The Geography Lesson that Brought Me to Shame

Did I ever tell you how I broke my culture shock? The defining moment when I went from “I hate it here, why don’t they do things my way?” to “Well, this might be ok after all!”

I was in my second year of university here in Cancun. I had a world geography class that totally blew my mind. As I looked up at the world map for several weeks, I thought to myself, “This is wrong. Why is the professor teaching wrongness? Why are my classmates not correcting him? Does nobody care or even notice that the map is wrong?” (Gosh, I’m such a typical American.)

In the US, we’re taught early on that the world has 7 continents: North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and Antarctica.

In Mexico, they’re taught that the world has 5 continents: America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Under this model, what we Americans consider to be North and South America is actually one large continent of America, and Antarctica doesn’t factor in at all!

MIND. BLOWN.

But wait! It doesn’t stop there! North America is everything north of the Panama Canal, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Get this: Mexicans don’t consider Central America to be part of North America.  Here, the large continent of America is sub-divided into 3 regions: North America (Canada, the US and Mexico), Central America and South America. In this model, Central America is no longer part of North America, it just borders North America.

North America in blue, Central America in yellow, South America in green... 3 regions making up the continent of America

After a few months of fuming to myself, I decided to look it up on Wikipedia to prove that I was right. Instead, what I got was this:

Number of Continents

And that’s when it hit me. My way isn’t the only way.

Even though I was taught something as fact, there still might be millions of other kids in other parts of the world learning it differently.

It was a huge step for me as an expat to realize that I can believe there are 7 continents, and my friends can believe there are 5 continents, and people on the other side of the world can believe there are 6 continents, and we are all correct.

This led me to realize that just because Mexicans don’t do things the way I might want them to, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Sometimes their way is even better than my way! (Except when they put ketchup on their pizza. After 7 years, I still find that unacceptable.)

I spent my first year in Mexico trying to make everyone more like… me. Then I spent the following 6 years trying to become more like them. All thanks to one geography course.

Christmas and Culture Shock

Hello all! I’m back from good ole Richmond, Virginia, and it was a very Merry Christmas indeed. This was my first time back in Richmond after more than 3 years, and I got to see family and friends I hadn’t seen in forever.

Jorge LOVED the US. He liked the houses, mainly because they “don’t have bars on the windows, like in Mexico”. Very true. I took him to my favorite outdoor mall, and he was a bit overwhelmed but definitely enjoying himself. I have to admit I miss US malls, too… although I did feel bad for the shirtless guy standing in the freezing cold of the Abercrombie and Fitch entrance.

I was excited to be back in my hometown of Richmond! I got to see lots of friends and family I hadn’t seen in over 3 years. Jorge got to see my high school, middle school, elementary school, church and old house.

Everything seemed so much bigger and grander than I remember. In Cancun all the houses are right next to eachother (no side yards, shared walls) and yards are usually just tiny squares of concrete. The bigger houses here have walls around them, and almost all houses here have bars on the windows. In Richmond, the yards were so huge and the houses so much larger than they needed to be that I felt like I was way in the country or something (even though it was just the suburbs). Even houses I used to think were small growing up, today they look immense!

All the shopping centers and restaurants looked so pristine it was overwhelming. Immaculate storefronts were surrounded by massive amounts of parking space. Where were the flimsy taco stands? Where were the family-owned corner stores? Why are there so many SUVs? Who would go to a huge shopping center in the middle of nowhere? (a lot of people, apparently)

The only thing big about Cancun is the potholes.

I was seeing the first stages of reverse culture shock, and I was only there for 3 days. Everything from the cars to the houses, restaurants, movie theaters and malls was just so BIG and PERFECT. It was lovely, but I was glad to get back to the sun and tiny concrete houses of Cancun.

Here are a few pics. The lights are from the James Center in downtown Richmond, and the rest are just family photos taken at my grandparents’ house.

How was your Christmas?

My Mexican Thanksgiving

As I was going through some pictures yesterday, I realized I hadn’t told you about my Thanksgiving!

Back in the US, my family does Thanksgiving just like everyone else’s family… turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy and lots of desserts! When I was in college in Cancun, I never had any fall breaks. Now that I’m working, I only get back home for Christmas. So I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving since 2005, I think. (or seen any fall weather, for that matter!)

