My suitcase is filled with colorful textiles and business-casual outfits; it seems that I am DC-bound tomorrow morning!
A friend came over today to see me off and saw my suitcase, mostly-packed, lying on the floor. “Wow, you are so estadounidense!” Packing a day in advance is not a very Mexican thing to do. So maybe some of my American-ness persists, but many of my customs and behaviors have changed during the past year.
I know this because a few weeks back, a friend from grad school visited me. Her presence showed me how much I have adapted to living within different cultural confines. She regularly told me, “I hope that you remember not to do that when you are in the States.” And while she had me laughing, she also made me realize that my trip to Washington, DC might provide some awkwardly funny and bewildering moments.
Here are some of my friend’s suggestions about how I should behave myself during this coming week.
Fix your grammar: Unless you are a careful reader of this blog, you may not have noticed that on occasion I have posted incorrect homonyms such as “here” instead of “hear.” You have probably been lulled into thinking that my speech and grammar have not become awkward because I edit my posts carefully. But my friend saw me unedited in Mexico, and she can vouch that my English has taken a hit. For example, I once translated a phrase but kept the Spanish grammar: “good friends they are.” I made the excuse that it was a bad on-the-spot translation mistake, bound to happen to anyone.
What is less forgivable are the mistakes made when not translating. One of my fellow volunteers recently showed me a text message that I had written to her. It said “we will see us soon.” My response when seeing the text: is that awkward in English? Further proof: I recently said a word that does not exist in English or in Spanish; instead, it is a mix of both! Temacity – a mix of the Spanish word temor, meaning fear and English grammatical structure –city, eg. tenacity. The word that I should have used: fearful. Not even close.
Stranger-danger: In Mexico, people acknowledge the presence of others, especially when a shared-space is involved. When you walk into a store, you say good afternoon; when you enter public transit, you greet your fellow passengers; when you sit down in a restaurant, you tell others to enjoy their meal; when you share a public bench, a conversation is had. My friend reminded me that often in the USA, speaking to strangers can be seen as an invasion of people’s space/preoccupation with their smart phones. She told me that if I talk to strangers, it can be seen as annoying and maybe a bit crazy. There is a huge difference in Mexico’s focus on the relationships of those around them and the USA’s celebration of the individual. This becomes apparent when looking through the high- and low-context culture lens.
And most importantly, my friend recommended that I calm down, please: Latin Americans are stereotyped as being highly expressive and emotional people. My step-dad was the first to point out that I was talking with my hands excessively. My friend wholeheartedly agreed. She said that seeing my hands waving around while I used highly varied voice tones that changed by the second to match my hyper-expressive face was, well, a bit unnerving at times. Somehow I have developed the habit without even noticing.
Now I can see that they are right. Every day, when I say no, I give a wag of the finger. Hold on a sec merits a pinched index finger near my thumb that signifies that the wait-time will be small. Talk about money involves a hand motion that mimics the holding of a thick stack of bills. And when I want someone to come closer, the verbal request is met with all of my fingers facing the floor, waving toward my body. I have always noticed, however, that when saying yes, my index finger nods in agreement. With my new awareness a little laugh accompanies these motions. I finally realize how much my communication style has changed.
Given my friend’s recommendations, I will attempt to fit-in again in my home country. Please be gentle with me if I ask “does that sound like an English sentence?” while waving my hands wildly in the air!
For those who will see me in DC, I have some recommendations of my own. They will hopefully ease any initial awkwardness; prepare yourself as necessary.
Do: Give me long, emotion-filled greetings & goodbyes, EVERY TIME. Even if we will see each other in a few hours, I expect hugs and cheek-kisses.
Don’t: Get frustrated when it takes me much longer to do something than I had told you. Mexican minutes are longer than minutes in the USA: 20 minutes in Mexico, according to my calculations are approximately 45 minutes in the States.
Do: Feed me exotic foods like tahini, curry, maple, and pumpkin.
Don’t: Feed me “Mexican food,” I will have my fair share of tacos in the coming year.
Do: Explain patiently how the USA has changed. Assume that I know nothing!
Don’t: Ask me to plan ahead, my response will probably be something like Ni modo. Better just to decide for me and save us both the stress.
Do: Remind me to use seat belts, to put toilet paper IN the toilet bowl, and not to place trash bags on the sidewalk. Habits are hard to break, after all.
Don’t: Be surprised when everyone stares. I mean, I am kind of a big deal being “blond” and pretty and all. I do not expect things to be different in the USA.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes.
Making me smile:
- Receiving my grant from USAID, meaning that my work project for the next year is mostly funded! Immediately after telling my boss, he had the most Mexican of responses: Oh good, now we can have a party and serve barbequed sheep and tequila! Um, not what the money was for, but I appreciate the enthusiasm
- Having apples thrown at me from Apple Queens at a parade in my friend’s town, during a much-needed girls weekend
- When returning from girls weekend, being serenaded with live huapango music on the bus