Marion Gibson, a two-time AMIGOS alumna, shares how her second summer abroad taught her the power of laughter to bridge language barriers and what truly lies at the heart of human connection.
What does it mean to feel at home in a foreign place?
What is it like to come to understand people so different from yourself, to be inspired by them, and to appreciate their culture as part of who you are?
In our everyday lives, we are forced to cooperate with people whose experiences and opinions do not match our own. It is the simple beauty of human diversity. However, when I jumped into these adventures in Latin America and became attached to the lifestyle and people, I began to understand the true magnificence of human individuality and the truth is that all of us, regardless of backgrounds or beliefs, are united.
My experiences, specifically in Peru, acted as a magnifying glass for understanding the essence of diversity.
When I arrived in a tiny community nestled deep in the Andes mountains, I felt apprehensive of the challenges that lay ahead. However, I was comforted by the fact that this was my second year with the program Amigos de las Américas. I had already embarked on an adventure just as jolting, so this would not be such a big deal for me, right?
Of course, this was not true.
When I found adjusting to Peruvian culture to be difficult, part of me was ashamed. I always viewed myself as an open-minded person, someone who can work with any type of person or in any environment. The discomfort, the homesickness, the isolation, of entering this new way of life was unfamiliar and unexpected.
I remember the awkward silence at the dinner table my first night with my host family. My host mother, a young woman of twenty-seven, served me an abundant serving of wheat soup and potatoes. My younger host siblings watched me suspiciously as I tried my best to finish my plate.
What I found most important in breaching differences was the power of laughter.
I had been in Peru for two weeks, when my family was out working in the fields, and I needed to bathe. I always watched them build a fire to heat up water – it didn’t seem too difficult. I gathered some firewood, lit a match, and watched as the small flame tried to mature. Ah, yes, I would have to blow on it to kindle the fire! I grabbed the metal tube that I had watched my host sister use so many times, and blew into one end as hard as I could. The flame went out, and suddenly the kitchen area was full of smoke.
I panicked as the smoke made my eyes water, and coughing violently, I sprinted to the door to ventilate the room when I found my host mother standing in the doorway. I could feel the blood rushing to my ears as they turned the color of ripe tomatoes. She looked at me and burst into a fit of laughter, yelling, “There is soot covering your face! You blew through the wrong end!” We laughed hysterically at my ignorance.
This situation was not unique; time and time again, in attempts to understand each other, we would realize our own unawareness and laugh our way to greater understanding.
There were times in my summer when I felt as though my host family just would never be able to understand many facets of my life, but as I grew close with them, I realized that they already understood the important things about me. And by the end of the summer, I had learned about them.
I knew that they only wanted me to eat so much because food was central to their lives, and they worked tirelessly to cultivate the ingredients for each meal. I understood that they still loved their daughter even if they made her do countless chores. I understood why they were suspicious of outsiders. I had become familiar with their lifestyle, and learned to love it as my own.
But more importantly, when I said goodbye to them with eyes full of tears, I knew that the values at the core of human nature – compassion, love, respect, humor, curiosity – bonded us together and enabled the cross-cultural exchange that we had experienced.