Am I a Cultural Imperialist?

DSC_0148I got on a bright yellow bus with “Awesome” scrolled along the side of its body. I lined up behind rolling suitcases, backpacks and wide-brimmed hats to book a ticket to the islands. I arrived to five resort employees singing a Fijian welcoming song, somewhat half-heartedly. A tourist I became after months of being on an island that rings bells of hedonists across the globe.

It was exactly what I wanted at the time, but there was no onslaught of relief. I walked to my dorm bed the same way someone with an upset stomach walks away from the toilet, but instead of asking, “What did I eat?”, I asked myself, “Why didn’t that work like I had planned?”

The “Uh Oh” Research

Within hours, I was asleep under a palm tree, swinging gently and feeling the hammock’s grid tattoo my back, and luckily at dinner, I met some people I could begin talking to about the project. One girl offered her Lonely Planet Fiji book for me to peruse, because surprisingly I didn’t read up on the history or culture of Fiji prior to either trip. I thought I knew it from the ground level and didn’t want to read a description that would lead my assumptions astray.

Here were some of the more interesting notes from those first 50 pages:

  • 2/3 of Fijian men believe domestic violence is acceptable, and random violence against women is common. (Scary)
  • The village mentality expects people to not be too ambitious. (Sad)
  • The village mentality doesn’t encourage individual thinking; they actually see individual thinkers as a threat. (Disturbing)

As I scanned these sentences, I began to feel an intense worry build: were we cultural imperialists? Did we expect the Fijians to like what we had to say and adopt our ideas and methods, just because we felt they were right. And that was one of the biggest problems: we thought we were “right.”


Cultural imperialism…

“is the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system, and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even to promote, the values and structures of the dominant center of the system.”

…involves the dissemination of ostensibly American principles, such as freedom and democracy.

Fiji 0120Did we bribe? I guess. At first we gave the children balloons at the end of the week for coming to class and actively participating. Did we attract? Absolutely…having a yard sale selling well-made items for an incredibly low cost enticed loads of mothers to participate in our fundraising efforts for their dispensary – a fundraiser we led in a democratic fashion, not so much a Fijian-friendly manner.

And did we pressure or force people to listen to our concepts? Force and pressure we did not. Had we attended their kava sessions in order to conduct our adult classes with a crowd, that would have been the case, but we believed those who were truly interested would attend our sessions on their own…hence our average of three class attendees.

Tolerating the “Right”

One of the biggest factors in this sensitive equation that makes me feel better is the fact that our intentions were solely and powerfully good. Though this isn’t a “get out of shame free” card, it certainly validates much more when dealing with these culturally sensitive areas. Upon first stepping foot in Fiji, we taped ourselves expressing the concerns we had for our own project, stating, “We’re not even sure they want us to do what we came to do.”

After explaining our purpose and receiving acceptance, we felt we were in the clear. But it would have been in our best interests to examine the culture we were penetrating before getting there and constantly ask questions to the head people in order to perfect our footing. There was a whole anthropological lesson to be learned in preparation, although this is assuming perfect preparation would have given us perfect results.

DSC_0244Truth of the matter is that even approaching this situation with lofty goals, determination and timid expectations, no one can predict the outcome, the turns of events, and the true perspective from the local community on a new project. It’s fairly common for people to tolerate virtually anything if it benefits them, and this became even clearer to me as I heard those employees sing there on the beach.

I realized this village, owning and running the resort, must put up with a lot, being a conservative community: seeing women in revealing bathing suits, tempting their members with access to alcohol (though not allowed to imbibe), listening to customers bash the taste of kava, and witnessing various insulting gestures in Fijian culture (that most foreigners are unaware of). Maybe Nakavika simply tolerated our messages, unconvinced they should take them to heart. Who are we to tell them what’s “right.”

