Tag Archives: usa

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.



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.


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



Down the Drain: Cultural Contrasts via What We Waste

8 Jan

I was watching the steaming hot water swirl down the drain, over the gobs of ice cubes and plastic straws and lemon wedges. I was still in that day-dreamy state that results from the incongruence of transitioning- from facetime-ing Conan (with him in Mexico) and being in my Mama’s kitchen in Louisville with my daughter, and then to work in a corporate restaurant. I was at the 3 month mark of being in the U.S., thinking about how I was supposed to be headed back by then, when a more pressing thought invaded my head: “Paulina would be soooo pissed.”


<A wonderful convenience! A baby seat in the airport restroom! I took a picture so that people in Oaxaca would believe that it exists. The U.S. is so wasteful, but so damn convenient and sometimes luxuriously useful!>

Way before I lived in Mexico, working in a restaurant disgusted me with the extreme wastefulness, and now that I’m back to it after 11 months in small-town Mexico, it’s even more horrific. When you live in the U.S., it’s optional to try to waste less- it’s something maybe you do if you’re a hippie, or maybe because you want to pay less on your electric bill, or maybe because you don’t have a car these days, etc. It’s not something that’s part of the culture, to say the least. You have to really think outside of the box to even realize how much you’re wasting just by breathing in the U.S. (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit on the breathing part, but the excessive use of resources is so ingrained that it might as well be breathing.)

My mother-in-law, Paulina, is the queen of thrift and what my Nonna called “waste not, want not.” Paulina puts my thrifty-ness and ability to save to shame. Many people in Mexico, and especially in the money- poor state of Oaxaca, are used to the type of conservation and repurposing that comes with not having money. But Paulina would quickly get over the shock of the wastefulness and scold everyone to death about it.


<Paulina and Lucia in the kitchen in Juquila>

Because in Mexico*, you conserve because there may be no water tomorrow, and you’ll just be standing there with shampoo in your hair, shit out of luck.

In Mexico you conserve because if you live in a hot place you don’t need any more heat so you don’t buy gas for hot water.

In Mexico you conserve because the garbage truck picks up different elements of the trash on different days, and they don’t even come every week, and you can earn a few pesos for a kilo of tin cans, and that organic waste can help feed the chickens anyway.

In Mexico you don’t drive everywhere because you probably don’t have a car for each person in the household, if you have one for the family at all.

In Mexico you take reusable bags on your shopping errands because the woman with fresh eggs doesn’t have a bag to give you, because even some stores don’t stock plastic bags, because carrying your errand bag is a way of life.

In Mexico you don’t turn on the light until nighttime, because “you should be ashamed of yourself” if you waste it like that during the day, and regardless you’re grateful because your friend who lives down the road can’t get any electricity because they haven’t set it up in his neighborhood yet.

In Mexico you do your part to put less waste in the landfill because maybe they don’t even sell things like baby wipes in your town.

In Mexico the food that women sell on the street is organic, although you won’t find any labels on  it, because “who can afford chemicals?”.
In Mexico people take great care of their clothes and shoes so that they last, because sometimes there’s no money to just buy more; in Mexico people often wear some form of sandals or flip-flops even to work construction or to go to fancy events, and they still consider themselves better off than the folks who go around barefoot.

In Mexico (especially among the older generation) you don’t need to buy fancy care products like deodorant because limes are cheap and plentiful and just as effective.

In Mexico if you’re a little gringa who wants weights to lift during her exercises, you (or your partner) ask your neighbor for a little bit of concrete when they’re working on their house and fill soda bottles with it.

In small-town Mexico there’s no Walmart or Target or Staples or FedEx or Kroger or a million other conveniences with their entire aisles (entire aisles! like practically a whole store in Mexico) dedicated to semi-useless extravagances like “party decorations” or “bathroom accessories”. In Mexico you have to get creative if you want to decorate, you have to be dedicated and patient and resourceful if you really want to buy something that’s not a basic necessity; you can’t just get in your car and go to the store and find your aisle. In Mexico there are no tacks to hang stuff the wall because the walls are made of concrete probably, or maybe plywood, or hopefully not tin. In Mexico you reuse and repurpose and recycle and refuse to buy stuff because it’s a way of life. Period.

And I have to say, in a lot of ways it’s a way of life I really like. Okay, so sometimes it’s extremely inconvenient, like when you have to go to the locksmith 3 days in a row to get a copy of a key because every time you go it’s closed and there are no official hours. It’s frustrating when you have to pay through the nose and/or go to a bigger town for something that is fairly basic (like, say, sealable plastic bags, which hell yes we wash and reuse.) It bums me out to leave lights off when it’s a gloomy day, even though I technically have enough light to see just fine. There are days that I pine for enough hot water for a 20 minute steaming shower, which will just never happen in Paulina’s house with the hot water heater we have (at least we have one!).

That’s not to say that Oaxaca is great for the environment, either. People often burn their toxic trash right outside their house. Many rivers are full of sewage thanks to lack of good town planning. People mostly use a ton of (albeit reusable) plastic products (mugs, plates, etc.- instead of porcelain like many folks in the US use). It’s not perfect, by any stretch. But it’s a refreshing change from the excess of the U.S.

In just a few days** I’ll be back in Juquila, our small town in the mountains. It will be a shock, I’m sure, after having internet capabilities on my cell phone, after having a washer and dryer and dishwasher all the time, after, well, all these outrageous and wonderful and excessive and time-saving conveniences. Yes, Juquila will be a slight shock this time, but I’m sure it won’t be anything like the shock that’s gonna come in a few weeks when we move to our new house. With no electricity. Which means washing diapers and clothes by hand. Which means no refrigerator (by far my biggest worry). No blender for soups and smoothies. No light at night. I can’t think too long or hard about the changes or it seems too impossible.

Meanwhile, I think about the hot running water wasting away, the Mexican dishwasher who turned it on and whether he must have felt the same outrage and disbelief I felt the first time they told him this was how to do his job. I think about all these clashes and juxtapositions that come from our modern globalization, for better or for worse. At the end of the day, I’m happy to be a witness to it all, trying to learn to take it all in stride, one little moment at a time.

*My use of “in Mexico” here really means in the two small towns in Oaxaca that I know intimately. I don’t pretend to speak to Mexican culture as a whole, since Mexico is gigantic and diverse, much like the U.S.

**When I wrote this I was packing to go back to Oaxaca. I’ve been back a while now.