Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Struggle of a Reverse Mission

Throughout my entire stay in El Salvador, I was consistently astounded by the way “America” had infiltrated multiple aspects of the country’s society. On our first drive through San Salvador, we passed a huge WalMart and a Burger King; our newfound friend Diego worked for AT&T’s call center; a democratic state was finally beginning to live up to its ideals; secondhand English t-shirts were worn by a majority of the population. I expected to find these traces of the United States in the major urban center, but I was somewhat surprised by how far-reaching American ideas had become. As part of a ten-day immersion trip to this tiny Central American state, I spent four days living with a Salvadoran family in the campo of Santa Marta, a rural community in the north of the country. Even here, we found small traces of the world’s superpower, our home country. The town-center building was filled with the sounds of Justin Timberlake at our nighttime dance party. At our last group meal, the women of Santa Marta prepared spaghetti, meatballs, and lemonade in an outdoor, makeshift kitchen. Despite their limited access to computers, we received Facebook “friend requests” from members of the community months after our departure from the community.
The exchange of ideas that I witnessed while in El Salvador was one of the most striking aspects of my trip. I was on a physical journey between places, but that journey also forced me to recognize the constant flow of ideas, a key feature to the process of globalization, and it affects on others countries like El Salvador. Hau’ofa’s Tiko, a small island like El Salvador, also experiences this “tidal wave of D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T” (vii). Tiko has been overcome by outside ideas including “the Protestant Ethic” (5) and different methods of education (18)  and its citizens have become “Important Persons, […], Wise Men, Traumatised Experts, Devious Traders, and assorted Pulpit Poops” (5). Certainly, El Salvador has absorbed some American trends and ideologies under the guise of development, but when I returned to the United States, I was confronted with the fact that ideas travel in all directions. In the same way that popular culture, the media and political alliances furthered American culture in El Salvador, I had become a vehicle for transporting the Salvadoran story to the United States.
The section of Tale of the Tikongs entitled “Paths to Glory” spoke to my experiences abroad, but especially those in El Salvador. On the first page of this section, advice is shared that could be applicable to anyone with travel experience: “You’ve returned from the lands of learning and wealth. You’ve brought home great wisdom [and] you should show respect for your great learning” (43). Upon my return from El Salvador, I found that with my experience and my enhanced knowledge came a great responsibility—I had to relate the stories of the people in Santa Marta who had survived a brutal civil war; I had to speak up for disappeared migrants and their abandoned families; I had to demand a change in policy that would benefit this dependent country instead of exploit it. Yet, as Hau’ofa’s tale continues, a disparate opinion is abruptly introduced:  “You must therefore shed your foreign thinking. You must shed your foreign ways in order to lead the proper life here…” (45). I encountered this exact paradox when I came home to the U.S. My heightened awareness of the issues in El Salvador made me feel accountable, but the hostile debate surrounding immigration in the United States made my advocacy difficult. I knew that I had to do something, but my environment seemed to push me back towards ignorance and inaction. Just like Manu, “the only teller of big truths in the realm” (7) who “shouts his lonely message against Development” (18), I felt disillusioned and without options. Citizens of Tiko are encouraged to “Go forth and serve the Government and the Church […] and [their] humble family with become rich!” (47); in the same way, in our world, it is often expected that we satisfy the demands of our loyalty to the United States, to a particular spiritual tradition and to our family.  Should I put faith in our deadlocked political system or participate in protests? Should I work for NGOs or other grassroots organizations? Is on-campus advocacy enough? It is hard to step beyond societal norms and commonly held beliefs for “fear of losing face” (20), a fear which guides actions on the island of Tiko and in our world as well. I continue to struggle with how to be an agent of change after my immersion in El Salvador just like Manu struggles to find willing ears for his message in  his home throughout the first half of Hau’ofa’s Tale of the Tikongs.

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