Barbados, Week 3: Bridging the cultural divide…or at least trying

On our way to one of only a few cinemas on the island this weekend, a couple exchange students and I ran into a friendly, eccentric older man in downtown Bridgetown.  We had just left Chefette, Barbados’s fast food pride and joy, and were on our way to catch a bus that would hopefully get us to the theater in time to watch Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol.  He greeted our group with some nonsensical words, his arms open wide like he was welcoming us to Barbados for the first time.  Wary of strangers, especially at night in downtown Bridgetown, we smiled nervously and picked up our pace a bit.  But, of course, the man was not done with the encounter and followed us at our brisk pace.  Having been in New York City enough times in my life where it was not a big deal for unfamiliar characters to approach me on the street, I was at the back of the pack when the man caught up to us.  He took out a big necklace made of simple, wooden cylindrical beads, but I cut him off before he could say anything, “Hey man, I don’t really have any extra cash for that… thanks, though”.  The man reached over and put the necklace around my head, given that my hands were occupied with a soda and my leftover Chefette, and said probably the last thing I expected: “It’s okay mahn, I don’t need ya money, I just need ya love”.  Taken aback, I sheepishly responded, “Alright…well, yeah, we’re all good then”, but the older man was already approaching the other members of my group, adamantly showing off his handicrafts.  The funny thing is, they all got charged for their mementos — I guess he didn’t want their love too badly.

We all had a good laugh about it afterward, especially me, since I got a free necklace, but upon further reflection, it made me realize that I was missing a certain critical aspect of the study abroad experience.  Yes, I was there to see all the touristy sights and explore the country much as any typical visitor to Barbados would, but to study abroad somewhere is to try to immerse oneself in a totally new environment in order to gain new perspectives.  Despite it being an arguably clever sales ploy by the older man in Bridgetown, he struck a metaphorical cord that ran deeper than just getting a free necklace:  I wasn’t there to just feed money and time into the tourism institutions on the island, I was there to love Barbados, to love the experience, and, therefore, the people.

Two weeks have gone by since I first flew into Barbados, and I know nearly everyone in the exchange group program, but only about a dozen Bajan, Jamaican, and Trinidadian students by name.  Frankly, it’s easier to just stick to that which you’re more comfortable — getting to know people from the Caribbean is not as easy as meeting Canadians, regardless of the fact that they’re both English speaking, generally friendly peoples.  Our group of around 30 Americans, Canadians, and Europeans were watching the Super Bowl at T.G.I. Fridays last night, when one of the exchange students brought his two Bajan friends to my side of the table.  As sad as it may seem, I could feel myself tensing up- —What do I talk about with these guys?  Are we going to have anything in common?  As the game went on, the topic of cultural stereotypes was brought up and one of the Bajans, Dre, hesitated to say what he was thinking about the “typical” American.  I urged him to say whatever he was thinking, as, unfortunately, I guessed that it was probably accurate.  Americans, Dre noted as politely as possible, were “stand-offish”.  Canadians, on the other hand, were much more friendly, outgoing, and welcoming.

So there it was:  the realization that most Americans come across as “stand-offish”, and that I, through my retention of standard comfort levels and social apathy, was feeding into that during my first two weeks.  Luckily, I have three and a half months to change that.  It won’t be easy, for example, to just sit down amongst a group of Bajans whom I am not familiar with and have a real, authentic conversation when, frankly, I have very, very little practice at doing such a thing.  But the other option- to just keep existing in my exchange group bubble and never branching out beyond my comfort zone- will assuredly produce a less rewarding study abroad experience than if I have a ton of awkward conversations that lead to real friendships with the Caribbean students.

I’ve kept my free necklace, and every time I look at it I’m going to be reminded that Bajans don’t need my money, they just need my love.

Getting friendly with the Green Monkeys.

The sun setting on Accra Beach.

 Caribbean superstar, Beenie Man, came to campus for a show.

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