Tag Archives: observations

A New Round of Culture-Induced Confusion

2 Aug

The cultural “surprises” this year were all fun and games up until the grilled cheese sandwiches.

Before that it was all questions like, “Why does it have these things on the window?” (They’re a different form of curtains called blinds.)

“What are these boxes? Can I see what’s inside all of them?” (They’re mailboxes and don’t touch them unless you want us to get arrested.) Followed by, “What’s mail?”

“Why do you put the bread in there?” (It heats it on both sides much faster than the comal.)

“Are these for climbing?” (They’re fire hydrants and you can climb them as long as you move if the fire truck comes.)

“How come they have videos at the library?” (Because some libraries have lots of different things, and activities, too!) We were very impressed with the small library by Nonna and Dee’s new house, with it’s table of Legos and tables covered in butcher paper to let kids color on the table. I had totally forgotten how much this country caters to children. On our first dinner out, in which I planned to have long talks with my Aunt Julia and Uncle Terry, I brought my usual backpack full of tricks for the kids so they could keep themselves entertained. But lo and behold, the restaurant provided them with paper menus and crayons! Such a thing would never be provided where we live- both because of a lack of resources in our area and because people just don’t center their lives around children in the same way we do here.

Despite all this indulging the children, of course there had been a couple of complaints even before the grilled cheese.

“Why do we have to wear seat belts every time? Why can’t we switch seats?” (Mandatory seat belt laws and fast driving that require effectual kid seating and restraints, my dears.)

“Why do we have to wear shoes everywhere?” (Ummm, because we’re not on the coast of Oaxaca. People here think it’s important to wear shoes.)

“But it’s taking a long time to get there!” (Well, that’s the price you pay to live in the city.)

“Why is it so cold?” (I fluctuate between a simple, ‘air conditioning’ and a disapproving head shake with, ‘who understands these people, baby’- depending on how much I’m suffering from the air conditioning cold.

So we’re on the kids’ first ever car-based road trip inside the 48 contiguous states, and it all starts out lovely. Approximately every 27 seconds, Khalil (age 2) shouts, “Mamaaaa! Mamaaaa! Mamaaaa!” Mommy looks around to see what Khalil is pointing at. “Yes, Khalil, it’s another semi-truck. Yes, it’s yellow, Lucia’s color. Yes, Khalil, a bulldozer. Yes, you’re a bulldozer. Yes, another semi-truck. Papi’s color? Now his favorite color is blue? Okay, yes, I’ll tell him his new favorite color is blue.” Meanwhile, Lucia is playing this incredibly annoying, repetitive circus music that is a button on her doll, but we’ve started using reverse psychology very effectively. “Oh, it’s our favorite song!” My mom and I exclaim. We invent lyrics to go with it which annoys Lucia. So now she only plays it for a couple of seconds before she sees how much we’re enjoying it and turns it off.

Then we found ourselves inside the old people’s home of the highway, also known as Cracker Barrel. My mom, who knows about these road trip things, reluctantly assured me that it did actually have more options than just about any place on the highway. And it’s true; they have a very extensive menu that includes lots of veggies. All of which are either breaded and deep fried or cooked with ham hocks. Welcome to the USA, folks.

Because in Oaxaca we live in a place where kids just eat food, not special kid food, I normally either share my plate with them or we order them a regular dish to share between the two of them. But, “What the hell,” I thought! When in Rome, order the kids some food from the kids’ menu!

“Mommy, I don’t really like the bread,” said Lucia after a couple bites. “And the cheese isn’t very good, either.” She whined. Lest you believe I have not acculturated my children to the wonders of my country’s childhood comfort food, let me assert that my kids have grown up with grilled cheese sandwiches. We almost always have them with our cream of beet soup. But they are always on wheat bread (well, that cheap ass soft wheat bread, because there aren’t many bread options to begin with in Puerto, and even less on our budget). And they are typically made with Gouda cheese, since that is the only decent melting cheese I can find. (Neither queso fresco nor quesillo, the two types of local cheese, work well for melting in a sandwich.) Long story short, though- I got zero thanks for what I thought was going to be an exciting change of routine.

