Friday, March 11, 2011

Poopy Paper and Flip-flops: The Cultural Differences I Learn to Embrace

Toilette paper:
Everyone uses different ways to go to the bathroom.  In Morocco I have heard, they shake with their right hand. If you use your left you are offending the other person.  This is because they wipe with the left.  In china, you have to learn how to squat over a whole and not miss.  I have many female friends that have shared experiences where they have missed and… well, let’s just say they kept a change of clothes close by for a reason.  The names don’t need to be mentioned, you know who you are…

Here in Mexico, you do your biness, and if you need to use paper, one must clean, and then put it in a trash bag/can next to the toilette.  I personally like to do my business then double wrap the used paper before I put it in the trash.  The people here are accustomed to having poor sewage systems and the paper has clogged up the toilettes in the past.

If there is one thing I have learned is this: Always be open when in a different culture. You may do things that are considered rude or weird without even knowing it. Is what you do right or wrong? Probably not, just different.  Many misunderstandings can be avoided with open communication.
Here is how my conversation went my 2nd day here “So, I know this may sound weird but, that little trashcan next to the toilette is for the toilette paper after I am done doing my business in the toilette right?” The kids had an awkward look on their faces and my mom laughed a little and said “Yes it is, and I am glad you are open enough to be able to talk about it.” I have had no problems with cultural habits because I let them know in the beginning that I want to learn and am open to be told how to change.

Brushing teeth:
Here in Mexico the people brush their teeth after every meal. Or at least my family does (that could be because she used to be a dentist…). One day, I was eating lunch and was running late (I have an hour and a half break in which I eat and then go to the ILP school to prepare for my evening classes that start at 5:30). I grabbed my bag and was heading out the door.  My little brother was in the kitchen with me and as I was leaving said “Coltan, aren’t you going to brush your teeth?” I said “No, why?” He gave me this gross look as if I were telling him that I like to lick toilettes and said “you are supposed to brush your teeth every time you eat.” I was not aware of this, and thinking that he may be trying to pull a fast one on me, I asked the grandma who was also in the kitchen with us. As I turned my head toward her I saw an awestricken and confused face.  I hesitantly asked her if that was true.  No words were said, only a solemn and slow nod of the head accompanied with a slight giggle.  I walked back to my room and brushed my teeth.
For a good 3 weeks after my little brother would yell out to me every time I left the house asking me if I had brushed my teeth. Isn’t it wonderful when we have people who care for us so much as to remind us of the little things that sometimes pass us by? I now do a preemptive strike and as I leave I say “don’t worry! I brushed ‘em!”

Flip-flops and shoes:
I have had many different experiences with shoes and homes through my years. In Alaska, one always takes his shoes off when entering in a house, no matter the time of year.  If the family is used to something else, they have to let you know when you first come in saying something like “you can leave them on, don’t worry.” When I went to the lower 48 (that is the contiguous U.S. for those of you illiterate in the Alaskan Lingo) I found out that most houses in Utah and Idaho are designed for shoes to be worn in the house.  The owners of the house have to tell you other wise or put some kind of welcome sign that says “this is a Japanese home, please take your shoes off.”

Here in Mexico there is no carpet.  As a matter of fact, some of my fellow teachers have decided that the carpet in our school—that has no padding under it—is the only carpet in Mexico. Tile, wood, and marble are what the floors here floss. On the first morning with my family I walked out in my socks.  The mom said “I am fine if you don’t wear shoes but just know that your socks are going to get really dirty.” This opened the door to a perfect opportunity for cultural learning. I asked her about flip flops and shoes.  She informed me that flipflops are used mostly for the bathroom and beach. If you are seen wearing flipflops outside you are looked at like you are wearing shoes that you are naked in outside. Who knows what kind of dirty thoughts people think about all of the gueros (white folk) that wear their shoes with their normal, everyday clothing.

Kissing on the cheek:
This is something that is very strange and hard for me to get used to.  Growing up with 5 boys has formed me into showing no physical or verbal affection. I can remember the first time I told my parents that I loved them over the phone. It was strange.

The rules as I know them are as follows:
Kiss good friends, especially the girls.  Boys, only if you are really good friends with the woman.
Kiss family, women and small children only
Men don’t kiss other men.

All of us in the group have had a few experiences “molesting” our families or people we have just met…

The shower:
My family here has a solar powered hot water heater. I have had many days of cold showers because it was malfunctioning or it was “cloudy.” If you know me well you know how much I love cold water.

Don’t worry; the master bathroom water is warmed by gas…

Being clean:
The people here are very clean.  Apparently the girls that come with ILP have a tendency to not take care of themselves in the realm of hygiene.  The girl that stayed with my family before me did not take showers and frequently wore flipflops. She had nasty feet is what I am told.  I have spoken to many families here and they always have a story about how the Americans are dirty people. If you ever come to Mexico, make sure you bath daily.  They do.  And men, find a good cologne and wear it on a normal basis.

