Great Expectations

Okinawa is a town one hour to the east of us where another group of Salesian volunteers works in a Salesian high school and parish center.  Okinawa was founded 50 years ago by Japanese immigrants looking for a fresh-start after leaving post-WWII Japan.   They arrived first in Brazil (still the site of the largest Japanese community outside of Japan) and then made their way to Bolivia and Peru.  They were ‘gifted’ chunks of rainforest (possibly previously inhabited by indigenous Bolivians?) from the government which they cleared and transformed into an agricultural empire.

Their empire includes factories that process milk, grains, and make pasta and sweets, a Japanese high school, a Japanese hospital, a cultural center, a sports complex, a swimming pool and a museum.  Still it is a very small, rural town with just one main road going through and a small, dusty plaza.  There is a distinct ‘Japanese side’ and ‘Bolivian side’ of town, most notably differentiated by how nice the homes are.  Also in general Bolivians are kept out of the other Japanese offerings like their high school or sports complex by high entry fees.

The cultural center has air conditioning (!) couches to sit on and really nice bathrooms- they had toilet paper AND hand soap.  I took this picture (below) in the bathroom, I think it says ‘don’t flush toilet paper’ in Japanese.  It was just kind of surreal to see everything written in Japanese all of a sudden, you walk through a door and it’s like  you’re not in Bolivia anymore.

Also while visiting Okinawa we went with the volunteers out to the surrounding rural Bolivian communities.  They go out there three days a week to do religious education/ mentoring with the kids which generally involves playing soccer, face painting, or watching movies on laptops.  It was a really awesome experience.  The people live in very humble dwellings with mud-adobe walls, dirt floors, and a thatched roof.  Each little community has a one-room school house where all the kids from Kindergarten to eighth grade go to school in the mornings (assuming they have a teacher).  When we came in the afternoon, the kids seemed to be doing a lot of just ‘hanging out’ and were very happy for the diversion.  They probably spend all their other time helping their parents prepare or grow food.  Below, is an example of their homes.

What struck me most leaving Okinawa was the dichotomy between the Japanese and Bolivians.  I just kept asking myself, why?  The Bolivians had already been there for hundreds of years.  How did the Japanese come in and surpass them so quickly?  The only conclusion I could come to was: expectations.  The Japanese came in with great expectations of how they wanted their settlement to be (based on experiences in Japan) and they worked to make that happen.  In 50 years a small group of Japanese immigrants have built up industry, schools, hospitals almost to 1st world standards and yet the Bolivians who were living there 50 years ago in poverty are still doing so. You might say, well surely the Japanese had an influx of capital that the Bolivians didn’t.  They also had their strong Japanese work ethic, organizational standards, good education, and lack of corruption.  It would be inflammatory though to say that you couldn’t find a Bolivian with these same qualities, albeit they’re not as valued culturally as in Japan.  Why then, if the Bolivians had been given the same amount of money, the same amount of land 50 years ago would the results not have been the same?  Expectations.

2 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I think you’re right that, even if different individuals have the same values and abilities, the larger culture around them greatly increases or decreases how those values and abilities come to fruition

  2. Remember when you asked me how my mother managed cleanliness when I was young, Laura? (We had no electricity or running water.) I told you how far behind the times the standards you were dealing with were from my mother’s. It was instilled in her to be clean in every phase of her life. The clothing that could be, was boiled in lye water; hand washing could have been better but we washed our hands with soap, the floors were scrubbed (hard to do on a dirt floor in Bolivia) three times a week in the kitchen–lye soap used in the water again.) Other living areas less often. Lime in the toilets. The list is huge and could be adopted anywhere water is available.
    As to expectations, the Bolivians probably have expectations but they don’t have the motivation or the skills to teach their children how to achieve them.
    I always think of the song “Manana” which basically glorifies the attitude of putting off until tomorrow and tomorrow is always “…a day away,” like in ‘Annie.’ However, in Annie it has an entirely different connotation. Simply the truth. You never get there. So it has to be done today for now and the future.

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