Posted by: Sarah | December 13, 2006

Optimist to a fault?

Since I first came to Colombia for AXLDS, I have been astounded by the warm welcome that I have felt here. The culture, the music, the dancing, the people and their tendency to disfrutar la vida, have been unlike anything else I’ve experienced before, anywhere. Something inside of me became eager to defend a country that wasn’t even my own, to say, yes, I feel safe here! no, the media isn’t always right! there is so much more to the story than just the stereotypes! I have spent the past 5 months seeing as much as I could of the country, listening to the stories of how proud Colombians are of their country, and trying to translate that to people back home. Whether through pictures or dialogue or my blog, I have tried to convey a sense of the magic that I have discovered in Colombia.

As I had expected, traveling back to the States a couple weeks ago was quite a test of how well I was able to communicate my experiences with others, many of whom had never given a second thought to the “drug and kidnapping country of the world”. I was genuinely happy by how many people were interested to hear what I had to say. At the same time, I learned what to expect as I was posed the same questions over and over and often felt as if I was having the same conversation over and over. I found myself instinctively sizing up my audience, and trying to determine what kind of prior biases they likely had when shaping the way in which I told my story. I wanted so badly for people to see the good in Colombia and to possibly change their opinions, even if only the slightest amount that I wonder if I too fell into the same trap of only presenting one side of the story. I brushed over the sure, there still are a lot of problems that will take a long time to resolve and quickly switched gears to focus on the but really! the situation, political security, violence, whatever you want to call it has improved so much! things in Colombia are so much better than they were even 5 years ago before Uribe was elected! With most people I spent so much time focusing on how beautiful and diverse the country was, the music, the festivals, the beaches…

Why was it that I felt it wasn’t my place to tell the horrific side of the story that does still exist in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Colombians? The conflict is complex and horrible, and I still only understand the surface of the history. If I live here, and I can’t even understand it, how do I attempt to explain that to others who don’t have the slightest idea of the context? I could never in my lifetime imagine what it has really been like to live through something of that magnitude. Was it that I knew it is easier for people to accept the negative, to resign themselves to the idea that there is no hope, only violence and poverty than to challenge what they had previously held as a truth? I have countless stories to tell, a lifetime of experience gained in less than a semester, yet not a single word that adequately describes such a complex culture.

Sure, there are things that I hate about Colombia. Yes, that is strong, but it is true. There are dark sides to every culture. I hate how machista the society is, how unequal relations between men and women are and the lack of respect in these relationships. But I still feel uncomfortable, as an outsider, a foreigner, someone who still does not, and never possibly could come to understand the culture as someone who is born into it. I understand that I will never completely understand, so I tell myself that it is better not to judge. I hate when others make generalizations and assumptions about my country and my culture, and I do not want to come off as the ignorant, arrogant American who has come to do the same thing in their country.

I feel as if at times I try to hard to see the good that I become to hopeless optimist who fails to see the sides of the reality that I don’t want to see. Students at the university often make comments about how you don’t have any need/business to go to that part of the city or talk to those people. And by you, they mean anyone who is foreign enough or wealthy enough to be working or studying at the university. From the first time I heard these comments, they have bothered me. The society is so unbelievably divided, in such a literal sense that I could draw a line between the North and the South sides of the city and tell you where the wealth is and where it is not. I have never before experienced the lack of a middle class and the prejudices and divisions that go with it. But in a sense, the students are right. It’s easy to ignore the other side of the story. Colombians live as if everyday is New Year’s Eve. I go to my job everyday at the nice private university, in my nice air-conditioned office, and eat sushi in our cafeteria. My friends and I hang out at the pool of the fanciest hotel in town where we have “memberships” just because we are gringo teachers. Note – not all teachers have access, only the foreigners. I get off the bus each day in one of the nicest, safest neighborhoods in Barranquilla and go home to my tall rise apartment building with a top story view over the city, while the rest of the crowded bus heads down to the not so nice South side of town.

Do I simply try to see the good in things because that’s how I wish that the world was, or deep down am I as cynical as everyone else? I know that things aren’t great. Far from it. My students always ask me why the rest of the world has such a negative view of Colombia, and the most simple answer that I can ever come up with for them to understand is that when people do not know about a place, all that they have to go on is what they are fed by the media and other sources, so they don’t hear the positive sides of the story. About Colombia or anywhere else. The media may show only negative stories, but I feel like I need to keep reminding myself that this is the reality too. And it is scary as hell. It’s so easy for the foreigners to look the other way and just enjoy the posh clubs, gorgeous beaches, and friendly people. Am I in any position to tell the story as I see it if I don’t know the reality? Don’t sugar coat the reality…but what is the reality anyway? This was a weird entry…too many thoughts…



  1. if your students don’t understand why foreigners have a negative view of Colombia, wouldn’t they be looking the other way too? Every country has good and bad to it. I mean, I understand why other countries have a negative view of the US…

    In Chile, my spanish teacher would say that, before teaching foreign students she had never realized the incredible divide between rich and poor. She had never realized that in Chile, they do not have the equivalent to “the American dream”…if you are a maid, you are a maid. Maybe your children will rise in social class but you are just worried about getting food on the table.

  2. Sarah, I love this post. In reality though in my own mind, as I read, I switched the words about violence to religious fundamentalism and that is how I feel about the Middle East. It is interesting that no matter where in the world people are, we feel the same wonder and frustration. But I often wonder about those that come to the U.S. do they not feel the same wonder and frustration? They came to the US, many of them to escape, but at the same time, they feel they need to defend their homeland. For those that go to America, they are stopped and asked why they moved.

    For me, I don’t know how many times I have been asked, “Why Egypt?” Yes, there are many countries in the world where life is better, schools are better, and so on and so on. Most of the time, I say, “why not?” and they ramble off reasons why not. People here know I am rich compared to them and they get mad when I tell them I will not pay the ignorant foreign price and hand them the money of local price. My roommates think that is rude of me, sometimes I agree sometimes I do not care. When I go home and I hear people talking about the “towel heads” I want to scream and yell. Culture is complex, culture is beautiful, and culture is what I love. We will never understand it all, heck, most locals do not know why things are the way they are. Life is institutionalized, apathy and frustration is a way of life here. I was told once that as an American woman, I could rule the world. I laughed. Then he told me once I was fluent in Arabic, I could get anything I wanted in the world. Obviously the need for Arabic to rule the world was an interesting point but I asked him about peace and he said I could obtain it. how? I could get attention from the rich and get attention from the poor, but only if I knew Arabic fluently would I be given complete respect. He said that a beautiful, down to earth, rich girl that would bend down to the same level and whisper the same words was key to success. Whether or not you agree, I think it is an interesting proposition.

    Anyway, everyone that travels the world feels many of these same emotions. However, i feel the truth- bad and good must be said, to give a better outlook, although I know I struggle with it too! And hey, at least the Americans want to know about Columbia versus just ignoring it!

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