They also didn’t like the cornbread as much as my version (which kind of thrilled me). And my big pasta-obsessed kiddo wouldn’t touch Mac n cheese. (This so-called American cheese- are you guys sure it’s actually cheese? Or is it “cheese food product”?) I was kind of pleased but also kind of appalled that my kids were so not into this type of convenience food.

 

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So they are more used to statues of strange animals than alive strange animals. And they were unimpressed with the petting zoo full of goats, since there’s a whole yard full of goats down the street from our house in Puerto. Despite the cultural obstacles, they had a great time at the zoo.

This trip back to the US, I had more or less refrained from complaining about my home country until we spent two days driving through it. By day two of our journey, after Waffle House, after pizza, after gas station tuna sandwich, after Cracker Barrel, I couldn’t shut my mouth. “Did you see the size of that large coffee they gave me?” I asked my mom. “It was like 4 coffees! I had no idea!” I was incredulous, even as I continued guzzling, so it wouldn’t go to waste. “And when I asked for sweetener, the waiter brought me like 5 packets! Five! I only use a half of one! Although it did take a whole one for this monster-sized coffee! No wonder we have an obesity problem! They are determined to give gobs and gobs and giant-sized everything, and to make it free or crazy low-cost. It’s disgusting!” Even as I give in to it myself, drinking coffee till my stomach hurts, I rant and rave about it.

In Oaxaca, we are accustomed to road food meaning more or less home cooked fare. Okay, not the quantity of veggies that I might cook at home, but definitely from-scratch kind of fare. Where are the beans, and perhaps a quesadilla on the road here? When I got to my first stop back home, that’s exactly what I made- an Americanized version, albeit- beans from a can that I fried up and a quesadilla made with flour tortilla and processed cheese. Both my kids turned up their noses at the quesadilla (although maybe if I called it by another name they’d be into it), but all three of us relished those deliciously-fried beans. See “Authentic” Mexican Recipes- Southern Oaxaca Style

Seafood here in Georgia (perhaps in the whole country?) is also all deep-fried like the veggies, apparently. Dee was taken aback when I tried oysters breaded and fried for the first time. I’d only ever had them raw before, and I had no idea that it wasn’t the norm. Also in the food news, the kids are in hog heaven over ketchup; Khalil dipped everything in it and I caught Lucia eating it by itself with her finger. (“What is this called?” She keeps asking me while dipping her finger in it.) These kids are still certainly Mexican, though; they both prefer mayonnaise rather than butter on their corn on the cob.

 

Despite my years and my number of trips, there are still things that catch me off guard every year. I’ll never forget the time I was newly arrived from several months in South America (pre-children), hanging out with a friend who was just back from Central America, and we were convinced we had to buy the cans and not bottles of beer in the liquor store because we hadn’t brought any bottles to return. Ooops!

This trip I found myself buttering the kids’ bagels with a fork for I don’t know how many days before I remembered that butter knives exist precisely to spread butter on things. I keep forgetting that I could just put those leftovers in the microwave. But more than anything, I am crazy impressed with these talking phones.

My mom talks to her phone all the time, and her phone talks back. It gets us around town. It sends messages. It tells us what things are. It is some serious business that I sure as hell don’t have where I live. When we were on the highway, I delayed making a phone call because I assumed that there wouldn’t be cell phone signals on the highway. It took me the whole day on the road to really process that I could make phone calls and even surf the internet anywhere on the expressway! Y’all don’t have a clue about the magic and privilege of this world, far beyond the airport’s magic moving sidewalk even. Lucia, for her part, always feels the need to talk over and navigate over Nonna’s fancy phone. She says stuff like, “Turn left on Abapoopies street, Savannah, Georgia,” which makes me ridiculously content, for whatever reason. Everyone deals with culture shock in their own special way.

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What surprises and shocks you upon return from travel? Inquiring minds want to know!

 

 

Can Hot Dogs Make You More American? Thoughts on Assimilation

26 Mar

The immigrants in this country are not a very assimilated group. They stick out at first glance, with their differently colored skin, distinctive height, and other such physical features. I guess it’s not polite to talk about the physical things they can’t change, though.

