper, (“Why?”  “Oh, that’s just how people do it.”), we processed through the school sprinkling alcohol in the sign of the cross, asking Pachamama for blessings in the coming year—more internas, health for the secretaries, no kids smoking in the bathroom.  We finished the ceremony by drinking a bit of wine and pouring some into the dirt for Pachamama.  Sor Nora poured a drop in the four corners of the garden to represent the four corners of the earth (I think?).  It was an awesome thing to be a part of, a great experience of religious syncretism, regional clashes, and indigenous culture.    

But I think what has had the most profound impact on me in the past few weeks, probably in all of my time here in Bolivia, was the visit we had by a U.S. nurse and the opportunities she brought with her.  Lynn, a retired nurse from Maine, came for her fourth visit to Okinawa about two weeks ago.  She came as the representative of a parish that has been giving money to the people of Okinawa for several years, helping them to pay for operations, medicine, glasses, transportation to the hospital—whatever they might need for their own health.  Before Lynn arrived, Katie and I worked on translating the ‘thank-you’ letters from the people to the parish.  At times comical, at times moving, it was a chance to gain a deeper insight into the plight of so many of our neighbors, as well as work on my Spanish translation skills.  But when Lynn arrived, everything became glaringly more real.  Katie and I took turns going with Lynn and Sor Nora into the communities—both those just a few minutes away and those far out in the fields.  Once there, we served as translators, helping bridge the communication gap between Lynn and the Bolivian people who were so grateful for her presence and for the gifts of her parish.  I heard stories of children who had urinary blockages for months, of old men who had problems breathing, of women who didn’t have enough milk to breastfeed their children, of a girl who had been born with mangled feet and, after falling into a fire pit, had a wound on her foot that had poisoned her bones.  I found myself sitting in shacks, in the mud, surrounded by mosquitoes, looking at bathrooms that were little more than four pieces of wood leaning against each other, under roofs that were riddled with holes, in homes that hardly had room for a bed and yet fit a family of six.  I was tackled by giggling, adorable little girls who I’ve played with at school but never realized the sheer poverty they lived in.  I begrudgingly accepted glasses of soda from people I wasn’t sure had the resources to drink water each day.  I hear Sor Nora grumble about the early pregnancy of a girl we met, a girl who had been an interna at S.F.X. not so many years ago and had had great promise.  I discussed with Lynn the merits of where the parish’s money was going, that perhaps spending $7,000 on an operation for the girl with the mangled feet that might work wasn’t at all practical in the current reality of her life, that spending far less on a wheelchair to help her live her final days with dignity made more sense.  And all the while I was the one working back and forth with the languages, trying to decipher what people were saying, trying to communicate needs and love and wishes back and forth from English to Spanish, from Spanish to English, and I had only myself to rely on. 

Lynn’s visit and the very jarring encounters it brought with it opened up a whole new dimension, Katie and I discussed later.  It made glaringly obvious the lack of any social net; these people were at the bottom of things and if they fell any further, that would be the end.  While I pass my time in a pretty nice room, assured of some sort of food, and at least a toilet that flushes, the lady who cleans the parish is not, the lady who prepares our food is not, the little girls that drag be to the ground any time I pass by are not.  I got to see their lives in a new light, and the lives of many others.  I was forced to realize that, even those who work and work hard, who hold multiple jobs and show up for mass on Sunday don’t necessarily find some secret trick to navigating life.  These people are on the margins in their own country, and really, how far do those margins extend?  I’ve experienced first hand the inefficiency of Bolivian policies; I’ve experienced the tremendous difficulty of simple transportation.  Who looks out for these people?  Can Evo Morales really enact policies to help the families in the fields outside of Okinawa?  I don’t know.  It seems pretty hard to me.  And if these people are that far away from the center of their own country, how much farther are they from international law and policy?  How far do the margins of our international community extend?  And how far can people fall?

What I did experience was the amount of good a very little bit of time and money can do.  Lynn brought with her somewhere around $100; we filled 12 first-aid kits.  A pocket full of change paid for hospital transportation, for new glasses, for orthopedic shoes—and these things literally altered people’s lives.  Imagine the difference in your life if for as long as you could remember, you walked with a severe and painful limp and one day you were given shoes that changed that.  How would your life be different? 

The appreciation and gratitude in the eyes and hearts of the people we encountered—despite their profound poverty and at times hopeless situations—was incredible as well.  One lady spent the entire hour of our time fanning Lynn, making sure mosquitoes didn’t bite her.  Another recounted a terrible story of rape simply because she trusted Lynn, Katie, and I because of the good we were trying to do.  And Sor Nora always served as a beacon for us, her never-ending energy, her constant smile and encouragement, her sharp word for someone who had stepped out of line.  (Her trusting me to drive stick-shift down the Bolivian highway in the only means of transportation the convent owns even though I’ve only practiced once or twice before.)  In the time I’ve known her, she’s been able to transition from ooing and aaing over a cup of peppermint coffee to leading a group of woman down the road in the blistering sun to a prayer meeting (because missionaries can’t drive when you’re going to pray—that’s a rule I won’t be following) to pulling out the metal cutters to free the dog who got his head stuck in the fence.  That might all have happened in the same afternoon. 

In reflecting on these recent experiences, Katie and I recognized a great deal of Jesus’ mission in Sor Nora and in the work we had done while Lynn was with us.  So often we see Jesus healing the sick, helping the blind to see, curing the lame, and these are the miracles that distinguish him as something more than an average guy.  Yet, he didn’t have to use these very materialistic, physical, earthly means to reveal himself—he could’ve shot carrots from his fingers and that would’ve designated him as something more than just human.  But he didn’t, and what’s more, as Katie pointed out, he never healed en-masse; all of his healings were personal.  There’s something at work here: Jesus went personally to heal individual people through both ministry of presence and miraculous moments.  It didn’t matter to him that, while he was curing one person in Galilee, there were thousands of others dying of the same thing all over the world.  There was something about that personal encounter that was meant to bring hope.  Those miracles went beyond designating Jesus as the Son of God; they were real moments of encounter between Jesus and another, despite whatever hopelessness might exist in the larger world.  What, then, does that say about what we’re called to do? 

Certainly something to think about as we begin Lent.  And certainly something I’ve been thinking about as I begin the final stage of my time in Bolivia—in just three months, I’ll be home.  But it’s exciting—if a bit frustrating—to be starting anew here, to be learning more about myself and meeting new people and experiencing new things.  And who knows what more might happen in the coming days?  I pray to be present to these moments.       

Karate Class: Me, Sensei, Jorge (from Ecuador), Darwin (a student)


  1. I want to meet Sor Nora! She sounds feisty and devout and absolutely wonderful! Will she come to the Keystone state to visit???

  2. Hahaha I love the picture. Sensei looks awesome. Also I 100% agree with your mother =)