To those of you who have been praying for Andrew and me during New Teacher Orientation, thank you. We had a great week meeting all the other new teachers and being tourists in our new city for a few days! We have been very busy trying new foods like salteñas, navigating crowded city markets, and setting up my classroom. With the other new teachers we spent a day touring the city center. We were able to learn a little bit about Bolivia’s history, and we got to see some spectacular views of Mount Illimani towering over the city and the rugged landscape of nearby Valle de Luna. Andrew and I also decided to try out the Teleférico, a new cable car system built to provide public transportation all the way from Zona Sur to El Alto. We were amazed by how BIG the city is! From the bottom of the bowl to the top the ride took almost an hour. It was really neat to see all the neighborhoods and the geography of the city from a bird’s eye view.

Yesterday was the first day of work at the school with all the staff. We spent the day taking a sort of crash course in Bolivian culture with Dr. and Mrs. Hawthorne, who have been missionaries here for almost 30 years. Since I am interested in social studies, I was fascinated, and I wanted to share a little of what we learned with you. When working in a cross-cultural environment, it is important to do three things. First, you must understand yourself culturally. Second, you must understand others culturally. And finally, you must avoid judgment when clashes between the two cultural value sets occur. The Hawthornes walked us through 9 different cultural dimensions and showed us where the USA and Bolivia fell along each spectrum. We learned that for all but ONE of the cultural dimensions, the USA and Bolivia fall on opposite ends of the scale! For example, American culture is far more individualistic, while Bolivian culture is far more collectivistic. While American culture is fairly informal and equality among people is valued, Bolivians are more formal and place greater value on class and title distinctions. Americans have no problem being direct and speaking their minds, but Bolivians view too much directness as rude and prefer to use euphemisms rather than flat out rejecting someone with a “no.” In America we tend to believe that “time is money” and view interruptions and tardiness as “wasting time.” However, in Bolivia, people and relationships are highly treasured and if taking time to converse with someone makes you late to something else, that’s perfectly acceptable. Americans tend to have an internal locus of control, meaning they feel power over their own destinies and believe optimistically in the “American Dream” – with enough hard work, any obstacle can be overcome. In Bolivia, people tend to have a more external locus of control, which can be more fatalistic, pessimistic, and superstitious. While Americans are taught that “justice is blind” and have a more universal view of rules applying to all, Bolivians are taught to look at each unique situation and judge it in a more particularistic way.

These cultural values are taught to our subconscious selves from the moment we are born. Of course, each person is unique, and some people’s personalities do not fit neatly into the generalizations of their cultural environment. We were able to take a personality test to see where each of us fell personally on the different cultural scales, and I found that my personality is actually more “Bolivian” than “American” in a few ways. Those of you who know me will not be surprised that my time management philosophies fall far more to the Bolivian side of things, and I also discovered that I lean a little bit more to the collectivistic side than the individualistic side, feeling more loyalty to the group or team than solely to myself. However, of course, my personality fits with my American culture in a lot of ways too – I am very direct and informal, and I have a strong internal locus of control. While it is not alright to use these cultural distinctions to stereotype people, it is helpful to understand the cultural background and values that people grow up around to better interact with them. For example, as a direct American, if someone asked me to go for coffee and I was busy, I would simply tell them no. However, a Bolivian friend of mine might be very hurt by such directness, as in their culture a more indirect rejection would be appropriate and more kind. Since we will be working with Bolivian co-workers and students, behaving in a culturally appropriate way is necessary to successfully live, work, and minister here.

Since Bolivia and the United States fall at literally the opposite ends of the spectrum for 8 out of the 9 cultural dimensions, living here will definitely take some getting used to! Reactions and words that may come naturally to us will need to be curbed in some cases, or completely changed in others. Mrs. Hawthorne described it as feeling a little bit like being forced to write with your opposite hand, and Dr. Hawthorne used the metaphor of learning a new dance so as not to step on others’ toes. Being aware of the cultural differences is very important first step, but actually being able to live among a new culture that, in a few ways, directly clashes with our view of what is “normal” is tough. Please pray that Andrew, me, and the other teachers at Highlands will be able to be open-minded toward one another and seek to understand each other’s cultures, personalities, and behaviors. Pray that when cultural clashes occur, we can be observers and learners, and not judgers. Pray that we can learn more about ourselves, others, and God, who is the author and creator of all people, personalities, and cultures, as we live and work here in Bolivia.


7 thoughts on “A Crash Course in Culture

  1. We will be praying we know you will do well with your past experiences to help you. We are so glad you had a week to help get oriented. We love you How is your apartment and how is your classroom? Does Andrew have what is needed for him to work. Can e ma us. Love you much. God bless you


  2. Very, very interesting! Shall certainly be praying for the adjustments you and your co-workers will be making. With God helping, and so many praying, you’ll do great! I look forward to your blogs! love you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. BRAVO Sarah!! What a wonderful article! If more people could have this experience and gain this insight there would be more love, understanding and tolerance, and less racism and hatred in this beautiful, diverse world that we were given. We are already confident that both you and Andrew will embrace and adapt to the cultural differences you will experience in Bolivia with the style and grace you were both born and raised with. Enjoy!!


  4. Great article. We are confident you and Andrew will do great. We are excited for your opportunities to witness for Jesus among the Bolivian people and for the experiences you will have living in a different culture. We will be praying. We love you. God bless you


  5. We so enjoyed your last blog. What an experience you are having. Papa and I pray for you each morning.Thanks for the e-mail yesterday also. The scenery is breathtaking. I have such peace about you being there. Love you both so much.


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