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:

Ablaze: A personal story of igniting my heart aflame

cover-tinted red

My second poetry collection, Ablaze, sheds an honest light on my raging desire and passion to consummate the dream that beckoned me to abandon my home and blaze a new trail here in Central America, amongst rural villagers in isolated tropical jungles, amidst a backdrop of ancient cultures enriched by traditional customs for which I have deep respect. Having been forged in the fire of my heart’s desire, I am now faced with the opportunity to make choices that could determine the course of my life for many years.

Parama sitting on couchThe flames are burning bright, and I cannot escape the heat.

Five years ago, before I first arrived in Belize, Central America (a tiny country just south of Mexico), I was living and working as a schoolteacher in the U.S., when I had a vivid dream in which my Buddhist master teacher, Geshe Michael, appeared to me and told me that it was time for me to leave my home country, that it was okay to go… “The same thing happened to me,” he declared in the dream, while I extended my hand to touch a slow-motion panorama of tropical plants, flowers, and coconuts….

When I woke up, I recalled the dream as if it had really happened, and I was emboldened: I resigned from my job, booked a plane ticket, and packed my bags. Waiting in the airport, I earnestly prayed and (heard God?) tell me, “You will almost die down there. But you will be saved. I am with you.” … While this may seem crazy to my readers, perhaps it is worth mentioning that I seem to be endowed with a gift of clairvoyance, whatever that means. I honestly can’t explain it, at least not scientifically. I don’t know whether to consider it a blessing or a quirky talent that comes from a rare genetic mutation… or both.

bird of paradise flowerForewarned by the somewhat alarming message that my life would be endangered, I forged ahead nonetheless, bolstered by the support of the man who was then my husband, mutually inspired by our shared vision to purchase a small parcel of fertile land in a rural area where we would build a small-scale permaculture farm and develop a vocational education center for the benefit of our local community.

In the U.S., I had established over ten years of a successful career in special education as a consultant in public and private schools; in addition to earning certification and practicing professionally as a Licensed Massage Therapist and yoga teacher. I earned a Master of Arts in Education and gained a wide range of experience working with children and adults who were diagnosed with developmental and learning disabilities. I enjoyed working in the field of education, but I felt deep dissatisfaction with what I deemed to be a restrictive, top-down model that limited my creativity and freedom to design my own curriculum.

Parama w studentsI became disillusioned with the public school system in the U.S. and envisioned an innovative approach that involved outdoor, experiential education on an organic farm. I wrote and published my first two books that became bestsellers in experimental methods in education. When my husband suggested that we move to Central America and purchase land for our own school, I was forced to choose: Do I stay with what is familiar, or do I take the risk of trying something completely new? . . .

I chose to leave behind the security and convenience of my comfortable, middle-class life in the U.S. I took my innovative ideas with me on the road – south of the border. As I was about to expose myself to an entirely new life in a foreign country, I felt a high degree of anxiety mixed with a deep inner conviction that I was doing the right thing, and everything would work out, somehow, eventually….

Parama hugging tree at Palenque copy

We arrived in Punta Gorda, a small agricultural and fishing town in Southern Belize, Central America, surrounded by Mayan villages and ancient cultural ruins. Instead of falling into the typical tourist routes, we … blazed our own trail. We immediately focused on establishing community liaisons and connecting with local people who were living the way we had envisioned: off-grid with minimal resource consumption and growing food on their own land.

Parama harvesting bamboo copyFinanced by our own meager savings, my partner and I knew that we needed to secure an ongoing income to support ourselves. We discovered that we could work locally as English teachers, earning a small but adequate salary. We traveled and found temporary work assignments in Guatemala, where we lived and volunteered on an organic farm while simultaneously purchasing one acre of our own land in Punta Gorda, Belize, beside other neighbors who shared our passion.

