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!


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.