Friday, October 23, 2009

Diary from Guyana - Embracing a New Culture

By Celia Shortt

The day I arrived in Guyana, I remembered that from the airplane, the dense jungle looked like broccoli. I also remembered seeing a tiny number of buildings that were scattered among those trees. This picture grew larger as the airplane continued its descent onto the runway. When we landed, I took a deep breath and reconciled to myself that I had just reached my home for the next 11 months, Georgetown, Guyana.

Before coming to Guyana, I had traveled internationally. I had not, however, lived in a different culture for this long of an amount of a time. I naively assumed that I would pick up and adapt to this new place and new culture quickly and flawlessly. It took no time at all for me to realize that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.

The first lesson I learned was that when embracing or engaging in a new culture, it is important to remember that what you are used to in your culture probably means something completely different where you are.

In America, when one sees a large tortilla, meat, beans, and rice, one word pops into his or her mind, burrito! It makes perfect sense, the meat, the beans, and rice go into the tortilla. The tortilla is then rolled up into a cylinder like shape and either eaten with one’s hands or a knife and fork. In Guyana, however, those four elements mean something completely different.

About a month after I arrived in Guyana, my coworker and I stopped at her house so we could carpool to an event we had that evening. When we arrived, her mother in law had a snack waiting for us. On the kitchen table were tortillas, meat, beans, and rice. Now, my friend told me this was Roti, but my brain told me this was a burrito. Being in a new country, I did not want to assume that was how to eat it, so I watched my friend prepare hers. Sure enough, she began to put the beans and meat into the tortilla. I went ahead and followed suit. I put everything, rice included, in the tortilla, wrapped it up and started eating it with a knife and fork.

I was several bites in before I realized both my friend and her mother in law were staring at me.

“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m eating Roti,” I said.
“Why are you eating it like that, and why did you put the rice inside it?” she asked while at the same time trying not to laugh.
“Where else was I supposed to put it?” I asked with a confused and baffled look on my face.

After a pause, we both looked at each other and started to laugh. Apparently here, the rice is always on the side. That night after laughing a lot at myself and watching my coworker and her mother in law laugh at my roti, I realized that my faux paus could be applied to a larger lesson. When you embrace a new culture, you probably won’t get it right the first time. However, if you learn to laugh at yourself and keep trying, you will gain new friends, new life, and wonderfully new and memorable experiences.

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