Tales From Abroad: It’s In the Small Things Aug28

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Tales From Abroad: It’s In the Small Things

Cultures. How do we differentiate one from another? The most common answers are the music and dancing, the food, and the religions and celebrations observed. Before I came to Uruguay, I would have said the same thing. However, as I traveled around in South America, I began to form a different opinion. I think a culture is comprised just as much by the small details within it as by the major differences. Th    e architecture, the way people treat each other, rules of the road, and so on.

When we visited Macchu Picchu, the best part was going deeper than the surface—a city built and abandoned by the Incas—and really thinking about the people who lived there. Their daily rituals and petty annoyances, their families and friends, their labors and pastimes. It’s not fair to them to sum up their culture based solely on what they left behind. To define Incan culture by Macchu Picchu is to ignore a deep and complex culture of which we can only scratch the surface. Defining any culture by only what is most obvious is limiting how much we can understand about the people.

In Curahuasi, Peru, we received a tour of a mission hospital, and something the doctor said stuck with me. In the U.S., people want private rooms in hospitals, but in Curahuasi if someone gets stuck in a room by themselves, they ask to be moved to a room with other people. Outside Western culture, the focus is less individualistic and more on community. (Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to extend to the road—it is every man for himself.) Point in case, one of my teachers hates living in Montevideo, but she stays because that’s where her family is. An American is far more likely to move to another city where they can be happy and keep in contact with their family through various internet resources. Strong community is an important, yet oft-overlooked, aspect of the culture.

One thing I noticed in Uruguay was the road signs with people, pedestrian crossings, etc. The people are more detailed than the signs in the US: they have little chins and noses and hair and hands and shoes. It is perhaps a silly thing to draw attention to, but I think it is just as much a part of the culture as anything else. The sidewalks in Montevideo are mostly cracked and broken, which makes walking an adventure. The people are friendly and helpful to f

oreigners, but not so much to each other. The houses have tall, narrow doors with the doorknob in the middle, hobbit-style. Pedestrians do not have the right-of-way. These are facets of a culture that won’t be found in a classroom or guidebook, yet they define the society just as much as the dancing and food does.

Culture is inter-personal relationships and road signs just as much as it is music and fashion. It is doorknobs and food stands and little corner stores. It is the joys and sorrows of ordinary people in daily life. It is beautiful.