At that time, I did not expect that I would soon end up alone, following through on our project, after my partner became too ill to continue living in Central America. After many months of trying the best I could to help him recover, I determined that he required specialized therapy which was unavailable in Central America – impoverished, third-world countries with limited infrastructure and resources. He refused to seek adequate treatment and suddenly abandoned me while we were living in the mountainous region of Chiapas, the southernmost district of Mexico.

sunset at Kiki's copy

Heartbroken, devastated and discouraged, I almost returned to the U.S. and my previous career as a schoolteacher. Instead, I chose to make Central America my new home and community. I resolved that I would continue what we’d started, because I did not want to let anything derail me from realizing my dreams….

Parama at KikimundoNow a young, single woman in a somewhat dire situation, I had unintentionally become a “woman at risk” and found myself desperately seeking a means to support myself while living in the third world, where job opportunities are limited and rarely offer any benefits beyond a small wage.

My persistence allowed me to support myself by establishing friendships within my local community as well as creating my own work opportunities wherever I traveled, looking for safety and security while still recovering from the loss of my partner’s companionship.

I discovered the importance of resourcefulness in order to survive as a single woman in Central America. Looking back, I realize how much courage and persistence it took for me at the time to continue seeking and finding opportunities, and now I can honestly claim that I am grateful to my beloved former partner for leaving me with no choice but to dig deep within myself to find my inner strength (Thank you!)…. While I wrote and published a series of books, I worked in many different communities as a massage therapist, yoga instructor, English teacher, and house-sitter. I lived for periods of time with host families in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. This proved to be an extremely challenging opportunity to grow and learn while immersing myself in the various cultural traditions of Central America.

door colorful copyEven though I do have the privilege of a broad educational background and qualifications, I learned first-hand what it must be like for local women who have little or no formal education to become caught in a “cycle of poverty”, to be taken advantage of, and, unfortunately, to be abused. Although I could speak fluent Spanish and interact with the locals in the marketplace and at work, I experienced many incidences in which local men, seeing that I was vulnerable and traveling alone, tried to take advantage of me in different ways.

I gained a deeper understanding for how “at-risk women” find themselves in precarious situations where they are endangered and oppressed. In spite of many dangers and challenges, I persisted and continued to pursue my dreams, relying on my own skills, faith, as well as the help and support of caring friends, near and far.

Parama crouching at pyramid copyYears later, I am proud to have stayed true to my own heart, despite countless moments in which I just wanted to give up. Now, I want to believe that I am “living my dream”…. Yet, something feels incomplete, like there is some surprise waiting right around the corner for me, if I could only muster the courage to be vulnerable and open my heart, even as it still heals from the pain of my past….

Since I arrived in Central America five years ago, I’ve been an intrepid solo traveler, exploring and living alone in many different places in Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. I’ve learned a lot about myself and discovered my own inner strength….

Like the “locals”, I have worked hard and saved up enough money to recently break ground on the construction of my new home – an off-grid, thatch roof hut (in process!) – on my one acre of land in southern Belize, where I would like to expand my infrastructure and… eventually… open an innovative school and community center for the locals.

Parama's house

For many years I have persistently held the intention for The Farm School project in Central America to help women achieve their dreams and goals, whether they are single, have intact families, or are struggling, single mothers. The Farm School project is a vocational, experiential training center that promotes health and wellness for women while supporting them to become more self-sufficient by learning practical skills.

Butterflies training copy

My heart burns with raging passion to create something that has never been done before. I hold fast to my vision to help at-risk women in need of support, encouragement, and opportunities to make their own dreams come true. Yet, I perceive that I have arrived at a crossroads. My vision may need to take shape in a different form, for now…. I wait and wonder and marvel at the mystery of the fire.

sunrise in AntiguaFive years later, after countless adventures, meeting new and interesting people along the way, nearly dying at the hands of those who would wish to do me harm, I have survived many dangers, overcome personal challenges, and learned what it means to be a warrior dedicated to a mission that can only come from touching the flames of burning passion within one’s heart, enlivened and inspired every day to keep blazing the trail….

Fire must be fed to stay alive. The strength of the flame is derived from a dynamic interplay of elements. Passion can be recognized and shared between two people who are uncontrollably drawn toward one another in a mutual desire to burn in the conflagration of hearts united and ignited. The flames burn and rage, transforming the landscape of the heart, regenerating the soil, making it fertile ground for new growth.

Please click here to download my second poetry collection, Ablaze

Selfless service as a path to personal success and happiness

working-together-as-a-team-group_people1In this Life Reading, a client asked the following questions: 

  • I’d love to meet my soulmate/life partner. What do I need to do to make this happen?
  • I’d like to be successful in obtaining a job. What is it that I’m doing or not doing to make this happen?
  • I need to know at this point in my life where I am now in 2014 regarding my spirituality.

Parama received the following information for this Life Reading: It appears that you have neglected to properly attend to your home altar, an important observance that deserves daily care and attention. Take time to clean and refresh your altar space, filling it with auspicious, inspiring images and objects that uplift you and refocus your spiritual life. One important element to include is a spiritual text that contains scripture. You should read a passage daily and meditate on its meaning. This could be a text that you already own or could obtain locally. Be sure to choose a text that you will be motivated to read and reflect upon daily.

Is there someone in your immediate family who needs your help? An auspicious opportunity exists for you to offer help to this family member without expecting anything in return. Offering yourself with an attitude of loving compassion and non-attachment from the results (karma yoga) will provide you with some needed reconciliation from past offenses. Do not be concerned about how this family member may judge or criticize you; only offer your loving support with unconditional love, and be open to any positive outcomes that may arise from your selfless service.

You will benefit from improving your diet by reducing sweets and increasing your daily intake of pure water. Consider a more robust, disciplined exercise routine. This will help to cleanse toxins from your system and clear your mind so that you can focus and concentrate better.

Distractions seem to be one of the obstacles to maintaining a pure, clean state of mind. These distracting thoughts and cravings arise from a nexus of unhealthy habits that disturb peace of mind and mental balance. By improving your diet and maintaining an exercise routine, you will notice marked improvements in your ability to concentrate and enjoy a peaceful state of being.

This will further be supported by following the advice and guidance of your spiritual mentors, who have useful and practical wisdom to offer you in terms of specific spiritual practices that align you with your higher self.

Consider seeking the services of a local body worker to whom you feel an affinity. This could be a Shiatsu, Ayurvedic, Acupuncture, or Massage Therapy practitioner. Receiving therapy at least once a month will help you to access a state of mental, physical, and emotional wellness that you will benefit from for many years to come.

You are encouraged to enlist the help of a skilled practitioner of your choice who can answer your specific questions as they arise during the course of your treatment.

The opportunity for a trip to a faraway place will present itself to you through your affiliation with your local spiritual community. You are encouraged to take advantage of the chance to travel with a group of other people who will be aligned around similar values, and who will be prepared to pool their financial and social resources and connections to make this trip more affordable and accessible for everyone.

This trip offers a never-before, once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience aspects of a culture to which you are very attracted and connected, yet have been feeling estranged from. This sense of social disconnectedness and isolation can be transformed through your participation in this journey, which will connect you to people in a way that you otherwise wouldn´t in the course of your daily interactions.

It will be of great benefit to you to muster up the courage to participate more actively in the social events organized by your immediate community. When you are presented with a choice to either stay home or go out and be an active part of a community event, you are encouraged to show up and participate in any way you can.

You have valuable contributions to make that you may have been holding back from expressing due to some kind of self-doubt. As you participate more and more, you will overcome the obstacle of self-limitations and realize the joy of selfless, non-attached service to your community, which has a lot to offer you in return, should you be willing to show up – as you are – with no expectations.

You will be pleasantly surprised by the positive, fulfilling outcomes of your selfless service.

-End of Life Reading-

I wish you blessings of peace, health and happiness. Thank you for writing. —Parama