So Much Like Me

By Hertha Valiente

special education

When I found out that I was coming to America from El Salvador, the image that I had of Americans became meaningful to me. We Latin Americans think that North Americans are completely different from us. We think that people in the U.S. live without any emotions or warmth for each other. They live only for money to pay bills, to have big cars, and to go on vacations. They are impolite and cold in the amenities of life. Even girls of my age would look for a man who would give them a nice house, fancy appliances, and expensive clothes instead of love.

Our opinions are based on stories that we hear from friends who visited America and go back home. Also, we watch American TV shows, “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” which portray Americans as materialistic, cold, and insincere.

I accepted these opinions and never thought very much about them until I found out I was going to move to America. I thought it would be impossible to have anything in common with American people; to me they were so different that I didn’t have any hope of finding any human qualities.

“How am I going to live among them?” I questioned myself. I found the answer quickly: I would be just as cold and emotionless as they were. If I had to work with them I would do my job without any emotional involvement. I was afraid that I would become like them, assimilating their coldness and their rudeness. I decided that I would not become one of them. I would be a double person; inside I would remain Hispanic; on the surface I would act like an American. This was my plan for survival.

A year and a half passed living in America, but I didn’t have any opportunity to develop my plan because, at my school, I was in all bilingual classes with Hispanics. The summer of 1984 I went to work at the First National Bank. It was my first experience with American people. It also was the perfect time to put my plan in operation.

During my first week at work, I was guarded; I stayed by myself even though the people seemed nice. The second week I was working on some important papers to find the annual interest on the stock. Somehow I made a mistake, and the calculations were wrong. The American that I was working with came over to me. Kindly he helped me correct the mistake; then he smiled and thanked me for my help.

Later I went to work with a lady from the tax department, also to calculate some interest. My job didn’t require a lot of knowledge about tax regulations, but Mary took the time to explain to me the interest rate and regulations. She told me that if I knew this information my job would have more meaning to me; in fact, this was so. The rest of the summer I found human qualities of warmth, caring, and courtesy among all the Americans at the bank. I began to think that I had been wrong.

Another experience with Americans showed me their cheerfulness and positive attitude. One night when I was working as a cashier at Zayre, the line of customers waiting to check out was getting longer and longer; I was so tired that it was hard to keep smiling and showing a happy face. I was afraid they would be angry. In my past experience with Hispanic people, it would be so natural for them to come to me, put their items on the counter, frown with impatience, or ignore me and keep going with their conversation. But the friendly smile and cheerfulness of the Americans made me feel like a part of their group.

Before coming to college I had no American girlfriends of my age. I thought that they were different than me, that their interests and priorities were opposite. Even their emotions must be different, I thought. Why did I think this? I didn’t even take time to answer this question; an easy answer was, “They are not like me.” But when I came to college, my roommate turned out to be an American girl. It didn’t take me long to realize how wrong I had been again.

Talking with Natalie, I found out how similar we were. We shared and enjoyed everything that came to our minds. School was our priority; to study hard and finish our college education was our major goal. We talked about our teachers and how to study for a specific subject. We both liked to study at the same time while listening to the same kind of music. When we went out, I did her make-up and she chose the outfit that she wanted me to wear. We both were in love and we shared our expectations about the man of our dreams. We shared our secrets, happiness, achievements as well as our sadness, frustration, or problems. We gave each other support when needed. Today I can happily say I have an American sister.

I know now that I can’t let what other people think and the impressions other people have influence my thoughts. I realize that believing only the stereotypes is ignorance. I have learned that Americans who seem materialistic are really just practical and plan for the future, that they are not rude, but just care more about communicating information than using merely polite forms.

Like us, they are warm, kind, and “simpaticos.” My new knowledge tells me that the same human qualities, which all people share, show themselves in different ways in each culture.

Take time to learn about others! The process is complex and slow to learn, but you will discover that we are all the same beneath our cultural differences.