Intercultural conflict: Is there a solution?

First and foremost, I am writing this essay for myself, because I wish to muse and reflect on relevant topics that I otherwise might have no opportunity to discuss openly with anyone willing or available to listen. I would like to thank those who take the time to read this essay and I would like to implore my readers to please not take my essay as a complaint, a criticism or a request for intervention on anyone’s part, as I would prefer that said intervention be motivated by a source other than me. Again, I am writing this to share my thoughts and nothing more. I welcome input, ideas or feedback in response.

To some extent, I am writing this essay for a secondary purpose. I would like to open an honest dialogue about intercultural conflict, because I think it’s a topic worth considering for people who live and work in a culturally diverse setting.

I’ve been traveling and working in many different places in Central America for the past five years. By choice, I’ve lived as a single woman in a variety of places under vastly different conditions; ranging from a dirt floor, tin roof hut in an isolated village to a high-rent apartment in the center of Guatemala City to shared housing with a family in their home in southern Mexico. Mostly, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity and privilege to be a part of different cultures that are not my own, and I’ve been fortunate to make many friends along the way.

I often find myself quipping to people I meet, “Yep, been there; done that.” I’ve been exposed to not only the joys of getting to know many pleasant, kind people, but I’ve also experienced the other end of the spectrum: I’ve received my share of hostility from local people who care not to invite a foreign “white girl” into their communities for their own personal and/or sociopolitical reasons.

I have grown accustomed to dealing with and being the brunt of other peoples’ hostility and, at worst, outright rejection due to the inevitable fact that I am from a different culture and therefore not accepted with open arms by local people. By choosing to live and work in a foreign country, I willingly expose myself to discrimination, ironically, because a white woman becomes a minority when living in a country where the majority are not white. While I may be more privileged than the local people in many ways, I do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as a local person with citizenship, social security, the ability to open a bank account without hassle, etc, etc…. No matter how hard I try to acculturate, I will always be perceived and treated as an outsider.

While this can be a lonely and sometimes terrifying position to be in, I am willing to courageously forge ahead knowing that I have enough friends who care and enough stubbornness and determination to continue doing what I’ve come here to do: work, save money, publish my novel and build my house. Unlike Peace Corps volunteers, however, I am here on my own dime, of my own accord, without being held accountable or beneath the protection of a volunteer organization. I fly no one’s banner but my own, and I realize that I do so with considerable risk.

Since November 2015, I’ve been living and working at a charming eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle where staff members come from a variety of cultural backgrounds in a country notorious for its cultural diversity, despite its relatively small size and population. Co-workers include native Mayan people, Creole people, as well as volunteers who come from the United States (myself included in the latter category). I would like to believe that cultural background is irrelevant and we can “all get along”, but in the Third World, the laws and company policies which protect “equal rights” and “non-discrimination” are not actively enforced or even observed in general.

Here in Central America, I’ve observed that “anything goes,” as long as you can either get away with it or pretend it’s not a problem. To my own chagrin, I seem to be incapable of pretending that injustices, whether petty or monumental, are not a problem. Like the snowball effect, the small injustices tend to turn into the big ones. And when injustice becomes a big problem, people are bound to get hurt in one way or another.

Consider me the self-sacrificial whistle-blower who is willing to take a stand for injustice. I know that doing so implies that I will inevitably have to face the music, which is rarely pleasant. For one, I’m often accused of deliberately inciting drama. Maybe so. Or I simply call attention to what already exists and would otherwise remain under the surface. Over the course of my life, I notice that I often play a role of holding people–including myself–accountable to their actions. Believe me, it’s not an enjoyable role to play, but since I voluntarily live a life of service, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Based on my personal and professional observations as a licensed therapist and teacher at my workplace, there is a significant amount of hostility and disrespect present among staff members. The three cultures working daily in close contact with one another (Maya, Creole and white Americans) tend to form cliques and therefore “stick together” and gang up on the underprivileged minority who is outnumbered. In my case, as a volunteer foreigner, the outnumbered person happens to be me.

Unless I stand up for myself and assert my rights to food, a safe place to live, and other basic privileges of life, these privileges are often threatened to be taken away or, at the very least, made more difficult by people who are afflicted with any one or all of the following: (1) jealousy; (2) resentment due to one person earning more money than another; (3) hostility due to cultural differences and misunderstanding; etc, etc. As a white woman from the United States, it is an undeniable fact that I incite jealousy, hostility and resentment just by being who I am: I earn more money than the local people, I can get better jobs, I can go back any time to my uber-privileged country of birth, and I simply don’t fit into anyone’s cultural norms. Arguably, it is understandable why people would want to “beat up” on someone like me: I am, apparently, an easy target.

It appears that I will continue to be a target, unless and until I stand up for myself, roar like a lioness, and/or beat my hairy chest amidst my fellow beasts in the jungle.

There is considerable infighting amongst the ethnically diverse people I am privileged to know and work alongside. I am not writing this essay to condone or become a proponent of said infighting. On the contrary, this essay is my humble attempt to curtail what I sadly observe. On a daily basis, I notice jealousy, backbiting and vengeful behaviors that are sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. While many of these behaviors go unnoticed or ignored, I am writing this essay to call attention to what has become a significant enough issue to interfere with normal working operations, at least behind the scenes. On the surface, anyone visiting my place of work would probably feel welcome, well taken care of, and treated to a great time … thanks to the hard-working staff and our earnest attempts to do the best job possible.

For the purpose of this essay, I find it unnecessary and even counterproductive to qualify the specific scenarios, interactions and situations in which the aforementioned interpersonal and/or intercultural dramas play themselves out. Not only have there been too many for me to number or keep track of, but I am not sufficiently interested enough to remember them and much less to record them here. For the most part, I do not bother to discuss when such interactions take place, in the interest of “keeping the peace”: I am, after all, here as a volunteer foreigner and therefore outnumbered by far.

It can only be helpful and considerate for those who agree with me to stand up and assert our rights as human beings sharing the same space, where we all live and work. I assume it’s true that we all wish to live and work in a place that offers basic conditions of comfort and safety: (1) access to healthy food; (2) a safe place to live and work without sexual harassment; (3) a decent community of people who look out for each other’s best interests. It would appear, based on my observations and my experience living and working in Central America for the past five years, that the above three basic conditions of comfort and safety are not always present, and when they are not, it is countercultural and therefore problematic for me to insist that these basic conditions are provided with fairness and respect to all of us, regardless of cultural background or ethnicity.

I’d like to end my musings with a question for reflection: Is there a solution to intercultural conflict and misunderstanding between people of different cultural backgrounds? If you, dear reader, have a solution in mind, please leave your comments below.

The late Bob Marley had his own thoughts on the topic, inspired by his own personal views and beliefs. Let’s consider what he had to say: