January 11, 2012

Enlightening the American Teenager

Every class has that one kid who makes everyone else groan when he raises his hand to ask a question or speak.

I was Skyping with my friend Kendra's Spanish class last week when that kid raised his hand to ask a question.

"What's the technology like there?" he asked.

 "Ohhh my God!" escaped from the lips of some poor, embarrassed girl in the second row. No doubt she was vastly more culturally aware and knew the obvious ridiculousness of the question. She was probably a few social rungs higher than the kid who asked it, and he had clearly violated some protocol asking about technology. But Middle and High school social hierarchy aside, this scene underscored the divide between our cultures, and the value of what we were doing.

I appreciated the question and I didn't laugh at him, like I did to the kid who asked if there was anything to do here. At least he asked something.

"Well," I said, "Technology here is really similar to what you guys have there. I'm Skyping with you over the internet, most people here have the internet in their houses. A lot of kids have PS3s and Xboxes like you guys. There's a Gamestop in pretty much every strip mall. Kids have cell phones and iPads like you guys."

A few times now, I've had the privilege of using Skype to talk to a class of kids thousands of miles away in Michigan. I probably don't make for a great Spanish language lesson, but I hope they at least enjoy the chance to talk to someone in a far away place and learn a little bit more about a different culture. There's always a little bit of nervousness on my part because a kid in an advanced high school class just might have a better grasp of some grammatical rules than I do, or they may ask a question I don't have a good answer for. Luckily, nuanced rules of Spanish never come up.

Instead, it's typically a variation on the same set of softball questions. What's the weather like? What do kids do for fun there? What kind of fast food do they have?

That last one always comes up, and I think there's a quintessentially American perspective behind it. I've asked it too. Our love for greasy, cheap fast food aside, it's a pretty good gauge for a place's standard of living. Or at least we think it is.

I've had a number of conversations with Puerto Ricans who've met Stateside Americans who always ask the same dumb questions, and it annoys them.

I understand their offense. Many of those questions come across as, "do you have what I have?" If you can imagine an annoying kid from down the street coming over to compare toys and being shocked when yours are just as nice, it's kind of like that.

Don't get me wrong, Americans are terribly blessed. The United States enjoys a great standard of living and a great deal of freedom, but they're not the only ones with nice toys. Or the internet, or PS3, or movie theaters. Or fast food joints. Besides, having McDonald's in your country is hardly an indicator of economic stability.

Puerto Rico, like much of the world, has a middle class with some disposable income. In Puerto Rico, like much of the world, there are lots of people who can speak flawless English or another second language. And Puerto Rico, just like the rest of the United States, has a large lower class that has embraced a potentially unsustainable and unhealthy consumer culture. Kids here may have iPads and XBoxes, but that doesn't mean they need them or can afford them comfortably. It's no different in the States.

That was something I discovered myself telling the high school kids over and over again, and I hope they got the point - kids here are just like you. The biggest divide between the States and Puerto Rico isn't how different they appear, but how little one side realizes they're the same.

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