Distorted Perception of the Other?

When I was a kid growing up in El Salvador, I would get a lot of weird questions when I went to the United States. I think people felt comfortable  asking questions that , well might be more than a little insulting. Many of them honestly believed that I lived in the jungle, that I lived in total poverty and I was honestly crazy for living “There”.

They would ask :
Do they have roads in El Salvador?
Do they have schools in El Salvador?
Do they have food in El Salvador?

They imagined me in a jungle , literally with no access to civilization. At one point I told my relative : Yes we live in the jungle, and I use a potato sack as a uniform”
People believed me.

Now, granted… I had little patience for silly and very wrong comments but being older makes me understand that really they perceive this only on what the media tells them to think. The news always picks the worst possible locations to film third world countries. They go out of their way to find the dumpiest, ugliest and worst possible area. They will delight in talking about poverty, warfare, hunger and the general yuckiness of living in a third world country.

So, Americans generally have a really , really distorted notion of what it’s like to live in a third world country. Can you imagine this from Africa? For that matter, Africa as a continent is so insanely diverse you really can’t bundle it in one specific generalization


It’s not just media in the United States. Spain and other first world countries perpetuates this notion in the media as well. In fact, most hispanics are clumped together and called “sudacos”because there is a general feeling that all latin americans are exactly the same.

But here’s the other side of the coin : El Salvador does the exact same thing right back. When I was growing up, many salvadorans would tell me I did not look American enough… And people seem to think that everyone has an insane amount of money, has no suffering and basically live a charmed life.

When my junior youth in El Salvador in the school I volunteer in ask me about Spain and England, I tell them all the great things you can see there. But I try to let them know that it is not a paradise, that it is not what is perpetuated in the media.

What really saddens me is the gargantuan amount of people who migrate to First World countries thinking that their lives will be perfect. They go knee deep in debt and are forced to separate from their children. They endure prejudice, poverty and hopelessness. They become the target for people when the economies go down.

In Madrid, I would watch as my hispanic friends would endure countless hardships. Strangers would cry about the situation there and how hard it was. Of course, they do have a seemingly better life than what they had in El Salvador.

After a lot of hard work they do make something of themselves… but at what cost?What saddens me even more is how quickly people forget their roots. How easily they scoff of the idea of returning, how ashamed they become of their humble origins, and who they are. Their kids grow up reluctant to even return for where they are from.

It’s no wonder when the media perpetuates the idea of the Poor Third World Country. That we give out this fallible notion of the American ( but really can be called First World ) Dream. We seem to think that somehow, if we have money and become an Other, that everything will be o.k.

I know that I am privileged. I have two passports, I have travelled countless times and I have a lot of friends and experiences. But I have seen hardship, poverty and pain in all those countries and cannot honestly see any difference between them.

Who invented the idea of third world country and first world country? Why do we think that somehow, those that are in the first world are somehow better off?

I get sooo many people telling me that I am crazy for returning to El Salvador. They cannot understand why, of all places, do I decide to come here. While I can say that some things are challenging ( like the violence and how small the city is) I can’t really say that there are less challenges anywhere else. Nor can I say that economically I am better off anywhere else either. The world economy is in the crapper, so basically where you are is becoming less and less relevant.
What I can say is one of the biggest factors that doesn’t allow me to think of staying here long term is the lack of friends who are still here.

But I am really digressing here… what was my point? I forget.

Oh yeah…  We shouldn’t believe the fallible notion that the media shows us of any given country. We should not be afraid of going somewhere just because of this. We should not glorify first world countries either.  The only way to truly know what a place is like is to go there and experience it yourself…if you can’t do that then it’s best to keep an open mind.

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5 thoughts on “Distorted Perception of the Other?

  1. you’re right, i have seem misconceptions in both countries. i get those same looks or questions when i am in america and tell people i live in el salvador. (i’ve been asked things like, do they have cars in that country, and do they all live in huts?) it’s pretty rediculous, but i guess i’d be lying if i said i knew what it would be like before actually coming here. on the other hand, people here generally assume i’m salvadorean, then when they hear me talk and realize i’m american, they usually say 1 of 2 things: you must have a lot of money (uh, not really, i live in el salvador!) and you don’t look american. well, my hair is black, and my eyes are brown, and they seem to be under the impression all americans are blonde, blue-eyed, millionaires! on the other hand, when i see someone with blue eyes or light hair here, (you know, un chele) i’m like they don’t look too hispanic! it’s all the way the media tells us it should be, and it’s wrong! you made some real good points!

  2. No, I am American, and my husband is Salvadoreño. 4 1/2 years ago we moved to El Salvador where we now run a mission. I have just gone back and forth a lot between the 2 countries in the past few years.

    1. That sounds amazing 🙂 Sorry for responding so slowly, sometimes I don’t catch the comments but I am learning.

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