It doesn’t stop there, however. Half of them don’t even seem to try to speak the language. Even the ones that do try to learn often speak it incorrectly, or with an accent that makes it difficult to understand. They tend to cluster together, too, living in the same few areas of town. They frequent businesses owned by other foreigners, speaking their foreign languages, eating their foreign foods, buying their imported items. It’s preventing them from becoming patriotic, assimilated citizens.

Many of these foreigners don’t have their immigration paperwork in order, either. Some of them come in and out of the country every few months on tourists visas, even though they’re living here, sometimes working under the table, and that is breaking the law! Sure, some of these people have married citizens or have children who are citizens, but who’s to say that they’re not just using that as a way to get their papers?

Worse than that, right here in this city, these foreigners are taking the best national resources for themselves. The areas of town where they crowd together are nice areas, where some good, legal citizen could be living instead. Many of them have high-paying jobs, which, once again, could be going to citizens. Many of them aren’t even contributing properly to the economy and paying taxes; instead they are doing work online or running some overseas business, thus bypassing the local economy.

There is no uproar here about this immigration problem, however, because this is Mexico, and these immigrants are white. Because racism is alive and well all over the globe in different forms, and yet it is never discrimination against white people, even when they are the minority, even when they do the exact same things that black and brown people suffer for.

So I walk around unsanctioned, speaking only English to my children, trusting that they will learn Spanish sufficiently in school and in society at large. When people do comment about it, they are curious or encouraging, not aggressive and hateful. I speak Spanish pretty well, but even after more than a decade of practice, I make mistakes. I go to work at a decent-paying job, where my job is held exclusively for foreigners. Nobody questions my right to be there. When I first moved here, I came on a tourist visa, because I hadn’t yet been able to figure out how to get a visa to live here, until months after I’d moved here. And when I did finally go to the right authorities for my immigration paperwork, they were incredibly helpful, and I was entitled to a lot of things just by virtue of having a child with Mexican citizenship. (Plus the immigration officials here are so nice they are saint-like, which is not the typical experience in my country). Being a white immigrant here is a similar story to what white people in rich nations decry: not assimilating. Except nobody is denouncing the white immigrants here, or anywhere else.

(For example, this article points out that there are an estimated 50,000 Irish immigrants in the US who don’t have their paperwork in order, and yet they’re not being targeted for deportation. More evidence that the real goal is to make the country whiter.)

 

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Are you an assimilated immigrant in Mexico when you know how to make good salsa? Are you assimilated in the US when you can grill hot dogs? Who gets to define this stuff, anyway?

So you can imagine my dismay when I was reading about a bill being proposed in the US to limit the number of legal immigrants coming into the US. Of course this might have personal repercussions for my family, potential reducing the chances of my husband getting a visa. Beyond being worried about that, though, I was struck dumb when I read one explanation of the reasoning behind it:

“In the House of Representatives, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, expects to propose a companion bill to reduce immigration. He is concerned about immigrant enclaves growing in metropolitan areas.  ‘When you have so many immigrants being admitted, they tend to cluster together, they tend to maybe be a bit more slow in learning the English language, to becoming acculturated, to becoming patriotic Americans,’ Smith says.” (from this article from National Public Radio)

First I was pissed because he should have said “be slower” and not “more slow” (or said learn more slowly, if that’s how he wanted to say it). If you’re going to talk smack about other people learning your language, then you better have perfect grammar and diction yourself, fool. Secondly, I bet you a million dollars he has not learned any other languages and has no clue what it takes. (Plus many immigrants already speak English, too, but obviously these “representatives” of ours do not give a damn about facts.)

So, okay, maybe I’m being petty about the language thing. What about the whole humanity aspect? Let’s say I’m not overreacting. Let’s say it’s just exactly what he says. Let’s pretend he’s even worried about immigrants’ well-being. He wants them to speak the national language so they have equal access to all that the US has to offer. How is limiting the number of immigrants coming into the country going to help people learn English and culturally adapt? Is the reasoning that if they feel more isolated and set apart, they will become more patriotic? I know; perhaps the theory is that they will be forced to learn English faster if they don’t know anybody who speaks their language. So does that mean that we will also be putting caps on how many immigrants who speak the same language can be in one city, just to make sure they don’t meet up and speak their language too much? Should we limit how many immigrants are in one neighborhood? Bar foreign languages from the street? Is that where he’s heading with this? Because limiting the number of new legal immigrants to the country, especially when you’re preventing people’s husbands, wives, children, and mothers from coming in, is not going to teach people better English.

If the goal were actually to help new immigrants speak English and be a more integral, connected part of US society, there are ways to go about that. (Why, why, why does my country not use any of the research about ANYTHING?!?! Why do we even have research, people?) For example, my favorite librarian holds English practice exchanges, where English speakers (citizens, immigrants who are fluent, etc.) pair up with English language learners for conversation and camaraderie every week. I suspect that helps people learn English and feel like they’re part of our fabulous community much more than potentially denying entry to people’s family members- because, sorry, we’ve reached our limit for this year. Let’s be honest. Legislative actions like these are not about helping immigrants, or about keeping us safe. It’s not about having a more unified-yet-non-homogenous country. It’s about having a more homogenous, whiter country. It’s about keeping out more of the “different” people.

Not only is his opinion full of hypocrisy and racism, but it also reflects an utter lack of empathy. I suspect he is as clueless about being uprooted (willingly or not) as he is about language learning.

He obviously doesn’t fathom what it’s like to long for pieces of home. To need to express something that’s deep in your spirit, and not have the right words in your adopted language. To feel your heart soar with a certain song and not have anyone to share it with. To crave certain fruits or certain dishes so desperately that nothing you eat tastes good for weeks on end.

He doesn’t understand anything about needing someone to recognize you. How there are completely trivial things that become crucial, because the need for recognition, understanding, and acceptance is essential. For me, this translates into things like wishing that someday I could just go out and purchase biscuits and gravy, instead of taking all the time to make it myself. It means that every winter I cry at some point because I might never eat my mama’s chili on a cold night again. It means that even if there’s karaoke in English, no one will understand the irony in my song choice. (Nevermind that I only used to do karaoke like once a year.) It means there’s no place to publicly dance in my style, to my kind of music. It means that I would kill for a group of people to play spades with. (Nevermind that it’s just a card game. This is life! This is me!) I’ll even admit that now I have even watched the Kentucky Derby, out of sheer nostalgia, although I never cared when I was there and I’m even a bit ethically opposed to horse racing. (Don’t worry, though, I don’t want to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken or anything else that absurdly unlike me. I want home comforts and a context for my identity, not cheap grease with my state’s name on it.)

When you live far away from where you became you, there are certain things that you need to be your security blanket. You’re putting down your roots somewhere else, and the sun will still shine to nourish you, but even plants grow better in good company. Anybody who’s ever been outside of their comfort zone knows that your soul needs bits and pieces from home to keep yourself in perspective when you’re in a different context. This is my truth, and this is the reason that all immigrants need some quality time with folks from their country- and preferably folks from their region, and even better if it’s family. Everyone needs recognition, even (especially) immigrants and refugees.

So let’s not use immigrant communities and languages as an excuse to further a white surpremist agenda, please and thank you. Let’s call out racism for what it is, and instead work to build bridges between our cultures and languages. If you’re in Louisville, Kentucky, you can even pop on down to the library to share and get to know your community better. And if you are in Puerto Escondido and you know how to play spades (or want to learn), please come find me!

 

P.S . Please note I am not against folks who travel or live somewhere and don’t know the language or don’t otherwise “assimilate.” Everyone has their own reasons and their own process.I am not against white people in my adopted city, either, obviously, although I am very against hypocrisy and racism. I am not saying the description above fits all foreigners in this area (just like there is no uniform immigrant experience in the US), but it truly is the case here that white folks are doing the exact same things that black and brown immigrants do in other places, but in the US and elsewhere they get not just criticized, but also threatened, beaten, deported, and killed over it. Reverse racism does not exist!