A maid:
“I raise my kids to leave the house.” I am pampered here.  My dad always likes to tell people how his boys are capable of living out of the house because my parents have taught us to do so.  We don’t go through the normal growing pains that others do when we go to college, or leave the house. When I was 19, fresh out of high school and ready to conquer the world, I drove a 3000 mile trip through a foreign country with 3 girls and two vehicles. When I got to school, I didn’t call home except to say that I had arrived.  I didn’t have a cell phone, facebook and myspace did not exist and the only way for me to communicate was via e-mail and phone card. It was 3 months before I really called home and spoke to my parents after I had arrived.

Here, we have a maid that cleans, cooks, and does laundry.  I do my own laundry, but everything else she does for us.  This is normal. Any house that has an average income has a maid that does everything for them.  It has been nice but I am afraid I have forgotten to clean and cook…

Dirty shoes:
Like I mentioned before, Mexicans are very clean.  In Tehuacán, the city is covered in dust and dirt.  You can’t walk through the city without getting dust on your shoes. My family cleans their shoes on a regular basis.  It is not uncommon to see people sweeping the sidewalk or road in front of their house or business.
This is one cultural aspect that I have not done so well in keeping up with. I let my shoes get very dirty.  My little brother one day said “Coltan, do you ever wash your shoes?” mom got made at him and said “why don’t you offer him the shoe cleaning kit instead!?” haha, she thinks I need to keep them clean too.

Hello goodbye (greeting everyone):
Every time you enter a room, you have to say hello to everyone that is there (see Kissing the on the cheek). When you leave, you have to say goodbye to everyone.
One of the teachers here was having issues with the host family.  I asked if every time they entered the room if he was greeting them to which he said: “well, most of the time.” Nope, it needs to be every time.  Every time they enter or leave a room you acknowledge their existence.

Poop on the sidewalk:
There are stray dogs EVERYWHERE! Well, there are dogs everywhere.  I think they don’t like gringos because I have arrived at the school multiple times to wonderful presents of what was eaten by a dog in the form of movement of the bowl, sitting in front of the door. being one of the only men around, I take care of the mess. It is really gross.  Also, you have to watch everywhere you walk on the sidewalk because the dogs like to poo on the sidewalk.  I think it is a more tranquil place for them, because on the road cars may come and interrupt them in their time of vulnerability…or they just like to watch us try and dodge their gifts, hoping to see the disgusted look when we actually do trod on their well planted mine of squishy poo.

Spandex bike ride:
Mexican people have a very strong self-image.  They call each other fatty or skinny as a name of affection. They worry about their outward appearance but mostly about what they wear for what it is rather than how it makes you look. They wear nice clothes all the time.

One day, my dad asked me to go on a bike ride with him and my little bro. I said that I would love to. Now, I was thinking a little Sunday stroll around a park or something.
At 7 AM my little brother knocked on the door and he had in his hands, a helmet, gloves, a biker’s shirt, biker’s coat, and spandex. I felt a little uncomfortable but I wanted to “embrace” the experience so I took the clothes and squeezed into them.  I was happy to see that both my dad and brother were wearing similar clothing; I didn’t feel so awkward.

I am the kind of person that doesn’t like to look out of the norm, except to look good.  I love to dress nice and be clean.  The people here will where with pride what ever they are doing and don’t seem to worry too much what others think of them.  I recently was sick from all the dust.  My mom asked if I would wear a mask to keep the dust form coming in my lungs and throat.  I bashfully said no.  I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.  I see others wearing masks all the time here.  It is a frequently occurring event.

My nicknames:
So, every time I go to a Spanish country I get a new nickname. When I went to Spain, one of the girls called me melocotón. Which is a peach. When I told my host mom this she said that here in mexico you are called that if you are a very attractive man because you are juicy like the fruit. Here, on the other hand, I am refered to as “torta” or “hamburguesa.” This came about because I went to meet one of my uncles at his bar.  When we were introduced, he wasn’t able to pronounce my name (I am not sure why, it is really very simple.  I think they try to think too American and mess it up).  He said “torta?” to which I replied “no, C-oltan” him: “Torta?” me: “no, C- sure, torta…” then, when I told the local boys from the church that my name was coltan but they could call me torta if they wanted because they couldn’t pronounce my name either, they said, “na, hamburger is better!” They were calling me a fatty cause I was from the states…kinda says something about what they think about Americans…oh, just so you know, a torta is a really delicious sandwhich…all my nicknames revolve around food…

1 comment:

Trina Bohman said...

Coltan I think it's great that you try to learn about and live the culture that you are in. Knowing you as I do, it helps me to really see the humor in your comments and to really enjoy your reactions to the thing going on around you. It sounds like you really have a wonderful family to live with.