This year, my suegros took pity on me and prepared a lovely Thanksgiving dinner. They invited some of their friends, and I invited some of mine. We had a pretty big group (not all are pictured), including an American priest from the church my suegros go to.

There was turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and lots of veggies! Everyone seemed to really enjoy all the American food. I was almost expecting them to break out the tortillas, but they resisted.

Thanksgiving dinner still had some undeniably Mexican touches to it, though… dinner didn’t begin until 10:30 pm, the turkey was heavily seasoned with lime, the dinner was blessed by a Catholic priest, and the priest had to explain the Thanskgiving story several times to our Mexican guests. Close enough!

Me being a dork

Oh mashed potatoes… it’s been too long since we last met!

Further Proof That I'm Turning to the Dark Side

Remember when I realized I was slowly turning into a Mexican?

It’s happened again.

I used to make fun of my mother-in-law for this, as well as former roommates, landlords and friends.

And now…

Yes. I use my own oven for storage instead of baking. It’s just so darn convenient!

I think this cultural habit stems from two factors:

1. Mexican cooking requires more use of the stove, not the oven.

2. As in many non-American countries, Mexican kitchens don’t offer much in the way of cabinets.

So Voila! Perfect solution: Unused oven = storage.

American readers: Feel free to mock me.

Mexican readers: Feel free to say “I told you so”.

Time is Fluid

Here in Mexico, the culture has a very different concept of time from in the US. Growing up, my family taught me that if you’re not 5 minutes early, you’re late. When I tried to apply that concept here, it resulted in lots of time waiting for other people to show up.

Mexicans consider time to be fluid. There aren’t really specific times, just general times of day and periods of time when things need to be done.

When setting up a get-together with a Mexican, you can usually plan for them to be late. Recently, I got together with a bunch of girlfriends for a bridesmaids dress fitting. My friend Viri and I got there 15 minutes late, 2 girls arrived 45 minutes late, 1 girl arrived an hour late, and another girl arrived an hour and a half late! In the US, this would be completely unacceptable. Here, however, we just used it as an opportunity to have some micheladas and tortas while we waited. No problem!

A few weeks ago, I heard the perfect conversation to represent the “time is fluid” concept. We were in Chabihau, and stopped by a little shop for some machacados (a Mexican version of a slushee, made with natural fruit). As they were preparing our machacados, this conversation occurred:

 

Jorge: Are you going to be open tomorrow?

Lady: (turns to husband) Are we going to open tomorrow?

Man: Sure.

Jorge: What time?

Man: Ummm… (looks at wife)… in the afternoon? Yes, in the afternoon.

Jorge: Ok, thank you!

 

For any American, this would cause confusion. Do they open early afternoon? Late afternoon? What time do I need to be here to get my machacado tomorrow?

For the Mexican, however, this is a non-issue. If they’re open when I show up, awesome. If not, they’re probably just having Sunday lunch with the family, right?

For an American living in Mexico, it’s hard to find a balance between “local time” and what we consider to be “rude” by our American standards. I’ve learned to adjust my time to each individual. I have a few friends who are normally punctual, so I try my best to be on time as well. Other friends tend to arrive an hour late, so I’ll wait for them to text me that they’re on their way before I leave my house.

How do you feel about time? Are you punctual? Does it bother you when others are late?

**We stopped by the machacados shop the next day at 1 pm, and yes they were open.**

 

I'm Still An American on the Inside

As I’ve mentioned before, I use taxis a lot here in Cancun. They’re easy to find, they’re cheap ($20 pesos to get almost anywhere you want in downtown Cancun), they’re fast and I even get serenaded by taxi drivers on occasion.

They do, however, have a habit that causes my inner American to scream, “Oh no he didn’t!!”

Not having change.


I totally understand if they don’t have change for larger bills. If I have anything worth $200 pesos or more, I will always ask if they have change for it before I get into the vehicle. However, what really bothers me is when they don’t have change for my $50 pesos or $100 pesos, and don’t bother to tell me until we reach our final destination.

Some will ask you from the beginning, “Do you have exact change?”, which I think is great. Usually I have it, and if I don’t, we’ll stop by a gas station along the way (gas pumpers always have change).

But what I CAN’T STAND is when we get to our destination, I hand them a $50 peso bill, and they say to me “Sorry, I don’t have any change. I just started my shift.”

