April 20, 2010

Crossing Borders by Heather Johnson

Guest Post by Heather Johnson
Graduate Student
Submitted as part of the 2010 Crossing Borders Writing Competition

How My International Experience Has Changed My World View

As our bus pulled into Guanajuato, Mexico for the Healthcare Comparative program with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with the immediate visual sensation of culture. The narrow cobblestone streets, the multitude of colors displayed by the homes on the mountainside and in the vallye, the decorative churches, the fountains, the plazas, the costumes of the mariachi bands, and the masses of the people bustling to their destinations. I could not scan the streets without consuming a piece of the heritage and culture of this city.

Although I could not understand the language well, through observation I could sense that family was a central value to this culture. Entire families traveled together to run their daily errands. Numerous children played in the plaza gazebos while parents and grandparents looked on from the benches. The interaction and connectedness of these families could be felt.

In America we value individualism, advancement and technology. We tear down the old and replace it with the new. Families are often isolated from public view and are even isolated from each other in their homes. Our world turns on building new and bigger buildings, on making and buying faster cars, on acquiring wealth to purchase the grand home, on innovation and the latest technology, adn on how to achieve our goals the quickest way possible. We seem to beleive that preserving old ways of life, old buildings, old cars, old homes or even preserving time with each other is not advantageoius to our individual or country's advancement. My international experience in Guanajuato opened my eyes to a void I have never felt; the void of a missing cultural piece in my own life and in my country. To me there is a peace in this busy city. The peace in knowing that this city and these people have withstood the test of time, advancement and pressure by outside worlds, such as the U.S., and have preserved not only the ancient buildings but their traditions and way of life. This preservation of culture is peaceful to me and has inspired me to continue travelling abroad.

As I watched other students and overheard comments of their experience I could not help but recognize that there were two differing lines of thinking about the impact of our international experience. One line of thinking was akin to cultural absolutism; where a student will approach an international experience from a judgmental point of view. Where they can not grasp the culture and long for the Starbucks every morning, the 24-hour gym, their personal car, their favorite hamburger and their internet. They can not understand how a population is able to achieve their goals in these old buildings, how they can fit all their activities in when they are forced to walk everywhere, how they have the time to sit with their families and enjoy the sunshine. These types of students are frustrated that they do not have the ability to update their Facebook status to let the world know what they are doing. Instead of seeing the beauty around them and in just being in this beautiful city, they are confined by their pessimism and criticism of this amazing culture. They can't see that the American way is not always better. The other line of thinking understands and appreciates that this culture, this city, these people have survived and will survive as they continue to embrace and preserve their old buildings, their cobblestone streets, and their 2-hour afternoon siestas. This line of thinking is based on openness.

These students, of which I am one, have opened their eyes, their minds and their hearts to the richness of the city, its ways of life and its heritage. I have seen a world so vastly different than my own and I truly appreciate the difference. The memories I have created in this short week and the numerous pictures I have taken will forever be ingrained in my thinking. This international experience has changed my world view in that it has opened my mind and my heart to embrace and support different cultures.

I will return to the United States and miss being "forced" to sit and enjoy my coffee because there is no "to-go" cups at the small cafe or McDonalds on every street corner. My waistline will miss being "forced" to walk to my destination instead of taking ga car. My mind will miss being "forced" to enjoy the company I am in face-to-face because the internet does not work in the old building where I am staying. My lungs will miss the 24-hours of fresh air as there is not central heating or air conditioning in this beautiful city. My eyes will miss the colors of the homes piled on top of each other on the beautiful mountainside. My nose will miss the smells from the street vendors' local foods and fresh flowers. My heart will miss seeing the ornate churches with their painted murals and hanging chandeliers. My soul will miss observing families and children interacting in the public streets. This international experience has positively changed my perspective of my own world and opened my eyes to a beautiful and rich culture.

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