I opened my eyes for the first time when I was 16. I crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to spend some time in the markets of Tangier, Morocco. I was so overwhelmed by the mass of shops, merchants and gypsies that I was unable to focus on any individual detail. Butchers laid out meat and entrails on stands in the streets, vendors sprayed water on fresh (and not so fresh) produce and panhandlers chased my shadow chanting, “money, money, dinero.” Processing the entirety of my new environment was nearly impossible.
After perusing a hookah shop, I began to realize that I had yet to see a Moroccan girl my age. I questioned a Spanish guide, who informed me that they were too young to be out. I further questioned the burqas. In my young, ethnocentric mind, I thought these people were imprisoned. To my surprise, I was told that the garments were liberating. A burqa offered refuge to women. There were no concerns over using makeup to be acceptably attractive or being eyed on the streets. The revelation made me feel as though I had been looking at the world through stained glass, never seeing its true colors.
In describing my travels, it would be easier for me to state that the only continents on which I have yet to set foot are South America and Antarctica. Nevertheless, despite all the lands and cultures I have encountered, my experiences are limited. The world is incredibly dynamic; so much so that it can neither be experienced within a single lifetime nor through a single medium. In that, I must stress how there is no substitute, no alternative, to perceiving life outside of actual experience. No photograph, no movie, no book will ever surpass your imagination in allowing you to feel something foreign.
I was enveloped by two clashing cultures in my upbringing, as I was raised by a liberal, Roman-Catholic, Mexican immigrant mother during school years and a conservative, Baptist, caucasian military father during summers. I felt as though I had to be two different people. Though a dozen years ago I could not discern how beneficial the situation was to me, I later recognized the advantages of fluidity in identity. Beyond empathy, I could actually live another culture.
Two years after Tangier, I signed a military contract. Infantry school provided my first opportunity for cultural immersion. I had not initially considered any facet of the organization cultural, but it was nonetheless. Chauvinism, masculinity and, especially, heterosexuality were heavily instilled, becoming a source of measurement by which any soldier could be valued. Competition was an integral part of the infantry system. Status and social standing surrounded the most physically fit, heaviest drinking, manliest, most well-trained soldiers. As a non-drinking, tattoo-less, virgin standing at five-feet-and-seven-inches tall, weighing less than 140 pounds, I was an abnormal infantryman. Those qualities also made me untrustworthy.
Two years into my military service, I was provided my first opportunity to live another culture: Arab culture. However, in the eyes of my immediate leadership, I was not prepared to deploy. Despite my expert gunner status, among other skillsets, I could not be trusted in a combat setting. No military training could establish my combat readiness. In their eyes, only an 11-hour outing at a strip club could prove my title as infantryman.
Throughout a year-long tour, I only had one opportunity for direct cultural experience. It was called “visitor control detail,” which maintained an aura of punishment. The responsibility to conduct the detail was cycled throughout multiple platoons of multiple companies and it meant being pulled from missions for three to four weeks. In summary, the detail required drawing ten local nationals per one soldier. The locals, some underage with obviously false documentation stating otherwise, performed various services around our base from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. for roughly five American dollars, all under the armed supervision of their military escorts. While the other soldiers viewed this activity as punishing, I pursued it as an opportunity for cultural experience by interacting and communicating with the Iraqis at every given moment. The Army knew just as well as I did the importance of cultural awareness. My entire unit had to attend classes on Iraqi culture and we were all provided culture “smart cards” prior to entering the country. A key to “winning hearts and minds” is being open-minded.
I strive to maintain an open mind both abroad and at home, as foreign experiences are not just limited to military enlistment or out of country travels; they can be encountered within our own neighborhood. I spent a summer interning at the Gallatin Rest Home. Western media instilled in me the notion that it would be full of crazy, racist, old people, abusive staff and strong odors; another example of the misperceptions of life augmented by inexperience. What I found instead was friendship in a man who had regretfully lived the entirety of his life having never left the vicinity of Bozeman.
An open mind and a willingness to experience the foreign world of gerontology allowed me to discover my future career. When informed of my pursuit of geriatric work, people tend to ask, “like, wiping old people’s asses?” They do not consider social services or activities coordination or administrative work. Why? Because we program ourselves to filter perspectives through stereotypes as it is the only way we can visualize the foreign world.
We are compelled to understand the world. We are compelled to understand life. Even in the absence of experience, we find ways to gain insight into the things alien to us. With no physical evidence or experience of an afterlife, or lack thereof, the majority of the world’s population has some idea of what will happen after death. Popular opinion is the foundation on which perspective is built. In that sense, those who have only known gerontology through television’s depiction of nursing homes will think sponge baths and spoon-feeding when forced to visualize geriatric work. Television, like other mediums, keeps the foreign world foreign. Life is not restricted to the confines of the digital or literary worlds. Life happens, and no amount of wishful thinking or ignorance will deter it. Everyone should perpetuate an open mind to any situation without regard to its positive or negative results.