WHAT?????

My American mind reels, screaming in my head that people providing services should always begin their shift with change, to make life easier for everyone and to earn money faster. I could certainly forgive someone who started their shift with change, then ran out as the day went on. Completely understandable. But not having change to begin with would seem to be just plain rude.

Still, I have to bite my tongue and remember that I’m a visitor in their country. The local culture has a tendency not to plan ahead, which works just fine for them because they have been blessed with the virtue of patience… something seriously lacking in American culture.

So when a taxi driver says to me, “Sorry, I have no change. I just started my shift”, all I can do is sigh, let go of my inner American, get in touch with my inner Mexican, and answer, “Ok, no problem… let’s go to a gas station for some change.”

The Ugly Americans

I’m not sure how to go about writing this one, just something I wanted to get of my chest, I guess.

During my time here in Mexico, I’ve heard many comments about Americans. (Turns out we don’t have a very good reputation… sorry to break it to you guys haha)

I can deal with most of these comments. People saying we’re loud, all we do is party, we’re all rich, we all go on vacations several times a year, etc etc. I understand that I live in Cancun, so obviously this is the side of Americans that my friends see. It’s not close to being true (except that we are very loud!), but again, this is what they see here, so I think only we’re to blame for that one.

Last night I was at a friends house for drinks, and the men started making lots of comments about Americans. Here are some interesting ones:

1. Mexicans are more pure-blooded than Americans. I will agree with this one to an extent. Mexicans in general are decended from 1 or 2 indigenous groups plus Spanish heritage. As a white American, I know of at least 5 different countries/races that I come from. Still, I have had people bring this up with me more than once, and I have yet to receive an explanation as to why it’s relevant. (When one gentleman brought that point up last night, it was met with cries of  “WHO CARES?” from the rest of the table.)

2. Americans don’t have a clear descent. I can trace my family tree back to the 1500s (thanks Grandma!). I know exactly where I come from.

3. Americans are the most racist country in the world (referring to white people vs black people). I disagree. I think you could have made a point of this 40 or 50 years ago. At least where I grew up, white people in my generation or my parents generation don’t seem to have many feelings of superiority over African Americans. I can’t speak for every state, but in Virginia that was very much the case. I did mention to the table that there are strong racial divisions in the country (neighborhoods, schools, etc etc) but that in general I don’t think we have more interracial hatred than many other countries. I also found it interesting when I moved here that in Mexico there are many feelings of superiority between certain races. For example, when I started dating Jorge, some of my friends from other parts of Mexico told me to dump him because “he’s dark and Mayan, and you can do better.” I didn’t think it would be fair to bring this up last night, however, because I have never seen any comments of that kind from the people present at the table.

4. All Americans vacation at least once or twice a year. Mmmm definitely not all of them. I would guess that many of us vacation that often, but certainly not out of the country. My family would vacation several times a year at my grandparents’ lake house, for example, so we never had much need to go elsewhere. I read recently on a CNN article that only 30% of Americans have passports.

5. Americans are crazy. I think Grandma Laura responded best to this comment by yelling, “What, and Mexicans aren’t even crazier?!”

6. White Americans are the worst serial killers. I would say we have the most individuals who kill for no reason apart from craziness, at least from what I see on the news. Yeah, I can’t argue with that one.

7. Americans have no culture. This one. This is the one that really pisses me off and that I have to bite my tongue on. Here’s how I see it: Mexicans have a culture that focuses strongly on their past, which is a very beautiful thing. Mayan architecture, Aztec traditions, regional dances, traditional clothing… all very cool and one of my favorite things about this country. America has a culture that focuses on its present, which might be interpreted as having no culture by other countries. However, when the man of the house said “Americans have no culture” last night, we were listening to American music on his computer, his DVD holder was filled with dozens of American movies and there were 3 bottles of Coca Cola on the table. Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as American Culture when your house is filled with it.

Sorry to rant. I just had to say some of the things I held back last night.

Reading American news sites, I’m often angered by the comments sections. Americans seem to be equally guilty of misjudging other countries and cultures. I can’t believe some of the things said on news sites about Mexicans, and it’s truly sad.

Honestly, I feel like both sides are being somewhat trained and conditioned to hate eachother. Each side has been bombarded with imagery depicting the absolute worst of the other country, and made to assume that’s normal. It’s not.

