Think for a moment about Depression-era America. Then take the image you’ve constructed and set it in a tropical country. Next imagine that the Depression was preceded by a decade of civil war, and you will have an idea of what Nicaragua is like. But to your dirt roads, wood stoves, and corrugated metal roofs, add modern television and plastic trash. Here, houses with dirt floors and walls that don’t touch the ceiling are home to massive stereos that blast reggaeton, merengue, and the occasional American pop song at full volume from dawn to dusk. Young people work in sweat shops making designer clothing they can’t afford to buy. Their parents are subsistence farmers. They dream about owning iphones.
When trying to understand any society, it is all too easy to fall into black and white thinking. I think Americans tend to hold one of two opposing views about the developing world. One is a kind of Noble Savage idea – these are people who are closer to nature, they have long traditions of indigenous knowledge, they have a lower ecological impact, and their world view is altogether more harmonious. The other view is of a people living in poverty and misery, lacking in skills, knowledge, and opportunity. Our responsibility as First World people is to help save them.
Now that I’m here living this reality, I find it impossible to romanticize this life. Both of the viewpoints I’ve described seem to me to hold some elements of truth, though both are woefully incomplete. It would be complicated enough if my only goal here were to observe and attempt to understand the culture in which I am immersed. But I am also tasked with doing something to improve the lives of the people I meet. I want to help people to realize their dreams for themselves and their community, but I don’t want to be part of the process of turning Nicaragua into an individualistic, work-obsessed, car-loving, cement society like the US. But what is the first thing that rural people here do when electricity comes to town? They buy television sets and start mainlining US culture.
It’s not even that I dislike the US. There are many parts of our culture that I absolutely love, the independence of women for example. Ultimately, I want to hold complex views of both Nicaragua and the US. I don’t want to be reduced to line-item judgments – e.g. Nicaragua does well with family closeness, or, the US does a good job providing clean drinking water to its citizens – because the reality is that behind even these simple statements there is complexity. Sure, Nicaraguans have really tight-knit families, but women are often confined to their homes whether they want to be or not, and there is rampant cheating and womanizing. And sure, the US sanitation system does an amazing job of delivering safe drinking water to our homes, but we also waste it profligately. We take clean drinking water, a resource to which a full third of humanity does not have consistent access, and flush it down the toilet and spray it onto manicured lawns.
I am having a really fun but also very difficult time trying to explain America to my host family here. The questions they ask me are deceptively simple and surprisingly tricky to answer. The other day my host mom asked me, “Is there poverty in the US?”
“Yes,” I told here.
“Is there poverty like there is here?” she continued. “Are there people living in houses made out of plastic?”
I tried to explain American urban poverty to her, since that’s what I’m most familiar with, but it was really difficult. The fact that people live in permanent structures doesn’t necessarily mean they are any better off than poor people here. And at least here, even very poor people often have access to land they can farm.
Then she asked me, “What kind of things do you grow there?”
“Mostly corn, soy, and wheat,” I replied.
“Oh,” she said, “you grow corn. So you must make a lot of tortillas, and tamales, and sopa de maiz…” and she continued to rattle off a list of corn-based foods I had never heard of before.
“Uh, not exactly,” I said. How do you explain to a person in a traditional, corn-based society how the US uses corn? We put it into our cars, we feed it to animals, we process it into junk food, and we distill it into High Fructose Corn syrup, a product that is sweeter and even less nutritious than sugar and is slowly turning us into a nation of diabetics. I tried but failed to communicate that despite how much corn we grow and use as a country, the amount that we actually cook with corn is quite small.
While we’re watching television, my host dad will often point to the TV screen and ask me, “Do you know that person?” I finally realized that he wanted to know if I actually knew that person. Not, had I seen the actor in a movie, but rather, did he come from my town? Had we perhaps met walking down the street? Once I realized what he was asking, I explained to him that no, I don’t know Harrison Ford, I’ve never met Barack Obama, and Angelina Jolie is not a close personal friend. He looked disappointed. “Well,” he asked me, “do you at least know Chuck Norris?”
Pluses: fried plantains, rain on a zinc roof, Eskimo ice cream pops.
Minuses: malaria medication, Chagas bugs, boiled plantains.