I need to correct a likely misperception. I believe many people think I live in “Mexico” … beaches, burritos, Corona & tequila, short dark-haired men with big mustaches on donkeys, Ranchera music – you all know the stereotypes. Those who know me better think I live in “Mexico City” … dangerous, overly-populated, smog-filled, scary, corrupt, foreboding – again, common stereotypes of the city, frequently portrayed in Hollywood movies as the “big, bad city,” where no one really wants to visit. (okay, there´s a few of you crazies out there!)

 

A perfect park in Mexico City

Mexico, and Mexico City, is far from the stereotype, and my life here is even more distant. While there is a lot of traffic, and smog, and Ranchero music, not everyone has to suffer from it. 🙂 Some of us live in a different kind of Mexico City. The world of Young Urban Professional Expats (the new YUPE). For better or worse, this is the world I live in. While most Mexicans are fighting crowds on the Metro or crowded streets in traffic, I am walking a few lovely, tree-lined blocks to work. While many Mexicans run the risk of encountering dangerous people daily, my world is filled with security guards and doormen and drivers, watching out for any shady behavior. While in much of this city and country it can be risky to eat on the street if you are a foreigner with a sensitive stomach, in my neighborhood you can order at any restaurant without a second thought. This is the bubble formed by the wealthy of Mexico City, who want all the comforts and dont want to see, hear or experience how the other 80% live. I suppose this is not an unusual phenomenon, but it the differences between neighborhoods are even more marked here in Mexico than in many other places.

 

Mexico City "Tree Advertising"

Now, before you start to judge me, let me tell you how I feel about all this. I hate it. While many people would love to live in the bubble I do, I really cant stand it. I dont mind being able to walk to work, for sure. But I hate that I live in a world filled with fake beauty, where people show off and mask the realities of life. I hate that while I live in a country filled with so much cultural richness, with art and history and natural beauty, I have little contact with the everyday Mexican reality in the majority of the socio-economic levels. And most of all, it makes me sad to think that there are so many Expats that see only this Truman Show world, that never venture for a ride on the Metro, visit the more mainstream “barrios,” eat at sketchy taco stands, wonder at the incredible street art or laugh with people while dancing to Ranchero music at 3am.

 

Alibrijes in Mexico City

For my part, I will continue living in my Truman Show neighborhood, but make every escape possible to visit other parts of the city, know other parts of Mexican society, and experience different cuisines. And I will try to understand better the lives of all the people who make this Truman Show neighborhood possible … all the guards, doormen, waiters, hosts, cleaners, taxi drivers, and “Ricos Tamales Oaxacaños” street-vendors. The next series of blog entries will be dedicated to observations of micro-cultures of the people who work in my neighborhood.

Levis Amazing New Ad Campaign

I admit, when I first moved to Mexico City, I loved living outside my culture. I loved being surrounded by different people, different ways of thinking, a different language … but most of all, I loved being away from my own culture. I definitely went through a rejection period. When I returned to the US for visits I would proudly walk through the airport thinking I was way better that everyone in the US because I had left the US. I had rejected all things big and materialistic and orderly and sterile. I had rejected English & what I considered at the time to be highly annoying cultural characteristics – like sticking to a schedule. I felt good about it. I was naive.

Now, a few years and many miles of travels later, I have matured a bit, evolved my thinking a bit, and come back around to evaluate my own culture with fresh eyes. I dont think I´m better than people who still live in the US. I dont think my culture is annoying. I am not embarrassed to say I´m from the US. (which might have a little to do with the change in DC … ) Instead, I feel proud of many things American. I feel proud to come from an extremely diverse culture. I feel proud to come from a country full of creativity and inspiration. I feel proud to be a curious, open-minded, friendly person representing the good things (hopefully!) of the US. I listen to all kinds of music – from rap & R&B to jazz and country, I watch movies – from indie films & spots on you-tube to hollywood hits, I love my Mac electronics, I read and laugh and taste and feel, and I am happy to come from a country that fosters invention, innovation and supports the arts. And I am grateful that I was raised to treat everyone equally, no matter what their social status, their skin color, their gender or sexual preference. Because in many parts of the world, people aren´t so open & accepting.

Of course, there are still things about the US that I dont like. For instance, I think people tend to get trapped into thinking there is only one way to live life, which often involves debt, long-term planning, and aversion to risk/adventure. I also think too many Americans are obsessed with happiness (and their general mental/emotional health). And while the US is the birthplace to so much creativity, technology & art, there is an overly proud, “better than you” attitude that often gets exported along with the music, movies and brands.

