Overcoming cultural differences

You would not have wasted your money if you had paid admission to see the looks on the faces of the Bolivian construction workers when our Canadian Habitat for Humanity team of 8 women and 2 men arrived at the building site on our first day.

Apprehension. Hesitation. Discomfort. A little fear, maybe.

But staff and volunteers from Hábitat para la Humanidad Bolivia were there to translate, smooth things over and assign tasks. Within half an hour, we were mixing mortar, moving rocks and shovelling dirt. By the end of the day,  hesitation was gone and Felix, our maestro (the head mason) told us he would cry when we left.

Now, four days later, Felix walks into the site in the morning with a big smile and a cheery, “¡Buenos días, mis maestros!” We laugh together. We even do yoga in the park together. Many cultural differences still exist, but we found our common humanity.

When people from two different cultures come together they instinctively seek the common ground.

This week we went to visit two homes affiliated with Niños con Valor (Valuable Children), an organization that provides loving homes for abandoned children in Cochabamba. Most of the people on our Habitat team speak little or no Spanish (mine is very rusty), and none of the children speak English, but with gestures and guessing games we communicated.

I noticed a list of all the children’s birthdays on the wall, so I walked over to have a look. A little girl stood beside me and pointed to her birthday on the schedule. It was the same day as mine. “¡Este es mi cumpleaños tambien!” I said. Her eyes lit up and we looked into each other’s eyes with joy over our common connection. She gave me a big hug. Another woman on our team sat and spoke with a girl over dinner. Their connection? They had the same first name.

I noticed as we talked and played with the children that our conversations led us to seek the common ground. Did we like the same sports? Play the same musical instruments? Like the same kind of books? We already knew that there are many differences. We wanted to find out in what ways we are the same.

We can expect apprehension, hesitation, discomfort and a little fear, maybe, when confronted with cultural differences.

But it’s good to know that when we find our common ground we can move on from there, and it sure doesn’t take long.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming cultural differences

  1. Chris

    That’s a wonderful view of the world, Arlene. I think I’d be suffering from Tim’s withdrawal if I were in your shoes, and unable to notice the common ground.

    1. Arlene Post author

      Thanks, Chris. You are right about Tim’s withdrawal. Believe it or not, in a country that grows some of the best coffee in the world, they really don’t drink a lot of it here. But knowing you, I know you’d be the first to strike up a meaningful relationship with the people here.


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