Years ago, an international event found me in Anaheim, California and one day I went sight-seeing with my colleagues from Mexico, where I live. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant/ cafeteria, where we selected items before paying. I was the last one from my group in line, and was flabbergasted when the Chinese cashier spoke to me in Spanish. Obviously, despite my very Anglo-Saxon looks, she realized I was with the Mexicans and was well-prepared to attend us. It was then that I realized how important Spanish was in California.
Recently, family connections have brought me to southern California again. It’s easy to forget I’m in the States when every other person seems to be speaking Spanish. Amazingly, Hispanics now make up 39% of the state’s population (Texas comes in a close second place with 38%) and Spanish is the second most spoken language. Continue reading
When I was in Spain a few years ago, it shocked me to find a server treating us somewhat rudely, until I remembered a friend once telling us “you almost have to use swear words to get a waiter’s attention in Spain!” What? Then other contacts have confirmed that Spaniards tend to be very direct and in-your-face, often appearing offensive to courteous Latin Americans.
It has occurred to me that, as Mexican culture is a fusion of Spanish and indigenous influence, perhaps its emphasis on extreme politeness and “doing the right thing” is more related to its indigenous roots after all! It is commonly called “buena educación”, which is a bit more all-encompassing than “good manners”. It has to do with being a decent person, or as Paul Yeatman says, having “good upbringing”. Among other things, he says, “Personal hygiene and courtesy are of primary importance, from the look of the fingernails to table manners to the rituals of politeness”. Continue reading
Most of my life has been spent in Latin America, although I did attend boarding school in Massachusetts eons ago, which involved considerable adjustment. Much has changed since then. These impressions are based especially on a recent visit to Southern California, so my observations might not be the same in other areas. If you already live in the US or Canada, most of these “facts of life” may seem obvious, but this is a chance to see your country through the eyes of newcomers. Then again, perhaps some of my readers are adjusting, too!
Ethnic and Racial Diversity
Back in the 70’s, it wasn’t as common to see much ethnic or racial diversity in the US. Of course there were more Afro-Americans and Hispanics in some areas, and in larger cities or international airports one could see more variety.
Now, however, it is a major change for me to see a wide range of racial and ethnic groups represented wherever I go, some even easily differentiated by saris, turbans or burkas. In fact, only 26% of students in the public schools of California identify themselves as “white”. Wikipedia says: “No single ethnic group forms a majority of California’s population”.
Interracial families are much more common than in the past, as well. Continue reading
Our son was three or so when he entered preschool. After a few days, his “miss”, as they often call female teachers in Mexico, asked, “Do you understand what he says?” Obviously, she didn’t. We had gotten used to his childish language, in which he mixed a bit of English and Spanish. Of course, before long he straightened things out.
When I took a course in bilingualism as part of my M.A. studies, I wondered if it was too late to help my children become as fully bilingual as possible. But looking back, we hadn’t done that badly, even when our actions were not necessarily the result of conscious decisions at all times. Continue reading
Every community, town, or city is a microcosm. True, some may seem more homogenous on the surface, but undoubtedly once one dives into it more deeply, the world becomes complex. Even a very small country like Honduras, where I spent my childhood, has a surprising variety of people and cultures.
Growing up, I was sheltered from much contact with the “outside world”, always living in neighborhoods inhabited solely by Standard Fruit Company employees, with a high percentage of expats. Some that I remember were of American, Dutch, Indian, British, and Cuban nationality. An occasional visit to the market or to the countryside gave me glimpses of those more representative of Hondurans in general, but I can’t remember visiting many homes or really getting to know how they lived.
Our international school, with mostly American teachers, had only a small percentage of non-Hondurans. I found myself trying to fit in by imitating the Spanish accent of my classmates when I spoke English in the recess yard. Was that the budding linguist in me?
The cooking fires had been put out and only the omnipresent, acrid smell of smoke remained. Bright moonlight fell on the huts of a tiny community in southern Mexico, and filtered through the cane walls. From time to time, the mournful howl of a dog sounded, breaking the silence.
Stretched out on my rustic cot in a sleeping bag, protected by a mosquito net, I awaited, unable to sleep. At any moment I knew the peaceful scene would become, for me, one of terror. Little by little, the scurrying of feet in the rafters and the squealing of invisible creatures began to torment me.
Days beforehand, one of them had tasted the split-open, poisoned squash we had left out; the next day we found its body outside on the path. Its companions, with their surprising instinct, no longer approached the mouth-watering bait.
