Last August I stepped off a plane and into a new world. It did not seem so different at first. But as the nuances became apparent, I realized that many things were missing from my former life.
Mine was now a life without lemons and bath tubs, set in a culture less focused on individuality and independence, in a world almost bereft of deadlines and long-term planning. Some of these changes were welcome and exciting, others seemed challenging, and a few were downright hard to accept at first.
Could I live the next two years without? Would I begin complaining about living without? Sacrifice is a word commonly associated with the Peace Corps. Part of our training teaches us to deal with the many losses we experience when moving to our host country, and many people commend that we forgo things like running water, electricity, and/or personal transportation.
Because of this, I ventured into my new world expecting to sacrifice. And these were the top fifteen omissions that I first noticed, things that did not seem to exist in Mexico:
1. Putting yourself first
I was out with some friends once when I realized that I was quite hungry. Since there was no option to leave alone, I mentioned to the group that I would like to eat. They said “we will leave soon.” I waited and I waited. I ended up repeating my request about 5 times. At one point, I got desperate and dramatically yet unsuccessfully left the room to find a snack. About 3 hours later, we finally left when not just I, but the whole group was ready.
The overarching culture is communal. What matters above all else is group harmony and cohesion, which means that prioritizing your personal desires is not only inconsiderate, it is incomprehensible.
2. Single serve
One of my first weeks in the office, I brought a lunch to work and started eating it at my desk. My coworkers walked by me, gave me a strange look, and said “enjoy your meal,” but you could tell that they were a bit offended that I was eating without them.
Because the culture is communal, the idea of bringing food for only yourself is a foreign concept. Now I know that if I bring a mango to the office, I had better cut it up and share it. Even better, I should bring one or two kilos of mangoes so that everyone gets a sizable snack. Once, someone brought a single serve portion to my office. It was completely demolished by the group, leaving the bringer with an insufficient lunch. While this may seem annoying, the good news is that they all share their food with you!
3. Personal space
On a camping trip, a nearby camper felt completely comfortable poking his entire head inside my tent – at midnight to make matters even worse – to ask if I needed anything from the store, and to invite me to his camping party. How kind, I thought, yet inconsiderate of my personal space.
Again, what is yours is mine in the group, and that includes space.
4. Quiet time
It seems that the only time for peace & quiet is between the hours of 3:30 am and 6:30 am…usually. Noise complaints certainly do not exist here. There is a pulse of seemingly never-ending music, roving salesmen with loudspeakers, construction noise, and frequent fireworks. It is incessant at times, so much so that I hardly notice it anymore.
5. Taboo against personal questions
How old are you? Are you Catholic? Where is your husband? Don’t you love your family? It seems that nothing is out of the realm of acceptable personal questions in Mexico. The good thing is that if you do not want to answer a personal question, there is another aspect of the culture that you can use to your advantage…
6. Direct communication
In response to an uncomfortable question or as a way to be polite, people can be incredibly indirect. Once I saw a sign on a long-distance bus that said: Por favor, gente relajada, which reads please, people are relaxing. Could that be the least direct way of asking for passengers to be quiet?
There is subtleness to the communication style, and things are always inferred and implied in the background of each statement. Therefore, direct statements are typically read as harsh even if it was unintentional on the speaker’s part.
7. Dietary restrictions & preferences
One of my fellow volunteers has been struggling with this concept. Once, she was out with our co-workers at lunch time. She did not want to eat the standard meal offered that day, so she waited patiently while people ate in front of her. She shrugged off the constant offers to share lunch and the peer pressure for her to join in. Later, she had them stop along the road for her to grab a cup of diced fresh fruit. This behavior was so strange to them that they still retell the story: Hey remember that time that she ate fruit for lunch??
Because everyone here eats together, they eat the same things together. The offer to customize a meal is extraordinarily rare, and I have yet to meet someone with food preferences or food allergies.
8. Rounded edges and perfectly finished things
I noticed a fresh, bloody gash on a friend’s leg recently. When I asked what happened, he told me that there was a metal pole sticking out of the sidewalk that had been sawed off about three inches from the ground, and that he did not notice it when out on a jog. It was a case of “when sidewalks attack!”
This is a culture of “get-it-done-ers” and improvisers. It was no surprise to me when I heard the saying “If you don’t know how to do it, invent it!” Because of this, some structures can be built a bit haphazardly and some are downright dangerous.
9. Early bedtimes for children
When I was a kid, I never wanted to miss out on the fun by going to bed early. Well, the kids here never have to! They are all up at midnight with the whole group. This seems to work well since they take naps whenever and wherever they need. Kids here can sleep through just about anything.