Visitors’ Views

15 Feb

Finally, oh finally, we got our yearly visitors! First my stepmom, Karen, came- her first solo trek since my dad passed away, which made it a whole ‘nuther kind of new. Then my mom and her partner Dee arrived, this time with Dee’s son Andy, for his very first escape from Gringolandia.

There were many wondrous moments brought on by these visits, which I may or may not share with you in some future blog post. For now I will share with you some astute observations from my fantastic, fabulous family.

Okay, I will also tell you that Karen and I got to have grown-up time and took fantastically fun photos :

And that my mama and I destroyed Conan and Andy in spades!! (No pics, sorry.) Now on to our next portion, observations from all my glorious visitors:

 

“Desexualized” Swimming

While Zicatela beach is world-famous for its giant waves for surfing, it is not where anyone wants to take their children to swim. There are two other sections of beach with much calmer waters- one, Puerto Angelito, being the most preferred. (We had our annual all-family-mixer there again, complete with oysters just pulled from the sea, as usual. I got out of control and bought three kinds of cake so we could celebrate everyone’s birthday this year.)

In general around here, the beach is not spring break in Florida. There are not gobs of young women laying out in bikinis. Yes, bikinis are popular beachwear here, for folks with all sizes of bodies. Yes, some people sunbathe. But particularly at the swimming beach, people aren’t hanging out trying to look sexy. They’re just swimming. Or eating. Or having a beer. Or playing in the sand with their kids. Some people wear bikinis, some don’t. Many people don’t even wear official swimming gear. Lots of people, even folks who live here, don’t own a real bathing suit. Plus you get some folks stopping by on their way somewhere else (especially pilgrims going to or from their visit with the Virgin of Juquila) who weren’t really prepared to go to the beach. So there are people in jeans and t-shirts. There are people in other thrown-together swimwear. Nobody cares what other people are wearing or doing, as seen below.

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the swimming beach

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A lotta people I love. Only my kids and I are in official swimwear. Check out the folks in the background, too.

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foreground: my monsters with their sweet cousin. background: NOT spring break in Palm City Beach or whatever it’s called

Use of Public Spaces

“People use all the public space. People are much more present in public.” These were some important observations from Andy. “You can even lie down on the floor of the airport and nobody even looks at you,” he said.

People are constantly out in the street- on their way somewhere, chatting in the neighborhood, watering the garden, sitting on the stoop of some business to share a beer (well, men only on this one). Here it doesn’t matter if there are no sidewalks- people walk anyway, because that’s how most of us get around, at least some of the time. Thanks to there being fewer cars and there being a small corner store on every 3rd corner of residential areas, there’s always somewhere to walk to.

Pertinent to that, ideas about the public and private are radically different here. The public space is where many social events happen, rather than in a private home. People that aren’t family don’t usually just drop by your house and come on in, either. They (usually) stay in whatever outside area or public-ish open area you have, even if it’s a woman visiting another woman. I almost cried tears of joy last year when a friend came and visited us and sat in my bedroom with me, so I could play with Lucia on the bed AND talk to her at the same time (not be excluded from the social, adult world despite my parenting responsibilities in the private, off-limits realm of my bedroom). I had missed that kind of assumed intimacy, that consensual sharing of privacy that we’re into in the US.

I think that using public space more and private space less has some advantages, especially in that you don’t need a fancy home to have social time. However, I think that it gives women an automatic disadvantage at social life outside of their family. Women (pretty much universally) have more domestic responsibilities than men, and tend to spend more time at home because of it. But when your home is not a place for socializing, that means that you can’t socially multitask, like I used to do so much of the time- inviting your friends over to chat and washing your dishes while you do so, for example. Changing the baby’s diaper with your girlfriends in the US means they accompany you to whatever room so you can keep talking. In my personal experience here, that’s not the case. So this public/private cultural difference is a funny juxtaposition because on one hand, everyone being out in public, using the public space is so much more open and accessible, but it’s also less intimate in a different kind of way.

(Apparently I was dying to elaborate on this observation!)

