In living in other cultures, it’s easy to classify things in two categories: Good, and Bad. While this practice simplifies things, it fails to recognize our inexperience and naivete and the fact that, as visitors, we are absolutely unqualified to cast judgements on the inherent Goodness or Badness of cultural practices other than our own.
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my homestay family in Tiquipaya. I love every member of my homestay family, and I love the content and quality of the lives they live. In particular I love André, my 3-year-old host nephew–but this is a peculiar kind of love, because, to be honest, I don’t even like him.
For the first 10 days or so, I took precautionary measures to avoid André at all costs: I snuck in the back door, brushed my teeth out my bedroom window, took my shoes off to stifle the sound of my footsteps, etc etc. Rather than try to explain why I found (and still sometimes find) André, who I love, intolerable, I’ll just give an anecdote: a few days ago I came home with an explosive headache after a long morning in the heat of Cochabamba. At that moment my bed was like a reservoir in the desert. Entering my room, already making strides to crash into my pillow, I found none other than André, standing up on a chair before the second-floor window, throwing my shoes, camera charger, bug spray, deodorant, and notebooks into the depths of the neck-high bushes below. Perhaps the most enraging part of all was André’s nonchalance and general lack of remorse about the whole ordeal, and about my having to fish, among other things, an open stick of deodorant out of the thorn bushes. I could name a whole slew of other instances, but I suppose this alone should be enough to explain my initial (and admittedly lingering) dislike for André.
In the early days of my homestay, I tried my best to psychoanalyze André and to try to find an answer to the fundamental question: why do you do the things you do? While these lines of reasoning would ultimately prove frustrating and imprecise, I did observe a few patterns worth noting:
In my opinion, André confuses love and violence; play and aggression. In fact I’d go as far as to say that, for André, violence is an arm of love, paradoxically linked with affection. A few examples: when playing, André can seamlessly transition from hitting me with my own headlamp (while laughing) to giving me a hug; or, once, while playing with a puppy, André transitioned from bathing it, to plunging it under the water for up to a minute at a time, to snuggling and kissing it, all without missing a beat or even once changing his expression.
André was not born this way, finding overlap and even equality in the spheres of love and violence. But the places we grow up in, no matter how massive, are always incredibly small; and the walls–not just their presence but, more so, their nature and composition–influence our behavior and the people we become. It’s not just a matter of André growing up in Tiquipaya in Bolivia in South America–rather, what’s important is that André grew up in the courtyard, in the kitchen, under the guava trees, engulfed in the corn fields, in the barn, in every part of the house exactly as it is. And, even more determinative is that André grew up in a bubble of love and affection periodically popped by moments of conflict and aggression: André’s family enforces discipline by smacking him on the back. Before going any further with this, I want to reiterate what I said from the outset: mainly, that any effort at cultural evaluation or judgement is not only naive but fruitless; I am just here to observe and consider and try to understand.
It’s important to note that various forms of physical discipline are common in Bolivia and in many places across the world. In no way do I intend to chastise my wonderful host family or the culture as a whole for making use of age-old disciplinary techniques. At the same time, this part of André’s life must be acknowledged as it seems to inform many of his interactions with people and animals and the outside world, in which he conflates love and aggression.
From what I’ve seen it comes down to this: André’s experience with life so far, as is the case with most small children, has consisted of thousands of tiny classifications of thousands of moments, places, feelings, and people, all ingested and compressed through his infinitely complex, though still somewhat new and confused, brain. A brain is really an unwieldy thing to be at the helm of, especially at such a young age, for André no less than for everyone else.
The point is that André interprets life through these thousands of daily classifications of people and places. So, when people, like André’s family, smother him with love while also smacking him, they, his guides and caretakers in life, come to embody something of a unified fusion of opposite forces. This naturally leads to confusion inside a new brain (André’s) in a new place (the World), which (André’s brain) is just looking for simple patterns by which to navigate life. We are not born knowing that hugs and kisses mean love, while smacks and slaps mean hate. When associations like this are erroneously mixed, creating confused, “aggressive” children like André, it isn’t the child’s fault. It isn’t even the parents’ fault. Rather, it’s just the natural result of a collision of forces: the simple, classifying juvenile brain, versus the manic instability of the outside world, which oscillates between love and violence and a thousand other things without any rhyme or reason. They (someone, somewhere, sometime, I assume) say that the first step to loving someone is to understand them–but this is only half true. I felt like I really understood André pretty early on in my homestay, having spent a lot of time thinking about his life and behavior. But the love took time, and didn’t really come in full force until the homestay began to wind down (about a week ago). And it didn’t come without concentrated effort–an arm’s length, detached kind of half-effort at loving a little boy, covered in snot and urine, who I really found obnoxious and taxing.