11 years ago this week I boarded a plane to Honduras. I was 18 years old, 2 months from my high school graduation, and a little smarty pants. I had been to Honduras once before for a 10 day mission trip and had “fallen in love” with the country. Well, that’s what I thought anyways. But then I moved there for a semester. It was a 5 1/2 month commitment to help a family from my church move to work at a children’s home. It was their job to work at the children’s home. It was my job to help them and start their children’s home school curriculum. I soon discovered that at 18 I knew a lot about learning, but not a lot about teaching. Needless to say, Honduras was hard, in a very, very good way.
Honduras was hard because I had to grow up rather quickly. I navigated things like my first roommates, buying phone cards, and walking home in the dark. Typical college freshman stuff really, but with an added twist of being in Central America.
Honduras was good because it was interesting and fun and educational. It was fun hanging out with the children there (who have all somehow grown into independent adults now). They entertained me while simultaneously teaching me the value of accepting people as they are. They did this by accepting me in all my American ways and teaching me to let some of them go.
Honduras is where I learned that language connects people. I know, I often hear, “a smile is the universal language of kindness,” but there is another level of understanding that comes when you can actually, ahem, speak. This little lesson is what ignited my passion to learn Spanish better and ultimately to become a speech therapist. My favorite part of my career is giving children the skills to communicate in meaningful ways. Ahh, the power of words! It’s so exciting!
Honduras is also where I first began processing culture and how it permeates who we are. Yes, culture is reflected in the norms of how we greet each other on the road and in a store and a restaurant. But it’s more than that, it’s also part of how we feel about how we’re greeted in all those walks of life. I’ve come to realize, in all my homes and travels since this time, that our identity is hard to separate from our culture. It’s a human thing, but one way to expand ourselves is to engage and learn from another culture.
There are these things we call norms, which are the shoulds of our life. They tell us how we should treat our friends, strangers, and enemies. Yes, we know. We need to be kind, but even kindness is cultural. In rural Honduras kindness is ‘buenas’ to everyone you pass on the street, while kindness in New York City is getting out of someone’s way if they are in a hurry and you aren’t.
It’s my opinion that one of the easiest ways to identify culture in our own lives is to notice the moments when others offend us without realizing it. This is not the same as others offending us when they hope we won’t be offended. In that case they know better and hope we will forgive them. But when people are honestly trying to be kind in socially appropriate ways and we are offended, I think that’s just a clash of cultural expectation. The end. And this lesson, that people can be better understood when I make space for them to live within their culture, this lesson has made New York and Pennsylvania living possible. It has also made travel a pure joy.
So 11 years later I realize that I love Honduras differently than I did back then. Firstly, it’s a real place, with real joys and challenges and not just some tropical dream land. Secondly, it is my Spanish homeland. It’s where I first used Spanish to survive and my accent still carries markers from my time there. And, I will always prefer baleadas over burritos. Fact. And finally, Honduras will always be the first place I lived away from home and grew up (a little). And growing up is important, so we don’t want to under-value that.