Nature Like We Don’t Get At Home

Seeing iguanas everywhere is STILL fun for me, years later, so you can imagine how cool it is for other folks. I still giggle everytime I’m teaching class and a big ones falls from a tree with a giant clunk. For some reason, though, nobody was very excited to go see crocodiles in a lagoon, once they discovered it wasn’t a behind-the-glass, zoo-like experience. What? You don’t want to see crocodiles next to you in a small paddle boat? (Don’t worry; I was planning on leaving the kids at home for that outing.)

I didn’t even tell Andy about the scorpions, like the one that was strolling all nonchalant across my kids’ bedroom floor one evening last week. Good thing my kids never sleep in their own beds, huh?

16473866_10208290456406783_6800881647283940608_n Pictured: Our major nature adventure to the botanical gardens (obviously, it’s dry season). Andy was not thrilled to learn about the local venomous snakes and potential mountain lions around, but he braved the hike anyway.

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The Dogs Run The Streets 

Dogs around here own the streets- both strays and many pets are out running around all day and night. (Pets here are not treated like spoiled children, for better or for worse.) There’s no animal control and not a lot of campaigns to help people spay and neuter, so lots of dogs end up sad and hungry. Karen, a hardcore champion of all animals, bought a bag of dog food to carry around to feed poor, starving stray dogs, like the ones she saw in the mostly-touristy beach areas her past couple of visits. She was pleasantly surprised, however, to find a street full of lazy, chunky mutts. The business owners and residents of the neighborhood where she stayed are economically well-off enough and animal-loving enough to make a little doggie paradise, in one neighborhood at least.

Never-ending Resourcefulness 

Despite very high rates of economic poverty, folks here are ingenious. They come up with solutions for everything, as I’ve raved about before. There aren’t many people asking for change on the street, but there is lots and lots of hustling to make a living, working in the street, selling candy, popcorn, toys, juice, or washing windows or whatever. Andy didn’t even see the door-to-door salespeople walking the dusty streets to sell furniture that they are carrying on their backs, and even so, people’s resourcefulness and perseverance made an impression on him.

No “Essential” Electrical Apparatus

Both Karen and Andy were taken aback by the lack of microwaves. “When you said you were warming up beans for the kids, and then you came out to get Khalil and ran back in yelling about your beans burning, I was kinda confused for a minute,” Andy joked. Karen thought her hotel’s kitchen area was well set up but was definitely missing a microwave and coffeemaker (another electrical appliance that is far from universal down here). A microwave is just not the kind of bare necessity that it is in the US. Mostly corner stores have them if they want to sell microwave popcorn and soup-cup Ramen noodles. My mother in law has one because she used to sell that stuff, although nowadays she only uses her microwave as a storage space for bread, or as an emergency cooking device if her stove runs out of gas and she doesn’t have the money then for a new propane tank.

Also missing in action here: toasters, clothes dryers (it is in the 80s or 90s everyday here, although even in cold and wet places dryers are not “a thing.”)

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Mexican toaster- aka comal – not my photo! from FeralKitchen.com

Go, go, go

Everywhere you go, people are walking, riding bicycles, riding scooters and motorcycles, riding ATVs, riding buses, taking shared cabs called colectivos, hailing taxis, and just generally getting around one way and another. Not everyone has a car, to say the least, but there are way more options for transport. Public transportation is more common and more user-friendly than any small city or large town I’ve ever been to in the states.

Andy asked, “How does a country that’s poorer than the United States make it easier for people to get around?” This is a question that everyone in the US should be asking themselves and then asking their community and their elected officials. This question, and so many others like it, also represents to me why travel abroad* is such an eye-opening, heart-reconstructing, mind-altering, life-metamorphasing experience: you shift your paradigms of both the normal and the possible. You shatter stereotypes. You see new things that don’t work for people and new things that do work for people. You question your home culture as much as the culture you’re visiting. It’s a win-win situation for the world and you.

Keep travelling, even if you can’t leave home! Keep loving, at home and abroad!

 

*I know not everyone can physically travel to another country. Having friendships with folks from a different country, reading foreign books, even watching many foreign movies has similarly altered my consciousness and my heart for the better. It’s a global world; take advantage!

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Attempts to capture the moment with my mama and these random small children I found on the street bwahahaha