Part of the beauty of traveling around the world is having the opportunity to experience different cultures and customs. While there are occasional pitfalls, the process of interacting with and learning about the cultures of other societies is a highly rewarding experience. Sometimes, however, these interactions act as a flashlight and bring about a real awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular society.
Take, for example, a brief phone conversation I recently had. This morning I called a woman who had sent me an e-mail inquiring about my services as a tutor, a service I had advertised on Craigslist. (For context, I’m living in the United States in the city of Saint Louis.) In the e-mail, she explained that she was looking for a Spanish tutor for her four-year-old daughter. The phone conversation went something like this:
Me: Hello! Could I speak with (insert name)?
Her: That’s me.
Me: Yeah, my name is Shawn. You had sent me an e-mail through Craigslist inquiring about a Spanish tutor for your daughter.
Her: Oh! Well, uh… No offense, but I’m looking for a female. I’m sorry.
Me: Gotcha’. Thanks?
So how does this interaction shed light on a strength or weakness of a society? It doesn’t become clear until I compare this interaction with my experiences in Madrid, Spain.
I spent two years in Spain teaching English to people as young as six years old and as old as sixty years old, and I did so in a wide variety of environments. One of the most common environments to teach Spanish youth was and still is the bedroom. I remember feeling awkward and unsure the first few times I taught young students—especially females. The parents would think nothing of ushering me off into the bedroom of their son or daughter and closing the door afterwards. Opening the door again would more often than not surprisingly end with another solid closing by the parent minutes later.
After a few months, I realized there were fundamental differences in the levels of safety, security, and paranoia between Spaniards and Americans. Spaniards are overtly sociable; Americans are subtly reserved. Spaniards seem to feel safe in their homes; Americans often appear paranoid in their homes. Spaniards seem to trust adults in positions of authority to be around children; Americans seem to be wary of adults in positions of authority being around children.
Being a teacher or tutor is difficult. The experiences I had in Spain provided real awareness of how difficult it is to be a teacher or tutor in the United States. In the U.S., all it takes is one poorly worded statement or one misperceived action to get branded an awful teacher, or even worse, a sexual predator. That paranoia seemed significantly less prevalent—almost non-existent—in Spain.
And now, I have already experienced that reality of paranoia laced throughout the U.S. culture. This morning, my credentials meant nothing, and my gender meant everything.
So that is what it’s like to be discriminated against? While discrimination by ethnicity or gender is nothing new to the world, it still hurts when it happens to you. And I’m sure it won’t be the last time it occurs.
I’m chuckling while I type this because I realize that this experience also makes me more aware of the similarities that exist between cultures. Gender discrimination is one of those similarities; however, I get the feeling that it’s usually more subtle than “No offense, but…”