America Binds Us In One Way or Another

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They often say that when traveling from state to state, region to region, or country to country, one may experience culture shock.

I, admittedly, did.

However, what shocked me were not the differences in language, food, or music.

What shocked me instead were the glaring similarities between the two cultures. I experienced a “reverse culture shock” if you will. And the fact that approximately 2,000 miles from Greensboro, in San Jose, Costa Rica, things were eerily similar intrigued me maybe more than anything else. I understood America’s cultural dominance and societal influence as a concept prior to the trip, but, ironically, never felt it as strongly as I did until I was in another country.

I took this journey, along with a delegation of four other Aggies (Angela Allen, Yaw

Harrison, Tiffany Payton, and Devon Vincent), on the blessings of the university,  the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies, Chief Justice Henry Frye, the Journalism and Mass Communications Department, the Political Science and Criminal Justice Department, and the Office of International Programs. But this was a student-sparked, student-led, student-driven initiative to travel abroad for volunteer and research purposes with the intent of presenting our week-long trip to the university in April.

The single most significant element of our trip may have come out of what once seemed like the biggest doubt – housing. After months of searching, Senor Eduardo Wilson, a relative of mine, opened up his door to our cause. And it is through this opportunity that we were blessed to witness the country. Not through the shielded lens of a tourist, or the sheltered lens of some volunteer agency, but through the lens of the locals. For seven days, we lived as Costa Ricans. And through that lens, Western cultural influence seemed almost palpable.

Needless to say, Costa Rica is beautiful. From the beaches, to the rainforests, to the mountains, the natural country seems divinely molded by God with the exclusive intent to inspire the soul. But it’s what’s been molded by the human hand that I put into question.

During the initial drive from Juan Santamaria Airport I honestly felt like I had flown to another part of the United States, rather than another part of the world.

The interstate was lined with American fast food chains and restaurants, American car dealerships, and American banks.

When we arrived at Senor Wilson’s home, I noticed that there were as many television stations based in the United States as there were ones that were based elsewhere.

I carried those observations from the first night with me to our volunteer and research opportunities at the church, the men’s and women’s shelters, the special needs school, the Catholic private school, the 17 year-old kid with hydrocephalus, the countryside, the University of Costa Rica, the Tico Times newspaper, and even our recreational visits to the Manuel Antonio Beach and the rainforest.

It resonated within me while I was aiding the teacher or feeding the 3-year-old girl with down-syndrome her lunch.

It forced me to go deeper than our research question of “how where you live affects how you learn” and question how U.S. culture impacts these children’s views of their own nation. It embarrassed me that many people I encountered who were either younger than I, or less educated, could at least hold a brief conversation in English, while I stumbled over anything more than a greeting in Spanish.

It made me both prideful and worrisome when the high-school student became so intrigued that I was from the United States. And it served as the foundation for my understanding of why Americans, white, black or otherwise, are often times viewed as arrogant in many parts of the world.

As much as I yearned to deny it, I, as a non-Spanish speaking, camera-holding, black American represented just as much American dominance as the Wal-Mart in the heart of San Jose because seeing that Wal-Mart, or that McDonald’s, or that Ford, admittedly made me feel right at home. And no other people on this planet can travel the world and have that ease of being at home come to them as an American. Call it corporate colonialism – America’s dominant culture binding Americans to everywhere that dominance is expressed all over the world.

For those of us who identify as a black American are inextricably bound to other blacks in the Americas.

I once heard USA Today Columnist and A&T Professor DeWayne Wickham say that the only difference between an African-American, a Jamaican, or a Haitian was the destination of the boat. The same holds true for the Afro-Costa Ricans.

Finding out their story of being centralized in the city of Limon, not being allowed in San Jose for decades, and having little opportunity to find work or further education reminded me in many ways of the African-American story. As being half-Haitian, it reminded me of the Haitian-American story as well. It bound me to them.

So, when I arrived back in the United States at Miami International Airport, I couldn’t help but feel more connected to the rest of the world – through both the complex relationship of American dominance, and through the story of the black Diaspora.

Although we were together for most of the trip, each of the group members certainly had their own unique experiences. But what is certain is that we all felt the reality of the human connection at one point or another.

  • Malcolm Eustache