George Solomon travels to Haiti frequently as a volunteer. He sets up clinics and community centers, arranges open-heart surgeries for children, digs wells, installs solar panels and generators, and procures tons of medical supplies. After each trip, he leaves his sneakers behind for a Haitian friend with the same shoe size.
Solomon feels at home in the country, but he wasn’t always so self-assured. In the beginning, he experienced anxiety based on the disparity between the living conditions he encountered in Haiti and those back home in Long Island, N.Y., USA.
“You get culture shock,” says Solomon, who has made nine trips to the country. “You go to some parts of the island and the people are living in the 18th or 19th centuries. There are things people do that the average American has a hard time understanding. It’s not unusual to see someone walk down the street and relieve himself. They have no other option where there are no flush toilets or latrines: Just find a place and go.
“You learn quickly that you are not the expert you think you are,” adds Solomon, a financial planner who’s a member of the Rotary Club of Greenport.
Many U.S. Rotarians who have participated in international projects can relate to Solomon, with similar tales of initially feeling rattled by the social practices or the extreme poverty of the people they’ve traveled to help. But most volunteers learn to adapt, apologize for their mistakes, and carry on. Though they train for their missions, they often find that some cultural lessons are best learned through experience.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of communication. In a remote area of Guatemala, Larry P. Kanar, of the Rotary Club of Northbrook, Ill., worked with a young man who was learning English. Kanar would ask him to do something and the young man, who was personable and eager to please, inevitably answered yes. But then he didn’t do whatever it was he’d agreed to do. After a week of this, Kanar asked, “You didn’t understand what I was saying, did you?” Predictably, the man answered yes. So Kanar asked around and discovered that the words for “no” and “I don’t understand” didn’t exist in the man’s tribal dialect. Kanar stopped asking yes/no questions.
His next lesson in Guatemala was more complicated. Six villages lie along the river where his group works, and one day he and his friends got curious and followed some indigenous people who were paddling canoes up an unfamiliar tributary.
“When we got to their village, it was a situation,” Kanar says.
Some village women were bathing in the river in various stages of undress, and other women were cooking and doing laundry along the shore. Their children paddled canoes out to the Rotarians, who threw gifts to the kids, but not enough to go around. The kids started shoving one another to get the goodies. Witnessing the bedlam were the mothers, “standing on the shore with looks of pure hatred,” Kanar says.
The village leaders complained soon after the volunteers had returned to their base, and the Rotarians apologized for what was perceived as a grave infraction.
“It was a rude thing to do and we didn’t realize it,” Kanar says. “It would be like your neighbors walking right into your kitchen or bathroom. Next year we’ll tell them when we are coming, and we’ll bring gifts in a proper way.”
Compared with people from many other cultures, Americans are extroverts. While traveling abroad, U.S. Rotarians may find that communities seem to hang back, reluctant to interact with them. This can cause confusion and concern until teams understand the underlying issues.
One volunteer group was working as common laborers, building various structures in Chahalka, an impoverished Muslim community about 50 miles from Delhi. The village men were sitting on fences idly watching the workers, and an Indian woman scolded them, recalls Elias Thomas, a member of the Rotary Club of Sanford-Springvale, Maine, who started the Chahalka building project in 2007. “She said we had all come from our homes in six different countries and that none of us were bricklayers or ditch diggers by profession. She asked the men why they had the right to sit and do nothing. But that didn’t help. They all left and went into the mosque.”
Thomas realized that many locals assumed the volunteers, like most outsiders who ventured into the community, worked for the government. As a result, they were wary. If the project was going to succeed, the Rotarians had to clear up the misconception with the villagers, Thomas says. “I needed them to understand that we had sacrificed our finances, that we had done this out of our hearts, not the government’s, and that we got no pay for it,” he explains.
In this case, time was the teacher. Over the years, the older boys and later the men started to participate. Essentially, they came to trust that the people in blue shirts with the Rotary emblem were not from the government. In 2009, the community came together with the Rotarian volunteers for a ceremony in a schoolyard.
“The men in the village turbaned each man in our group, and the women were each given head scarves. It was a remarkable experience,” says Thomas, who notes that the Chahalka project was recently completed.
American Rotarians get to test their international understanding from a reverse angle when they host guests in the United States. Scholarship programs not only provide an opportunity to introduce foreign students to life in America but also help club members learn about their own culture.
Take Mike Noll, of the Rotary Club of Altadena, Calif., whose family hosted a scholar from Zambia. She was a perfect guest and an enthusiastic student of American culture who loved shopping malls. But Noll was disappointed that he wasn’t able to connect with the student more as a father figure.
He realized that Zambian customs for interactions between men and women affected their potential for communication. “She was very respectful of me as a male, to the point of not engaging,” Noll says.
