Transitioning Cultures: It’s not as easy as it sounds

It has been a little quiet here on our blog lately, but I am making up for it with this kind of long, but very interesting post.

I was on vacation in Canada for two weeks and though it was meant to be a time of rest there was no time to blog. Tracey and Samuel left for Canada at the end of May and returned yesterday and I went in early July for a few weeks to visit family and relax a little.

If you know our family you recognize that our situation is a little different than it is for a lot of people entering the ‘missionary field’. Many people start out in the field as a young couple, have children in the field, the field they are in becomes their permanent home and then they may return to North America when the children are older or they send the kids off to college in the US or Canada. In many ways, for us, our home is still in Canada. The most significant reason being that we left two of our children and a son-in-law behind when we came to Haiti and we promised them and each other that we would be very intentional in staying connected to them both electronically and physically by returning to Canada when we can to spend time with them as well as having them come visit with us.

This means more travel back and forth than our colleagues do but it also means moving in and out of 2 very different cultures more often.  You might think that would be easy but the more I live in Haiti the more challenging that is becoming.

In the past when I traveled to Haiti it was for a week at a time (Tracey would come for longer stretches but not more than three weeks at a time) and the shock of cultural adjustment was not great because I was seeing and experiencing Haiti like a tourist but not really immersed in the culture. It was easy to just move back into Canadian culture, complain in my head about a few things, and move on. That is not the case now.

This month after living 6 continuous months in Haiti (I was in Canada for a month in December / January) I arrived back to Canada and a number of things really struck me.

It was quiet
Not just the no-roosters, no horns-honking, no-generator noise quiet but it’s just a quieter environment. I knew it would be quieter but with the construction of Canadian homes, windows closed and the AC on often you hear very little when you are indoors. Even in Hamilton, where we stayed in a house in the middle of a block between two of the busiest streets in city it was relatively quiet.

No one walks anywhere
Well that’s not strictly true but in general most people do not walk everywhere, not like I am used to seeing here in Haiti. The first day back we were driving (yes I know but it was all the way across town) and it struck me right away that on the fairly busy street we were on there was absolutely no one on the sidewalks that lined both sides of the street. There were definitely more pedestrians in the larger city we then moved on to but it seemed odd not to have people out walking on every street.

People didn’t look at me as I walked or ran by them
In Haiti everyone walks with their heads up (maybe to make sure they don’t walk into someone else, though looking down is important too so that you don’t step in things you would rather avoid) and will acknowledge you, at the very least by looking at you directly. It struck me as I went for a run on the morning after I returned, that Canadians, as friendly as they are, walked or biked by me like I wasn’t even there. I might be a little friendlier to passer-buys than most when I meet them but it was odd to me that people walked with their head down or avoided eye contact.

The choices
We took Samuel to a Legoland® that was part of a huge mall. After we had finished with the Legos we went for a walk through the mall. I don’t shop much but I could not believe how many shoes stores there were in one place (and still Tracey couldn’t find what she was looking for 🙂 ) and the size of the Bass Pro Shop was unbelievable with just an amazing amount of crap stuff to buy. It was too much for me.


Just had to include this one of Samuel and I waiting to enjoy the 4D movie

There are places with no people around
I have yet to be anywhere in Haiti where there was not someone else within 30 meters of me. Even out in the countryside when you think you are on the road to nowhere there will always be someone walking out of the bush or down the side of the road. I went for a run one day down the Bruce Trail and didn’t meet another person for at least 3 kilometers.

Now don’t get me wrong these cultural differences that struck me are not wrong or bad one way or the other and many of them are things I miss living in Haiti. It would be very easy to get preachy about the North American culture of excess and individualism but I have to admit I was there not that long ago, in many ways I still am. I have certain brands I like, need my iPod to run with and truth be told I can walk with my head down like a pro.

But now I am back in Haiti and what struck me upon returning? There are the typical things that every North American experiences when they come to Haiti; lots of people, lots of noise, heat, dust, garbage and crazy traffic but these don’t hit me so hard now. I am beginning to get used to these things and maybe see past them. But I also see; animated conversation on the streets, resourcefulness in the vehicles I see rolling down the street, community working together in the IDP camps, progress in road reconstruction throughout the city, and great interest in the blan (white guy) running by early in the morning.

Perhaps I am more aware of the cultural differences as I move in and out of these two cultures and learning the place of each one in my life because we are really living in two worlds. Does this create tension? It sure does and I live with that tension everyday as I look at Haitian culture through North American eyes and then at North American culture through the changed lenses my experiences in Haiti have developed and as I try to live a less complicated life here in Haiti.

Maybe I am developing a heightened Cultural Intelligence (CQ) (a person’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity) but let’s leave that for another post.

Next week I will travel to Honduras for a week of meetings and interactions with Spanish speaking Latin Americans as well as English speaking North Americans; more opportunities for transitioning cultures, cultural exchange and learning.


5 thoughts on “Transitioning Cultures: It’s not as easy as it sounds

  1. Thanks for sharing, Larry! Good to hear all of this stuff…. our son went on a 2-month “International Block” to Dominican Republic with 21 kids and chaperones (Feb-April of this year) and the intensity of the difficulty in adjusting to Canada/home was surprising. I was ready to be patient with him for 2 weeks… but it took a LOT longer than that for him to adjust! Just sayin’…..

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