Monday, June 18, 2012

Living in the space between cultures

We're finishing a brief trip back to Canada to visit friends and families and so my partner could pick up an honourary degree from the University of Victoria. It was, of course, much fun, and it was especially great to visit with family after five months away.
It was also crazy busy, as we ran from appointment to party to storage locker. (The storage locker, six feet by eight feet, contains the last of our worldly possessions in Canada. After five crime-free months in the murder capital of the world, we returned to find someone had broken into our supposedly secure locker and made off with some clothes - the few things we liked well enough to keep - and a pair of speakers.)
I quickly realized life in Victoria, even after such a short time away, was foreign. We don't rush to appointments in Copan Ruinas. Our lives are self-contained. There are no big stores and few restaurants, so beyond my almost daily walks to Bodega Gloria and the market stalls, life is simple.
And we don't have a car. We rented a nice Ford for our time in Victoria, which was handy. But I was surprised how irritating and unpleasant I found it to have to pile into a big metal box and cope with crowded streets to get anywhere. I missed the sunny, warm strolls to run errands.
It was, in short, a time of culture shock, and a persistent feeling that I didn't belong here.
But the culture shock is just as real in Copan. Language, attitudes, values are almost all strange and unfamiliar. In Honduras, saying someone has 'ambicion' is a term of disapproval. Striving for a better education, house or job is seen as putting yourself above the community. 'Comformismo' is a compliment, praise for the way a person fits in and accepts the values and unwritten rules of society.
In my most recent stint in Spanish classes, the maestra and I spent a while talking about homelessness and mental illness. We shared many of the same views. But she also described a woman in her father's community who walked in the woods at night and began to act more and more oddly. Surely evil spirits are sometimes the explanation for mental illness, she suggested.
I've always felt a bit apart, but it's striking now how much I'm a man without a country.
Which is not a bad thing. Distance gives you perspective on cultures' strong and weak points. As an outsider, I can observe that religion in Honduras can serve, for some, as an excuse for inaction. God gets thanked or blamed for a lot of things, when really people could just try a little harder to make change themselves.
And with the benefit of distance, I have a greater appreciation of philanthropy and "good works" in Canada. There is a tradition of giving, and of service clubs and churches stepping up to help when needed, that is a much greater strength than Canadians recognize.
One of the week's chores was paying my taxes. The endlessly patient accountant who works with me observed that I was probably happier paying taxes after five months in a country where services are non-existent or substandard.
He was right. The 'all taxes are bad' crowd should spend a year in Honduras, where schools are overcrowded, policing ineffectual, the health-care system is struggling and basic infrastructure is crumbling. Those people insisting that Canada must cut health care spending would benefit from a tour of a Honduran hospital. Health spending in Canada is about 9.6 per cent of GDP; Honduras spends about 6.2 per cent. That level of spending translates into more illness, deaths and costs to families.
I don't mind the feeling of being between cultures. And I consider it a good sign that I'm much looking forward to getting home, and back to walking the cobble streets to the market.


Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Because government is a little on the pervasive side in Canada we all hear and see anecdotal evidence of one of our many levels of government pissing away our money like drunken loggers. Other than that we don't seem to mind paying taxes that much compared to a great many other national economies.

Scotty on Denman said...

What gets me is the well-off who whine about paying taxes, the crowd that can most easily avail themselves of tax-saving techniques (such as employing an accountant), the relatively healthy who get that long- term benefit from being able to afford a visit to the dentist at least every two years. It's the same crowd that would rather spend their money on a grandiose gate into their exclusive community and on private security patrols. They've paid for their exceptionalism ; does that absolve them from paying their fair share of taxes? Their fear is not of becoming poor but of the poor envying what they have. Yet they condemn the development of cooperative social structures that enable the poor to live happily without much of the trappings of "wealth."