I have often heard people say “the United States of America has no culture,” and I have always disagreed. The claim left a bad taste in my mouth every time I heard it, that much is certain, but it wasn’t until I left the country for the first time that I was able to truly appreciate what my own culture had always been.
My time in the Republic of Panama through Jumpstart TU was a revolutionary experience in my life. In the span of about a week I experienced a whole new culture with many wonderful traditions I had never even dreamed of before. While I’m sure there is more than I could learn about the people and customs of Panama in a hundred lifetimes, the opportunity to witness dancing, taste food, hear a language, and interact with people who have backgrounds and histories entirely foreign to my own was fantastic. To experience all of this with people I quickly came to love made it even more powerful. The peers and faculty I met while abroad will certainly remain a part of my life for a long time to come.
More than new people though, the program was geared toward fostering new experiences. Because of this, Panama was host to many first times for me. For the first time, I ate the eyeball out of a fish, and much to my horror it was delicious. For the first time, I bathed in the waters of the Caribbean Ocean, and was not horrified in the least to find that the fruit which grew on its shores was also delicious. Even if lychee berries and guacamole covered pineapple were alien to me, food wasn’t the only cultural exchange of value. As my first times salsa dancing and Congo drumming quickly taught me, an important aspect of Panamanian culture is to feel connected to the art around you. This was illustrated explicitly at times with the encouragement of university partners and instructors, but also implicitly. Panama’s streets were alive with music and the atmosphere was almost electric with the energy of a party wherever people could be found in groups.
In the face of all the excitement and fun, there were also struggles. Political turmoil in the Republic of Panama led to disruptive protests which forced us to think on our feet and occasionally derailed even our secondary and tertiary plans. Students waited on busses, safe but unable to move, for an opportunity to get back to their beds after hours on the road. One of our partners, Voces Vitales, hosted a day in which students of the University of Tulsa would interact with teen mothers of Panama who were seeking their own education to brainstorm solutions for the problems plaguing their community. Trash lined the streets, public resources were limited, and not every part of Panama City was safe to walk through without a guide. Far from a detriment to my experience however, the opportunity to see Panama for what it is in its entirety was incredibly valuable to me. I am happy that I got to witness the reality of a novel place, “filtered” to the extent that it must be for me to be safe but not “censored” in any capacity. Problems are what drive the development of what is beautiful, and a glimpse of the “real world” has helped me to develop and inform my own perspective about culture at home and abroad.
The greatest takeaway from Jumpstart TU was not the new connections I made with faculty and students, the food I learned to enjoy, or the realization that “normal” truly does look different in every place, although all of these things in themselves are life changing. The greatest takeaway was learning what culture is at all, and what it means to me. At the beginning of this blog I mentioned that people often assert a lack of culture in the United States, but nothing is further from the truth. By appreciating the fine nuances of a foreign culture, I was able to learn how to analyze and evaluate my own. The tools I built while in a unique environment and far outside of my comfort zone helped me understand what to look for when considering the traditions and social norms I am accustomed to myself.
Nowhere but the United States will you find clam chowder and pumpkin pie to eat while you listen to country music, and nowhere but Panama can you eat octopus over coconut rice while listening to a Congo-salsa fusion. I would advise anyone interested in studying abroad to take the leap, because not only might you discover a passion for something you never would have seen at home, but home itself may mean something entirely new to you.