Both America and Mexico are filled with loving, hospitable, generous and open-minded people. I’m honored to be from one, and honored to live in the other.

I guess my point is: Don’t believe everything you’re told. Get to know somebody before making snap judgements. Just because you hear something from a friend or on the news or in a movie, that doesn’t make it true.

*rant over*

Culture Shock

A few weeks ago I was reading the blog of my friend Nicole, who lives on Isla Mujeres. She mentioned in several posts how frustrated she was with the culture and the island, and I realized she sounded exactly like me 5 years ago.

Most people have heard of culture shock, but not many people actually know what it is or how it looks. Surprisingly, many expats don’t know what it is either, even though they’ve probably suffered from it or are currently going through it.

I was lucky. The first time I came to Mexico I was a missionary intern for a summer in Acapulco, and we had to take a course before we came down. The class I remember the most was about culture shock, and I’m really glad they told us about it. That way, when I actually experienced it, I knew what was happening to me.

PHASE 1

The first phase of culture shock is the “Everything is amazing” phase. When you arrive in the new culture, you love the scenery, the language sounds beautiful, the cultural differences are charming… you could live here forever, right? This phase can last a few days or a few months, depending on how long you plan to be in your new country. I remember my first night in Cancun, driving through the Hotel Zone with all the bright and glittery hotels. I was in love. Exploring the city was tons of fun. My apartment was perfect, school was amazing…everything was great for a few weeks.

PHASE 2

Then comes the second phase… the “Everything sucks, get me out of here” phase. Like the first phase, this can last days or months (or years), depending on how long you plan to be here. Why can’t the Mexicans do things the way I do them… the RIGHT way? Why does nobody understand that my way is better? Why is it so hot ALL THE TIME? Why is everything so slow? Why does every small daily task take 3 times as long as in the US? Why can’t I throw toilet paper into the toilet? Why can’t people drive correctly? Why is nobody ever on time? What kind of idiot puts ketchup on their pizza? (Ok, the last one still frustrates me!) I was a real jerk during this phase.

From talking to other expats, it seems most long term expats start to go through this phase around month 3 or 4, with a strong, pissed off peak at the one-year mark. I remember when I reached my angry peak… I got into an argument with my roommates, which was the final straw. I called my friend Cesar and asked if I could go to his house. At his house, I pretty much bawled and complained for an hour, going through half a box of tissues. I was certain I wanted to leave NOW. Cesar was very patient with me, and told me to wait it out until the end of that semester, which I did. During those next few months, something just clicked. I finally realized that I wasn’t going to single-handedly change an entire culture. I was the one who had to change, Once I opened my mind, things became much better, and I moved on to phase 3…

PHASE 3

Phase 3 is the “Hey, Maybe They Were Right All Along” phase. You’re able to immerse yourself more in the culture and learn from it. I learned Mexicans are always late because of their “time is fluid” concept, which is actually a pretty cool way to live once you get the hang of it. I learned people in Cancun have a different way of driving because there aren’t many signs or lane dividing lines, so the people here have kind of developed their own rules… it appears to be just as good as our system because there aren’t too many accidents here.

This final phase will last throughout the rest of your time in the country. You’ll get many “this place is amazing” moments and many “this place sucks” moments, but overall it will just feel like normal day-to-day life.

My Christmas in Charlotte

I went to visit my family in Charlotte, NC for Christmas this year.

To be honest, I was way too busy eating, wrapping presents and hanging out to take many photos, but I did manage to get a few in there!

Massive amounts of presents! and yes, we hang out stockings on the couch. We're crazy like that.

Table set for Christmas breakfast!

Our annual Christmas breakfast... sausage and egg casserole! (with cinnamon rolls and fresh pineapple)

My sister's crazy but adorable kitten, Olive

Avert your eyes, vegetarians! Sarah's boyfriend Jared made some venison burger sliders from a buck he hunted himself.

Venison sliders... surprisingly more flavorful than beef!

Our Christmas day "lunch"... venison sliders, sausage and cheese balls, french onion dip and baked cheese dip.

All the desserts we had for Christmas... chocolate fudge, Christmas cookies, pecan pie and chocolate chip cheesecake (a personal favorite)

The family! (minus Jorge)

Sorry it took so long to post these… had some strange computer/photo/Wordpress issues, but I think we’re back now!