The Value of Learning the Culture

One of the most frightening things about immersing myself into a culture I should know and understand is the possibility that I don’t understand it at all.  Although I do not think this is the case, I have spent no more than three months in Mexico total and no more than two weeks in Guanajuato.  What if I have felt so safe about fitting right in and never making a wrong move that I let down my guard and offend someone and their customs and traditions?

I am relieved that in this prep course we are learning about the customs and “sayings” that are said over there so that I can understand them and avoid the ones that I shouldn’t use.  Every Sunday, when I go home for family dinner, I have been spending much more time asking my parents about the way people live out there and the way certain things are said.  Having the class the other day about modismos and palabrotas, etc reminded me of the one experience that helped me understand just how important it is to know these before I say them out loud.  When I was about eight years old, my family spent the entire summer in Mexico.  I was completely fascinated to be in a place that was not Orem, UT, but rather a jungle of buildings with writing and art on the walls.  The graffiti always got my attention, even if I didn’t understand what I was looking at.  One day, I was walking down the street with my family and I asked my mom what one of the words on the wall meant.  She began to laugh, but quickly became serious and told me that it was a naughty word and to not read out loud when I’m looking at the graffiti.  I was so embarrassed, I don’t think I let myself look at any walls with graffiti for weeks.  Since then, I knew better than to say something without understanding the meaning.  Now, I’m pretty good at recognizing whether a word or phrase might be inappropriate depending on the context or how it sounds.

What makes all this very important and applicable to me now is the fact that I will be doing research, representing BYU.  It is interesting how many things we could say or do that might be completely appropriate to us but might offend someone we meet in Mexico.  Knowing the bad words so that they are avoided is not the only thing that is important.  I think that bonds between people can become stronger through language and if someone from Mexico hears that we know some of their sayings and can use them in daily speak, they will talk to us more freely, and perhaps open up as a friend, rather than just as an acquaintance.  The best way we will form ties with the people we meet is through conversation and if we are prepared for that, the experience overall will be a positive one.  Our research will yield more meaningful data and our write ups will be more interesting because of what the people feel they can tell us.  I feel like all this cultural “training” is going to be invaluable when we are out in the field because we will apply it every day and it will enhance our experiences.

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