Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On Being a Foreigner

I was talking to my brother, Fred, on the phone yesterday, complaining to him that I was concerned that I was beginning to run out of topics to put on the blog. I am aware of the fact that I don't want to get repetitive, and I DON'T want this blog to be, like so many others I've seen, a self-indulgent travel log, like an on-line series of postcards: "Having a great time, wish you were here!" Fred reminded me that what may be mundane to us is still foreign and interesting to him, and probably to others. I was also thinking I needed to put a certain number of photos with each post. Fred is visually impaired and can't see the photos, so he's more interested in the writing. I was confessing to Pearl Sawyer, one of our friends form the Auburn UU church that I wasn't writing much poetry yet. She suggested that my blog was the writing I was doing now. THEN I worry, who wants to read all this anyway? Of course, those who are not interested, won't bother. SOOOOOO...as this project is constantly morphing, I'm not sure where it's going, but I hope to make it interesting and, perhaps most of all, enable my friends and family to experience this wonderful country through my eyes, and not through the stereotypical, xenophobic lenses of mass media and popular myth.

One of the most interesting, and sometimes difficult, aspects of living in Mexico, of us, is the constant awareness that we are living outside of our element. We don't know the language well enough to have a normal conversation, we don't understand many aspects of the culture, and, quite honestly, we stick out like sore thumbs. This can be disconcerting. Many gringos here are constantly worried that we are being taken advantage of. Of course we are! We are bringing our money to spend, and the Mexicans, entrepreneurial spirits that they are, will try to figure out any angle they can to get some of the action. But this is part of the economic culture here. When I go to an area of Chapala or Guadalajara where there are few gringos, I see Mexicans selling anything they can think of to try to hustle other Mexicans. This is a culture where everyone is responsible for him or herself. That's partly why it is such a vibrant and energetic place. The gringo money here is yet another opportunity for people to get in on the action and improve their situation. Whether it's hawking watches or watermelon on the street, to giving out tastes of mango and cantaloupe in the market to get you to buy THEIR fruit, to driving gringos around showing them ridiculously high-priced real estate, they are responsible to make their lives better. As the foreign expats, WE are responsible for making good decisions about how we spend OUR money. If we get a bad deal, it's our tough luck. We should have been paying more attention. An example: Pixie and I saw a guy selling cherries on the street the other day. I asked Pixie if she wanted some, and she did. "Quanto?" I asked. Cinquenta (50) pesos for a half a kilo, cien (100) pesos for one kilo. Fruits and vegetable are always cheap, huh? So without thinking clearly, I said, "Medio kilo, por favor," handed over 50 pesos and took the bag of cherries. It wasn't until we were home that I realized we'd paid about $5 for a rather small bag of cherries. I figured it to be about 12 cents per cherry. Not really that cheap. Chalk one up for experience. Won't do that again.

Not speaking the language is a very obvious aspect of being in a foreign country. Although I can speak better Spanish than I did, it is very rough, and I know my pronunciation is not good. I have been studying the language on my own for about a year, though, and I can carry on a conversation reasonably well with people who speak little or no English. I just jump right in and give it a whack. Sometimes they look at me quizzically, and I know they missed whatever it was I was trying to say. Then I back up and rephrase, point, mime, or use some other cheap tactic to try to get my point across. Eventually they smile with an "aha" look and correct me. One of my favorite strategies is to point to something and say, "Que en Espanol, por favor?" (What is this in Spanish?) I get lots of free lessons that way. The two Mexican children who live on our property, Yoselin and Jesus are also very helpful. They speak no English, but are always dropping by to visit. They laugh hysterically when I say something wrong but are very nonjudgmental when they correct me. This is one of the aspects of living here I enjoy the most. I was always a poor language student in school, but here I'm somewhat successful, even though I'm probably just as bad!

One of the aspects of living here that is most difficult for me is the obvious difference in economic security between us and the Mexicans. Yoselin and Jesus have very little, as do their parents. They all live in a two-room house and earn $250 a month for providing gardening and maid service for the six houses here. The children are all well-dressed and very polite. Daniel and Dora, the parents, are always very helpful, work hard, and are always pleasant. We are retired, spend most of our day doing what we like, can afford a laptop computer and eating out in restaurants, live in a much larger and nicer house, and have them to do all the "dirty work" for us. I feel awkward sitting on the patio reading a book and sipping iced tea while Daniel weeds the garden and vacuums "our" pool. I know he's glad to have a job, etc. But I've always felt uncomfortable about the random advantages some people enjoy largely by being born in a certain place or with certain advantages. I am sure I feel more awkward about it than Dora or Daniel, or any of the countless Mexicans working in this community doing menial jobs to support their families. Menial work here is not looked down upon as in the US. Being a gardener, a maid, or a waiter are seen as respectable professions. It's my issue, and has been since I was a young Marxist in college!

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