10. Bedtime stories
I was telling some friends how, when I was about eight years old, I insisted on hearing Charlotte’s Web as a bedtime story each night for about a year. No one could relate since none of them had experienced bedtime stories. This was quite a surprise since it was such an important part of my childhood.
11. Friends of the opposite gender
This one has been a tough one for me since my interests – outdoor sports and adventures- mixed with my age, since women my age tend to have very few moments for friends due to their family and household responsibilities, mean that most of my friends are male. I am frequently asked if I am dating my friends, and I wonder if outsiders think that I have several boyfriends at once. To further complicate things, working in a forested national park means that most of my coworkers are male as well.
During our training, many of us experienced stomach problems and were prescribed to eat a very plain and simple diet. Therefore, our doctor had to teach our host mothers how to prepare bland food. Across the board, they had a very hard time figuring out how to follow the doctor’s orders.
Nothing here seems to be bland, from the food to romance, from emotional expression to dancing.
13. Politically neutral moments
My boss once mentioned to me with a very concerned look on his face that he had seen me in my town saying hello to local town officials. He pointedly warned me to “be careful” around them, but would not elaborate as to how or why.
This may be because I work in a federal agency, but politics seem to permeate everything here. Who you work with, and who you are friends with seems to dictate who you might have the opportunity to meet. Some people might not ever want to talk to you due to your associations, and many will “know things about you” without ever having met you. The politics certainly are perplexing to us foreigners!
14. Strong handshakes
This is especially true in the more rural locations. It seems the more rural, the more likely you are to get “the dead fish” for a handshake. I even heard a story from another volunteer who shook someone’s hand in a rural location and was verbally chastised for giving such a strong handshake.
15. Pedicures & flip flops
Anyone wearing sandals of any kind outside of the house are looked at as behaving in a low class manner. And if there are no sandals, then why should you worry about pretty toes? So while it seems that every city has a nail salon on every corner, not once have I seen pedicures offered.
I think that this derives from the strong social hierarchy established in colonial times. When the Spanish were living in Mexico, they wore close-toed shoes or boots and were seen as high up on the social ladder. The indigenous people who did not intermix with the Spanish, however, kept wearing their leather sandals, called chanclas. To this day, sandals are restricted to indoor use, and only family should see this footwear.
A funny thing just happened to me.
I started writing this post and was thoroughly enjoying the process of brainstorming all of the things that probably do not exist in Mexico. But once it was written, it did not feel right. It did not seem fair to say that things were missing in Mexican culture anymore. I had to take a step back and do some internal analysis; why did this post feel wrong?
After a conversation with a fellow volunteer, I realized that it was wrong because I no longer felt that I was living without. There is no doubt that I have become more entrenched in the culture with each passing week. This means that I have slowly but steadily drifted into seeing the world from a new perspective and consequently I am more part of my new cultural system. Things that were once seen as missing have become less of an issue because they do not fit in this different, yet complete system. When I adapted to my new world, I stopped trying to cram my square cultural peg into their round cultural hole, so to speak, which made me see the whole equation differently.
I no longer lament what I live without. I celebrate the world that I live within, and that is a beautiful thing. I do, embarrassingly enough, continue to wear my flip flops on occasion.
Caveat: As I have mentioned before, Mexico has an extremely diverse socio-cultural landscape. Therefore, I always struggle when making generalizations like “Mexico is…” or “Mexico has…” However, from what I have been exposed to in the last year, there are certain cultural experiences that seem to permeate across local differences in economics and social structure, and are what I would consider part of the Mexican experience. I am, by no means, an expert however.
Making me smile:
- Even though I had the flu for the entire Independence Day weekend, I was able to crawl out of bed and up to my roof to see three simultaneous firework shows, one of which was launched from the base of a giant Mexican flag. This finally explained why, on the most important day for flying the flag proudly, it had been down all day: they did not want it catching on fire!
- Despite inclement weather preventing us from summiting the last 300 meters, I was able to climb most of the way up a mountain 14,236 feet tall, catching some views along the way of a steaming volcano no less than 5 kilometers away
- Getting a big confidence boost because 1) I was able to lead sessions at an Interpretation workshop, in Spanish and using professional experience, and 2) I was able to collaboratively plan the successful workshop for people in a different culture. I had not realized how, after a year of living in a different language and culture and placed in a job that I have no professional experience backing me, a boost in confidence was so needed and wonderful
- Because of the rainy season, the variety of mushrooms at my national park is incredible and lovely (see the photo gallery below)
- That everyone I know was safe from all of the flooding and landslides caused by the two recent Tropical Storms. My heart goes out to those who experienced losses due to storm damage
- When researching for this blog – yes, I research my blog posts – I found this video about the appropriation of the chancla for an additional purpose: