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16 May, 2015

What Living in Mexico has taught me about myself and about living in the USA

Posted in : Reflections from the Road on by : nommom

I’ve been away long enough to start to miss a couple of things about home, find some great appreciations about Mexico and I am also starting to see some tendencies within myself I had forgotten I had in the daily drill back home. Here are some observations:

We miss something by not randomly popping in to visit:

In smaller towns anyway, people are more likely to walk by to say hello or ask a question than they are to call you. It’s very 1940’s and, while disruptive, it is actually less disruptive than receiving texts and Facebook updates all day long. Being unplugged allows for this randomness of personalities to show up at your door; most of the time they are a friend with a piece of news to share, sometimes it’s an annoying street vendor. But it’s no big deal when they do so. And thus interspersed in your day is a visit or two, an opportunity for a hug a clear indication of your place and value in the community. Mexicans don’t hide from a knock on the door.

- culturally, I guess I am an American?

I’ve never really fit like I belonged as an American. I feel at odds with several of the standard overarching themes of our culture and have always considered the Latin side of my bloodline an unexplored area of richness that, in its unfamiliarity, felt more authentic to me (as though my Self could be so simply defined). I appreciate Latin America’s warmth and value of relationships over work hours. I love that they greet one another with a kiss or hug, even when meeting for the first time and how eager everyone is to help out or get together for an impromptu gathering.

Yet while someone popping in without warning is the norm, I felt out of place doing so. I did not want to interrupt a cousin’s busy day, impose upon her the additional cultural  norm of providing a snack or coffee in the middle of housecleaning or childcare. I did not feel secure and certain in the welcomeness of such a visit, because if *I* were trying to clean house and someone showed up and I was expected to provide tea or a meal…well it would put me out a bit. Obviously my decision not to pop in is based on a lot of assumptions and a finite understanding of cultural complexities and subtleties. Perhaps its not really that high an expectation, and I do know I’d love to have a random friend stop by for conversation in an otherwise dull day of diapers and laundry. There were many public situations in which I felt uncertain of propriety, and thus chose to stay quiet or at home instead of engaging in the world for fear of judgment or embarrassment. This is, of course, all on me and maybe even a reflection of judgments I’ve experienced as a part of American culture rather than any truth about Mexican culture.

Be grateful for plumbing and electricity

Our second house rental in Guanajuato had some serious plumbing flaws, and the electrical was a little flaky as well (but not dangerously so). Having inconsistent water temperatures bordering on the extreme ranges left me turning on all faucets and taking baths twice a week in what was ultimately tepid water. The toilets took hours to fill after a flush. Plumbing, as is usually the case in older buildings, was delicate enough to require all tissues be disposed of in a wastebasket rather than flushed. This is not a problem when the dumpster is located close by, but when it’s a tenth of a mile up a steep hill it means you don’t take out the trash daily. That makes for some tasty aromas. Thank goodness we did not have a problem with flies, however. That is another real possibility here.

An example of passable electrical – this was outside a church building.

Water is heated by gas or by solar heating. Solar heating is great most of the year, but a little sketchy in the winter up in the mountains. Therefore reliable water temperatures year round are not to be expected, but to be appreciated (at least where we have been traveling).
It’s no big deal, when light is needed, to patch something together using whatever is on hand. This never occurred as a solution in a house rental, thank goodness, but I’ve seen such ‘solutions’ here and there. Evidently it works often enough to continue doing it.

 Adjusting to a new culture means an extended period of awkwardness:

Will I ever become accustomed to asking for the check?

I appreciate the context of the server never assuming you are ready to pay; there is no rush, stay and enjoy yourself, you are our guests. Yet NomPa and I still wait too long after the meal waiting and by time we ask for the check we are overstretched by a cranky SquishNom and very ready to go. I feel absurdly shy in asking for the check right away, or asking to have my needs met here, period. I am acutely aware of being the foreigner as well as the negative reputation of brash, rude, entitled Americans in most other areas of the world. A very old story I have about the importance of not being an imposition has been acted out in my day to day living here. I have always admired those who feel self-confident in their place in the world and believe it is better to make a mistake and ask for forgiveness rather than not act at all. I still have a lot of growth in this area to do.

Gaining an appreciation for doing more with less.

I have one pair of jeans and NomPa has two. Over the last eight months of consistent wear they have all gotten worn through. Spending $15 to repair the holes in our 3 pairs of jeans felt really good to both of us, whereas in the US we would have thrown them away.

Every time I am tempted to purchase something I think about suitcase space. When all you own is restricted to two suitcases, real estate becomes very costly! There’s also the question: do I want to lug that around Latin America for 6 mos? Impulse purchases become very few and far between. I am hoping that this conservative nature stays with us when we return to US soil.  With any luck sticker shock will extend its effects for quite some time!

We have also been able to provide kids’ shoes, a potty, and some toys to others here as we have come to not have use for them. As there is no Goodwill drop off site we’ve been able to provide items of use to the children in the neighborhood where we are staying. That feels good.

These are habits I would like to continue when back home; considering space and efficiency before purchasing anything, considering how we can make do when something is ‘good enough’ and sharing unneeded items with a direct contact (probably via Craigslist or Freecycle) rather than just dropping it off at Goodwill.

I’ve seen so many great pairs of shoes I’ve wanted to bring home, but at the end of the day I haven’t pined for a single pair.

Americans seem to appreciate their environment more 

One of Mexico's national tragedies: cultural acceptance of littering

One of Mexico’s national tragedies: cultural acceptance of littering. This is a stream in GTO in otherwise gorgeous surroundings.

Throwing trash out the window and general littering is all too commonplace here. While you will see someone sweeping the dust and dirt on the sidewalk in front of the house and while there are street cleaners in Guanajuato who are forever milling about in the mornings picking up trash the wild areas on the outskirts of the most public places or unused lots are riddled with trash. There is no apparent appreciation for the natural beauty of an area and the desire to keep it clean. It’s tragic, and one area where I feel very happy and grateful for the anti-littering push in the 70’s and 80’s that has made it possible for us to enjoy unattended green spaces. While it may have been foisted upon the culture through stiff fines, I think we are all enjoying the outcome of it now.

Life is an experience best celebrated.

Mexico is a culture rich in connection (which I knew) and with a great appreciation of music (which I was not fully aware of). Guanajuato has music everywhere – the orchestra plays in the main plaza twice a week, mariachi bands walk around and play for tips. The latter is mainly a tourist thing, probably, but it still gives the small city a richness found in music that rises above the sounds of buses, cars, and typical city sounds. While we were in Guanajuato we discovered nearly every weekend had an event – Holy week before Easter, Dia de los Niños, a Renaissance faire, etc. School was often closed on Fridays for these celebrations and the streets were filled with celebration days before the actual noted day of celebration. Everyone here has an ease about them that we don’t see at home. Their faces are more relaxed, they are quicker to smile. I’m curious to see if this holds in our next location – Mexico City.

What are some insights you have had in your travels?

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