If I ask, “What’s your favorite food?”, some people will conjure up images of elaborate dishes that are prepared for special celebrations. Others, however, may reply with something amazingly simple.
It’s pretty hard to come up with a single answer. I used to say “lasagna”, which I occasionally make but find somewhat painstaking. Those noodles always tear apart on me, for example. At least now it’s possible to find the pre-cooked kind. The variety of cheeses, the color and texture of spinach, when included, the tomato or white sauce and its condiments, all blending in with the simplicity of pasta are a delight to the senses.
A dish from central Mexico that fascinates me is “chiles en nogada”, stuffed poblano chiles in walnut sauce. Their confection involves chopping up a variety of fruits as well as almonds. The sauce itself is a challenge to make from scratch, from soaking fresh walnuts to peeling off the skin, famously leaving one’s hands darkened. Some recipes include goat cheese and white wine. The peeling of the chiles and removing their seeds and veins is painstaking, as is beating egg whites and dipping them in batter for frying.
All the same, isn’t simple food wonderful, as well? Who can resist the smell, the taste and texture of warm bread, shortly after it is popped from the oven? With or without butter melted on it, this is the staff of life, and our whole being says, “Yes!”
It’s my granddaughter’s turn to raise money for her sixth grade science camp. Her brother faced that challenge two years ago, and collected gazillions of bottles and cans to exchange for money. He even finished way before the deadline!
Let’s call my girlie “C”. She likes cooking, so has made cupcakes and sometimes jellos to offer the neighbors. The deadline is all too soon, and this time it was my privilege to give her a hand with preparing her goodies. As might be predicted in a kitchen that’s not my own, things didn’t go all that smoothly. I didn’t realize the stove went off when the timer dinged, so the second batch of cupcakes wouldn’t rise and took forever to cook… till I realized my mistake. Those guys were mostly edible, but not winners.
Growing up in Honduras, little by little I began to understand how the world I lived in classified people. I was pigeon-holed as a “gringa”, much as that technically means an American and I am Canadian. I recall walking to school and having someone yell “Gringa!” at me, and wanting to shout back: “I was born here; did you know that?” Even after four decades in Mexico, I realize that my skin color and features still scream “foreigner”, and even after long years of being nationalized, I am usually considered an outsider. Whenever I meet someone new, or even take a taxi, within minutes I am usually asked, “Where are you from?” or “How long have you lived here?” If the person is fairly young, I sometimes reply to the latter, “Longer than you!” (To be truthful, my accent is a giveaway too.)
In California, during a recent visit, some Latinos were trying to take turns to get a family picture with the Hollywood letters in the background. I offered to be their photographer, and they expressed their admiration for how well I spoke Spanish. I just told them I have lived for years in Mexico. Unfortunately, my accent isn’t as “native” as one would expect it to be, however, and even on the phone I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?”
Once I was interviewed for a book about expatriates in Mexico. In the end, the editor indicated a chapter had to be cut out to limit the length of it all, and… guess what? That meant my story. My take on it is that mine was chosen because I was not your “normal” expat compared to the others included, not a retiree who had chosen to live in Mexico instead of the U.S. or Canada, for example. Besides, my husband is Mexican.
That’s about when it occurred to me that for much of my life I’ve been an expat by default, not so much by a conscious decision to live in a country, but due to my connection to other people.
Growing up in Central America was the result of my Dad’s choosing to work there. Marrying a Mexican in Mexico meant, for me at least, taking for granted that we would live here, where he had a small business and would not have to start out from scratch in a foreign language.
Living here by default means that I never really had to take inventory of the pros and cons of living in one country or another. I took Mexico with its pluses and its blemishes, which were mostly familiar to me after studying and working here. Then again, I had spent so little time living in Canada that when people ask “Do you miss Canada?”, it’s hard to say that I do. Of course one misses family, but I also grew up far from all our relatives, knowing that in the summer we’d see at least some of them.
As a Christian, I realize that I am also an expat by default, of sorts. Scripture says we are citizens of a higher realm, who will never feel completely at home until we are there with our heavenly Father. In reality, I did not choose to follow Christ; he chose me and when the time was ripe, I responded. I’m a pilgrim here, not fully attached to one culture or another, but feeling a special connection with others who share the same “citizenship”, no matter what their background.
Fellow pilgrims, let’s make the most of whatever world we live in, and never get too comfortable with where we are, for our true home is around the corner!