Cultural sensitivity and humanitarian ventures have to go hand in hand. The longer I live in the Dominican Republic, however, the more I see how unexpected cultural insensitivities can be. They seem to erupt out of nowhere. But what does that nowhere consist of? It has to be some kind of unexplored bedrock, doesn’t it?
This week I saw the work of two volunteers juxtaposed in ways that exposed their cultural positioning. First let me aver that I believe all of the volunteers I work with come to the Dominican Republic because they know that people here have needs and aspirations that deserve, even require, a helping hand to be fulfilled. When I look in the eyes of all my compatriots, I’m sure those are core values. But on occasion something intrudes, and I become aware of the gap between intentions and results.
Both men I’m thinking of are intelligent, well-educated, and good-looking. When I’m speaking with Mr. ** I feel like I’m the only person in the room, that I am the very person he has hoped all day to visit. He listens. He asks how he can help. He is on-task from sun-up to long after sundown. When I’m speaking with Mr. ## I know he’s performing for my benefit/amusement and he’s aware of who else he could also be entertaining. He might hear what I say; he might not. It’s hard to tell. He is basically willing to help, but waits for my request.
On the surface of things, those are simply two different personalities. Right? But one man has more interpersonal resonance than the other. What lies beneath seems to be a difference in their kind of love. (We need to have more words for love in English like the Greeks do. Our word doesn’t differentiate between love for your lover, love of country, or love of beauty.) Mr. **’s love draws people toward him. Really. I’ve watched it. Quite literally, people turn toward him.
On the other hand, I listened to Mr. ## give a rousing address on a subject he was eminently qualified to give. He used hyperbole and ironic twists that were culturally specific, not realizing that a literal translation of what he was saying would teach the exact opposite from his intent. I was sitting at the back of the lecture hall and saw how completely disengaged the locals were. He was unaware of it because those who understood his cultural nuances were seated in the front rows and were the faces he used for performance cues.
I saw similar disparities between equally well-intentioned teachers when I taught at the university in China. Some teachers connected and some didn’t. Language facility and subject competence did not make the difference. Love did.
If I, from another culture feel an awareness of insensitivity, how much more do those from the dominant culture of the area feel it? I worry about that. I wish I knew how to fix it. I hope I’m not part of the problem.