By Grace Hulseman
Recently, our community met with a group of undergrads from Boston College who are in Belize on an immersion trip. With my job in particular, I see lots of immersion and service groups from the States come in and out of Belize, and I’m always interested to talk with them given that my immersion experience through Fordham’s GO! program was a major formative experience and a contributing factor to my becoming a JV. We had them over to our house for dinner and got to talk about various things related to Belize, immersion experiences, unanswerable questions and JVC.
Towards the end of the night, one of the students asked us how to deal with feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed, and confused by experiences like this. I knew what she was asking: any experience of cultural transition and immersion is undoubtedly challenging, often in ways that are hard to understand. While Instagram may make international travel seem like a necessary element of an interesting life, anyone who has crossed borders in a meaningful way knows that travel isn’t all exotic locations and new foods and trendy geotags. Cultural immersion can be incredibly challenging because it not only forces one to learn about something foreign, but also to inquire about themselves.
Before becoming a JV, all of my immersion experiences had been in El Salvador. I’ve traveled to Belfast for the World Irish Step Dancing Championships and to Bermuda for vacation, but those experiences were quite different. El Salvador and Belize are the two places where I’ve been able to intentionally, purposefully, and continuously encounter a culture other than my own.
On my first trip to El Salvador in high school, and in my return on an immersion trip my sophomore year of college, I found myself encountering a culture that is beautiful in a myriad of ways. However, Salvadoran society has also been shaped by a history of colonialism, violence, and poverty. As a Casa student, I once cried in a group reflection over the politicization of water rights and the denial of human dignity that I witnessed in my host community because I was unable to wrap my mind around that reality. Three trips to El Salvador, including a four-month stay, left me with more questions than answers.
I entered into this experience as a JV by anticipating similar frustrations resulting from reaching the brink of my own understanding and being forced to reckon with the unknown. When one of our visitors asked about how best to cope with this inevitable feeling of being overwhelmed, I laughed a bit. It was a question that I, too, wish I knew the answer to.
In reflecting on the question of how to move past feelings of helplessness, confusion, and conflict, I found myself coming around to perhaps one of the only universal truths of immersion experiences: you will have a million questions. The odds are that many, if not most, of those questions are unanswerable. Now, I’m someone who loves her questions answered in a clear and concise manner with the supporting statistical analysis and cited sources attached. Sometimes I’m annoyed at myself for continuing to pursue experiences like this because the resulting emotional, moral, intellectual and personal confusion can be exhausting.
I think, though, that engaging with those unanswerable questions is a crucial practice because it forces intellectual humility. Sometimes, the only answer is “I don’t know” and you have to be able to live with that.
One such question that I’m currently struggling with is how do I respectfully and humbly enter into Belizean society, particularly when I find that some of my deepest-held beliefs are not shared. Generally, Belizean culture does not treat women or minority groups, specifically the LBGTQ+ community, in a way similar to that of the east-coast, liberal American culture I was raised in.
I have found myself in numerous situations where people I am around have made comments I understand to be homophobic, sexist, racist, or otherwise offensive. Each time, I have struggled with what the appropriate reaction is. Do I speak up, sharing my opinion? Do I respond afterwards to one or two people I may be closer with? Do I sit by, passively supporting such beliefs in the attempt to show respect and openness?
Those who know me well know that I am quick, sometimes too quick, to share my opinion in response to political or social matters. However, in the cross-cultural context I feel less willing to do so out of a sense of cultural respect. My opinions and beliefs are the products of the society I was raised in. The same thing applies my Belizean friends and co-workers.
I frequently wonder, “Who am I to question or challenge the beliefs of a culture that is not my own?” As a white American, descended from Europeans, I know that my ancestors participated in the colonization of the US, Latin America, and other parts of the world. Belize itself was a British colony until 1981 – it has been an independent nation for 35 years and some remnants of colonization are still evident. Western colonization continues to manifest itself today in the form of multi-national corporations, mass and social media, and even in many missionary and service organizations.
As a JV, I agreed to enter into Belizean society with an open mind, challenging myself to see from a different viewpoint and to recognize the legitimacy of experiences that are in opposition to my own. When I challenge a Belizean about their views on women, am I disrespecting the culture? Yes, I have lived here for six months but, at the same time, I have only lived here for six months – do I even understand the cultural context of such commentary or views? Do I know enough, or even anything, to have an informed opinion about this society? Is there a way to respect cultural differences while still continuing to stand up and advocate for those things that I feel strongly about?
These are the unanswerable questions. These are the conflicts that I find myself hitting every day, often with just as much force and consequential pain as a sidewalk I hit while biking the other morning. Am I ever going to answer these questions? Probably not. But through these experiences and in these questions I find one realization: perhaps there are fewer absolutes in this world than I thought there were, and maybe that is okay.
It is one thing to go through school and graduate with a degree and think you know something. It is a radically different experience to take that degree and move to a foreign country, quickly realizing that a lot of the information you absorbed was relative to your socio-economic, cultural, racial, geographic, and national position at the time.
To Kendall from BC, I wish I had an answer to your question. If you figure it out, definitely shoot me an email. In the meantime, I’ll continue to doggy-paddle my way through the tides and waves of cultural transition and hope that I can be humble, gentle, and open in my interactions with others.
Grace is a Fordham grad and Casa de la Solidaridad alumna currently serving in Belize City with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at Hand in Hand Ministries. This post was originally published on her blog, click here for more.