Levis Go Forth Campaign - Walt Whitman poems

So, while I no longer feel embarrassed or reject my country and culture of origin, I also realize it is up to me to decide which cultural traits I will portray … and which I will reject. (Though I am sure many Anthropologists would argue that we cannot choose our cultural traits. I think as adults we can decide who we want to be.) I feel like I have a more clear sighted view of my own culture – for better or for worse. I now realize that one´s outlook on life is not a result of where they choose to live, but rather of who a person is inside, what their values are, what their dreams are, how they like to spend their day. I no longer feel like I am escaping anything by living abroad. But there are things about living abroad that make me want to stay. Maybe it´s easier for me to be more open to life when I am forced to, everyday. Maybe I´m just lazy, and Mexico kicks my butt just enough to make life a little more challenging and interesting. Lord knows it is NOT because I like to be asked everyday where I am from and how long I have been here! At least now I can say “Estados Unidos” with confidence.

Walk or take a snooze ...

Walk or take a snooze ...

I recently came across a great article called “Understanding Cultural Differences” (by Edward and Mildred Hall, 1990). They talk about cultures as tending to fall into two groups (Monochronic and Polychronic) depending on their internal time system which guides nonverbal communication and actions. Monochronic cultures are typically “Western” cultures including Swiss, German, Scandinavian, and US-an. While Polychronic cultures tend to be more Mediterranean and Latin, as well as East Asian and Arab.

The article goes on to explain some differences between these two ruling time systems and how they influence so many cultural interactions. Here are some of the most striking (and in my experience, completely visible and true) differences between cultural time systems. 

Monochronic (US, German) people tend to …. vs. Polychronic (Latin, Mediterranean) people who tend to:

  • do one thing at at time …. vs. do many things at once
  • concentrate on the job …. vs. are easily distracted and subject to interruptions
  • take time commitments seriously …. vs. consider time commitments an objective to be achieved if possible
  • emphasize promptness …. vs. base promptness on the relationship
  • need information to operate well …. vs. already know the information through cultural understanding
  • committed to the job …. vs. are committed to people and human relationships
  • adhere religiously to plans …. vs. change plans often and easily
  • are concerned about not disturbing others …. vs. are more concerned with those who are closely related than with privacy
  • show great respect for private property (seldom borrow/lend) …vs. borrow and lend things often and easily
  • are accustomed to short-term relationships … vs. have strong tendency to build lifetime relationships
Chasing Bubbles, not a thought to the hour

Chasing Bubbles, not a thought to the hour

While of course these are broad cultural generalizations, I found this list very insightful. It is true that in Mexico the meeting will always go long if there are still things to be said (which there always are). And no business meeting begins without at least a few minutes of small talk about children and families and personal life. All meetings are interrupted multiple times with various cell phone calls (taken in the meeting), emails being sent/received, and various side-conversations among participants. I am sure it is no coincidence that most office floor-plans in Mexico are “open style” as the heightened noise level, lack of privacy and increased social interactions are more comfortable for Latino cultures. And no weekend plan, such as a beach trip, can ever be counted on until you are actually in the car leaving the city, because 9 out of 10 times the plan will change even up until a half-hour before scheduled leaving time. Which can be frustrating!

Though as a perpetually late US-an myself, I must admit that I secretly like the emphasis on relationships over promptness. Honestly, my late arrival is not a reflection of my respect (or lack there-of) for the person I am going to meet. I just was raised in a household where finishing something was more important than arriving on time for the next thing. I have a suspicion that the US being the melting-pot that it is has more cultural influences from the Polychronic Time side than people like to admit. It must by my great-great-great aunt’s French influence.

A Mexican Suburb Full of SocioCultural Differences

A Mexican Suburb Full of SocioCultural Differences

Lately I have been noticing a lot of cultural differences in the way people work, think and act in Mexico. From business situations in my multicultural new job to social and everyday life encounters. And I am not just talking about Mexicans and US-ans … lately I am surrounded by people from all over Europe, South America and North America. With various languages and even more varied ideas about life, it is always a cultural experiment living in such a multicultural environment. For example, I just hosted a party with guests from no less than 8 countries! The party was interesting to see how people act and interact in different ways, many of them ruled by a hidden cultural guide unknown even to them.

I like to think of Cultural traits  as a software installed since childhood, when we watch, listen and learn from our parents, families and those around us how we should act in certain situations, what type of verbal and non-verbal communication we should use, and when to do and say specific things. Even though the majority of this learning will always be sub-conscious, years later it will still be visible in our many of our actions, expressions and manners of communicating. Let’s take the simple social event of a party; there are a million examples of the influence of people’s cultural upbringing guiding their behavior. For example:

  • Some arrive early, some arrive late
  • Some bring home-made gifts, some bring nothing but a smile
  • Some stick to their date or friends all night barely talking with anyone else, while others make the rounds several times and leave with a long list of new friends
  • Some smoke, some don’t … some drink, some don’t … and others smoke and drink (a lot)
  • Some dance, even before being drunk, others dance, only when drunk, and still others never get up the courage to move their bodies at all
  • Some sit down most of the night, others prefer to stay standing
  • Some talk a lot, others listen more
  • Some munch directly from the snack bowl, others take some chips into their napkin or hand to eat
  • Some talk about their careers and accomplishments, others talk about their families and travels
  • Some treat the bar tender with utmost respect, others order the him around rudely
  • Some carefully clean up when they are through, others don’t seem to notice the avalanche of a mess they leave behind
  • Some take ice, others lots of lime, and a few just like it hot
  • Some leave early, others leave when the hosts start to fall asleep after 4am 🙂

