Every winter, spring and summer break, Cornellians can be found around the world volunteering their time to communities abroad. Most students perform marvelous achievements, acts of good and return to campus refreshed to take on the next semester. Yet, at the moment of return, the coming home to Ithaca, we are forced to ask ourselves if our work was truly in the spirit of service and cross cultural exchange. This winter break my co-writer, a Cornell Traditions Fellow in the school of Hotel Administration, explored the complexity of cross-cultural volunteerism with the organization Unearth the World, a nonprofit that prides itself on its mission to provide both opportunities for service and authentic cultural immersion. In the spirit of service-based learning, we had been sent articles to prepare us for our excursions, ranging from country ‘quick facts’ to the importance of ethical photography. We were trained to reflect and journal our experiences, to think on global issues and our roles in the world around us and to understand how we define our own identities.
One of these pre-departure pieces was Rachel Naomi Remen’s “In the Service of Life”. Remen asserts that the main concern of the international volunteer should be distinguishing between servicing and helping. Remen writes, “Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals… Service is a relationship between equals… Helping incurs debt.” Remen philosophizes an ideal world where every person sees every other person as equal. Remen’s world is one where, regardless of tangible possessions, socioeconomic class, occupation or connections, everyone boils down to being a human. Stripped down to our core, we are all equal. It’s in our Declaration of Independence, right? Despite this, as international volunteers we must also be aware that recognizing equality means we do not close our eyes to the inequality we see in the communities we serve.
The term ‘equality’ should not be a blinder to the realities of other people. We cannot let it persuade us to believe that all nations compete on an even playing field to meet developmental goals. It should not be used as a paint brush over the stories of people and simplify it to one story where we believe that everyone has an equal shot at certain opportunities. Using the term ‘inequality’ takes into account the inter-relational histories of multiple people when worlds collide. Using the term is necessary because it challenges the speaker to recognize and admit that the actions of the past have undeniably affected the current status of the country she/he visits. It considers colonization, plundering of resources, brain drain, separation of families, mass genocides, cultural uprooting of individuals, language imposition, sexism, classism and racism. The term ‘inequality’ takes a complete historical framework in understanding the mechanisms that under-develop the economies, human capital and natural resources of nations. In other words, the term ‘equality’ should not be used as an excuse to simplify people’s identities and histories into a convenient blurb.
Imagine your identity as a book; the reams of paper are filled with the details of your ancestry, sociological imagination, moral practices, likes, dislikes and self-identity. However, there is an interesting simplification of identity when it comes to international volunteerism and having to speak a language that is not their native tongue. Perhaps it’s the feeling of vulnerability, or the presence of barriers that limit communication. We are tempted to give the Sparknotes version of ourselves when an exchange becomes cross-cultural. Is this interpretation a bad thing? The unique scriptures of your life soon dissolved into a shallower shadow for comprehension’s sake.
“I love listening to music (I don’t know how to say ‘I love when rappers use old samples in their music’ in Spanish).”
“I study business (Hotel Administration with a concentration in Hospitality Leadership is a very confusing, Westernized concept).”
The core of our identities is shortened to the words we memorized in an AP Spanish course.
If cultural differences force us to adapt our stories, how impactful is cross-cultural exchange? If we as English speakers feel this way, how might other people feel when foreign students come into their land and they are forced to distill the beautiful complexities of their life down to single sentences? How must it feel to try to share richness of one’s heritage and national history into a simple, digestible statement?
Cross-cultural service begs for the realization that countries are not their news headlines. It requires us to not take things at face value and to challenge the simple headlines and simple explanations of history. Learning the language skills to communicate with the members of the community you work in is critically important, yes. However, are we simplifying people’s histories to only after the imposition of the Spanish? The history of romance languages in the Americas is younger than the history of indigenous languages. Peru and Nicaragua are home to those who speak Spanish in addition to those who speak other languages such as Quechua and Aymara to name only a paltry few.
Search ‘Nicaragua’ on the Internet, and details of the construction of a canal pop up; search ‘Peru,’ and a slew of Machu Picchu pictures litter the screen. We cannot look at Nicaragua and confine our minds to the construction of canals. We cannot look at Peru and confine our imaginations to the great architecture of Machu Picchu. When we visit places such as Nicaragua and Peru, we must be aware of the full histories and diversities of the people with whom we interact. We must understand the complexities of inequalities that face the people around the world with whom we work. We must learn the languages of the communities we interact with, in addition to learning their histories. We must journey, not because we wish to bring our textbooks to life, lest we rely on the biases and prejudices of certain educational textbooks written by conquerors oppressing its subjects under a banner of simplification. We must not take information at the surface level, smiling at the grass and ignoring the dirt and skeletons underneath. We must grasp the shovel of truth to unearth the world, dig deep within ourselves and be vulnerable enough to share our gems of life with others in the hopes of truly meaningful cross-cultural exchange.
We must serve to be servants, not saviors.