On the opposite coast, Carol Allen, of the Rotary Club of Cary MacGregor, N.C., made host family arrangements during the first nine years of the Rotary Peace Centers program at Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Every year, she connected visiting Rotary Peace Fellows with local Rotarian families, who would help them find a home and settle in. Peace fellows often have traveled before, so many are used to adjusting to cultural differences. And differences there are.
“There’s a fellow who is from a poor developing country at war. He was overwhelmed that his host insisted on a real bed, not a pallet on the floor, which was what he was used to,” says Allen, who prefers not to identify individual peace fellows.
A man from another country drove his host to distraction because, after viewing 15 apartments, he was unable to choose. Back home, he rarely had so many choices and was stunned by the number of options in the United States.
Recently, a Muslim student left the program and returned to his home in an Islamic country because he had difficulty adjusting to American social norms for men and women. It’s an issue that also arises when American women are serving in Islamic countries. For years, Allen trained outbound Ambassadorial Scholars from the United States, which included preparing female students for places where women are treated differently.
The Rotary Foundation provides training to Ambassadorial Scholars so they can better understand the societies they’re visiting. The training covers cultural acclimatization and pays particular attention to sexual harassment issues. “Sexual harassment training is mandatory,” says Lorena Stevenson, the Foundation’s manager of Group Study Exchange and scholarships.
Misunderstandings can stem from cultural differences. For example, “Latin Americans kiss on both cheeks,” Stevenson says. “It may seem a no-brainer, but scholars who have never traveled may take offense.”
Experienced project team leaders also note the importance of addressing cultural tensions. A lot of resources, personal and financial, go into planning an effort abroad, and it would be awful for cultural differences to sink a team once it has reached its destination. Training for project participants is less structured than training for scholars; usually teams rely on other Rotarians with relevant experience for guidance.
One of those ex-officio trainers is Dennis White, a Peace Corps veteran and psychologist who is a member of the Rotary Club of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. He regularly offers programs on culture shock at district meetings and other events, where he reaches team leaders and hopes the message filters down. He recommends reading about the destination, including its geography and government; learning some of the language; and, most important, studying the culture. A critical first step is breaking down one’s own cultural barriers, he says. For many Americans, a major one is ethnocentrism.
“We think we know the right way, and when people don’t do it our way, they aren’t doing it right,” White says. His approach is a new take on the golden rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. But that requires some cultural understanding.
Even without systematic training, many Rotarians grasp the need to tread carefully while carrying out projects in a different culture. “We try hard to make people understand that we are not trying to change their way of life – we just want to help them out of poverty,” says Carlos Früm, a member of the Northbrook club who has worked on many projects in Guatemala. “They fear the world is passing them by, but they also fear they are losing their identity, their culture.” Früm now travels to Guatemala to teach business classes to young Maya students at Ak’Tenamit, a cooperative school funded by Rotary, among others. In the local society, villagers grow their own food, and their economy is primarily a simple barter system. But they are aware that the outside world offers some advantages.
For the Rotarians working in the community, the challenge is identifying the villagers’ goals. Once the locals feel their needs are being addressed, their enthusiasm is obvious, Früm says. For example, local Maya families understood the appeal of ecotourism because they had learned about it from Rotarians, and their children were studying it in school. So the community readily joined in to build huts to accommodate guests.
If communicating is silver, listening may be the golden tool for overcoming cultural barriers. “The best thing we can do is listen – something that a lot of Americans have a hard time mastering,” says Jim Bodenner, a member of the Rotary Club of Rockford, Mich.
Bodenner, who has led numerous clean water initiatives and worked extensively in the Dominican Republic, says that Rotarians’ function is not to micromanage. He has found that local residents understand their own needs best. For example, he notes, bio-sand filters are not the solution in places where there’s no water. In Ghana, community leaders refused a team’s offer of filters and asked for help drilling a well, which was the best choice. In Honduras, local Rotarians also steered their American visitors away from filters; instead, they needed to pipe in fresh water from nearby mountains. Unless teams iron out such issues, they can easily misinterpret the reticence of local hosts as a cultural gap. “The power of Rotary is to talk and listen,” Bodenner says. He suggests that teams can lessen mistrust and confusion by showing respect, asking locals about their needs and plans, and making sure communication goes both ways.
But sometimes, Rotarians might need to ride out a cultural disconnect. Anil Garg, a member of the Rotary Club of Simi Valley, Calif., and a native of India, has been taking polio immunization teams to India since 2000 and says culture shock is common. His North American team members are stunned at first by the extreme poverty, Garg says. Going door to door, they see people in the streets without shoes, and families living in the same room as their water buffalo. But every year, he says, the shock wears off after a few days as people become absorbed in their work.
“It’s like you have a pair of glasses and are only thinking of the dirt on the lens. You look beyond it, and you don’t think of the dirt anymore,” Garg says.