Reevaluating Belief in Knowledge

Where is my mind now? I’m trying to figure out why I believe in what I know. Medicine evolves continuously, so why do I put my word on today’s nutritional values? Why am I set on helping others think independently when it’s arguably optimal for people to support their communities before themselves?

Regardless of where my mind lands in this mental game of Spin the Bottle, the project will progress organically from now on, starting with the outreach by the village for our offers. They know what we’re capable of and what we hope to achieve. They are the ones who dictate the future of the project – the ones who will identify if we really were imperialists or humanitarians.

Give me your thoughts on this topic, and check out the comments as well for Rights vs. Blame as many pertain to this issue of cultural imperialism.

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  • Anna K.

    Great job on keeping your website so active and updated! That seems to be the thing that gives people the most problems when starting a blog or website. The layout and photography look really professional, as well.

    I wanted to say a couple things about the cultural imperialist theme. I have had the same concerns about different things I’ve been involved in (and this was one of the reasons I decided not to apply for the Peace Corps).

    I think when it comes to public health – specifically hygiene – cultural imperialist concerns are less of an issue. I think the key, as you’ve pointed out, is to give locals agency and provide them the tools and education to deliver the message. The IU-Kenya Partnership has an exchange program for Kenyan and US med students, for example. They each return to their home countries with a broader understanding of international health.

    I think this is where programs like the Timmy Foundation are somewhat lacking: teams of doctors and students fly in for a week or two and basically hand out a month’s supply of whatever pharmeceuticals could fit in their suitcases. (When I was in the DR, one doctor gave a young mother one month’s supply of birth control. I was thinking “and then what…?”) In some regards, I was left with the impression that the experience was more beneficial for the trip-goers than the patients.

    Outside of the public health realm, things start to get a little more tricky. I don’t know if you’ve seen Kristof’s latest column in the NYT but it’s quite pertinent to what you’ve been talking about. He glosses over what, to me, is the biggest concern when it comes to faith-based organizations doing aid work: that they will explicitly or implicitly use whatever they have to offer as a bargaining tool to evangelize. That seems like much more of a threat to a local culture’s well-being than some soap and toothbrushes.

    Ok, back to work! :-)

    • Lindsay Clark

      Anna! So good to hear from you and glad you’re checking out my musings! Are you still keeping up with your blog from South Korea? Thanks for the kind words.

      It’s funny you mention the Timmy Foundation, as I’m currently pursuing them and doing more research on what they do. But I do understand what you mean about their short-term trips not being as fruitful as other health initiatives. Surprisingly, our 11 weeks in Fiji was seen as short-term to the villagers, in the arena of making a lasting impact and influence on their health and education options. We were asked over and over to stay longer simply because “it takes the highlanders a very long time to understand new ideas”…so said a Fijian highlander. While I thought 2.5 months would be a great amount of time to work out kinks, I was thinking on American time. Timmy actually discusses the fact that they want long-term results with these short-term trips, and that’s one of my first questions to pose when I call this week: How do you convert a quick trip into an influential, efficient period where the local community feels comfortable and trusting of those volunteers and their opinions? What are some of the main factors that limit the volunteer trip durations? I gotta a lot more of these in the same category.

      Did you go on a Timmy trip?

      Garrett and I went into the experience unsure of whether our options would be appreciated. And we called them “options” to be sure and avoid the dreaded “I’m right; your’e wrong” cultural misunderstanding/delusion. It definitely seemed more difficult, albeit the best way, to try and empower the local individuals interested in being a part of the project. In reality, they just wanted us to do the work, and it took quite a bit of explanation to impress the importance of utilizing their own community’s hands in the whole thing.

      And thanks for linking to Kristof’s article. One of my main concerns with people calling our project a “mission” lies within that article and the affiliation of the term to contraversial evangelical approaches. It’s good to hear a faith-based org speaking the way their head man did, making this humanitarian issue not about intra-country disagreements or belief systems but about life and human rights among all people.

      Thanks again for commenting, Anna, and I hope I hear many more wise words from you in the future!