While not all of these differences are purely cultural, I personally believe (after studying anthropology and thinking way too much as I people-watch for hours on end) that many more differences have their roots in our cultural-infused upbringing than we care to admit. And when I say “culture” I don’t just mean Mexican, Brazilian or US-an. I am referring to micro-cultures of sociocultural groups (e.g., US hippies,  Mexican fresas), religious groups (Catholic vs. Jewish), socioecomic levels (middle vs. upper, NSE C vs. B+), and so many other micro-groups we belong to that influence how each one of us is raised from childhood to adulthood.

Just something to think about the next time you attend a party. Watch people’s actions and interactions, think about how and possibly why they do the things they do. It adds a fascinating new dimension to every party!

As seen in Bogota, Colombia. I love these. (In fact, I think all creative graffiti  is awesome.) What a clever way to communicate all those pent-up thoughts and ideas. Creative expression with a powerful statement. No words needed. Yet another reason why I loved Colombia.

colombia-209sm

colombia-220smcolombia-211sm1colombia-218sm

friday-the-13th

I admit. I am superstitious. I try to avoid the number 13 because I honestly believe it is unlucky, and especially because my lucky number is just one more, 14. If no one tells me “salud or bless you” after I sneeze I tell myself just to be sure my soul wont escape forever. And I hate walking under ladders and scaffolding (which is not just superstition but common sense if you ask me). I always wish on eyelashes that happen to fall out – hoping a fairy will find it and grant my wish. And I have a little golden elephant that travels with me in my suitcase or in my car for good luck (which, to this day, has been very successful in bringing me luck).

ornaments-elephant-str

I know, you might think that an educated, worldly person like myself would not believe in such “silly nonsense.” But I do. And I am not too ashamed to admit it. You see, these beliefs have been around for thousands of years, and it is yet another device we use to navigate through this world full of dangers and obstacles ready to stop us dead in our tracks. Some say even organized religions (of any denomination) exist to give people something to believe in, a faith in something bigger and more powerful than ourselves, an understanding of an order in the Universe, so as to reassure us that the universe does not just exist on random events. And of course religion also provides the ultimate tranquility for the ultimate question — a sure course of events that will happen after death.

Perhaps this is another reason I love traditional “latino” culture (which I say loosely), where it is not at all unusual to be superstitious. It is not at all questioned that one might go out of their way to avoid a potentially dangerous situation – that may or may not involve ghosts. I remember the first time I really got to know a girl from nothern Mexico in my high school in Portland, Oregon, and she told me with as much certainty as I might explain that 2+2=4 that there are evil ghost spirits in the desert in Northern Mexico and that one had to be careful with their pets and selves lest one of these spirits attack them. And in Bolivia, my host mother would burn a little incensed fire and bring it around the house at the first of every month to clean bad energy and bless the house for the month. Perhaps these beliefs sound odd to an outsider, but just think of this … what harm does it do to burn a little incense, if just in case, an atom of positive energy is attracted to the smoke and brings a stroke of good luck to your home??

 

Ofrenda Museo de Oro Colombia

Ofrenda Museo de Oro Colombia

Why is it that we tend to only visit museums when we are “touring” a city or on vacation? Living in Mexico City, a city full of museums, I find I tend to go only when I have visitors from out of town, which is a total shame because there are so many things to learn and get inspired by in a museum. On my recent trip to Colombia I had the time and dedication to visit many museums – in Bogota, Medellin and Cartegena. One of my favorite museums was the Museo de Oro en Bogota, one of the nicest curated museums I  have seen in a long time. I even started taking notes as I strolled through, from little snippits of ideas and images that inspired me. One fascinating part was the explanation for the different shades of gold and how the native cultures created these different colors to mean different things. I started thinking more about this and wanted to share some ideas. 

gold

GOLDS: Signifies Sun, Power, Semen (male)
Think of the force of the energy that brings light and life

GREENS: Represent Regeneration, Flowering, Growth
Think of the cycle of life, nature, balance

REDS: Mean Blood, Heat, Transformation
Think of fire, and the blood that flows through us

BLUES: Refer to Water, Calm, Cool (Female)
Think of the liquid on the planet and found within us

It is fascinating to think of the symbolism of all the colors we chose to wear and surround ourselves with … what energies do they bring? I have once heard of wearing red underwear to interviews to give one strength/energy. What about gold jewelry for power, silver for calm? I once had a family debate over a bedspread … apparently warm colored bedspreads (reds, oranges, golds, yellows) bring passion to the bedroom, while cool colors (like blues, greens, whites) might contribute to a less-than-romantic energy in the room. What color is your bedspread?