Cultural Contamination: Reflections on Service in Bolivia

It is a common theme throughout our group that the vantage point from which we see our service leaves us with more questions than answers. Although there are adults present at our service, we work almost entirely with children, who, while our presence surely has an impact, are relatively unfazed by our cultural differences for a number of reasons. First of all, as children, they are not terribly aware or concerned with these differences. They’re more worried about getting in some playtime or wondering what will be for lunch. Secondly, the orphanage hosts many volunteers to work with the kids, so they are constantly exposed to all kinds of different cultures in their daily lives. Therefore, our service at the orphanage tends to leave us with more questions than answers about the cultural “contamination” our presence causes in Bolivia as a whole.

We all feel that we have a stronger dialogue with the culture when we are out walking on the street.  Foreigners are not a terribly common sight in Cochabamba, and the strange mix of our group (Quilla looks Bolivian, Steven looks European, Mikhael looks Brazilian, and Mark looks……American) makes us even more of a spectacle when we go places. It seems like every head turns when we walk into a restaurant. Our conversations with people tend to turn to American culture and our perspectives on different topics. What we wear, how we speak, and how we behave are all noted by the people around us. In this way, we are involuntary ambassadors of American culture.

So while it is true that we are indeed “contaminating” Bolivian culture with our presence, we are in agreement with Appiah that perhaps this cultural contamination is not such a bad thing as it may seem from the start.  Initially, it appears to us as Americans that when our culture contacts another, it tends to be adopted and, subsequently, the previous culture is driven out.  In reality, this does not really occur and, when it does, this transition is often a good thing. First of all, cultural traditions endure. While the context around them may change, the core factors that separate one culture from another will not; identity is not easily homogenized. Secondly, the practice of one culture adopting certain aspects of another is nothing new. In fact, communication between cultures is a critical piece of human history. Think of major religions, Arabic numerals, and literature through the centuries.  These things, and countless others, have passed through cultures by ambassadors much like ourselves.   In this way, we feel that our service and presence here in Bolivia is a natural and benign part of our experience here.


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