Sunday, May 27, 2012

Back to the familiar

Friday morning I headed out on my first R & R. The Embassy van pulled up in front of the building at 05:20 – ugh – and our doorman Francisco helped me drag my bag to the curb as I was barely dragging my own self. I took the front seat near the driver, and we started to make typical morning chit-chat. I told him I was leaving to visit family back in the States, to which he asked, “Extraña su tierra?”

I opened my mouth to answer, and then paused, started again and paused again. Do I miss my country? I thought that would be easy to answer, but as I gave it more than a moment’s thought, I couldn’t say definitively that I did or did not. In such a diverse nation like the US, we are accustomed to hearing people from all over the world talking about “in my country…” and longing for their familiar culture, music, food or just particular ways of being. So how should I answer that innocent question for the driver this morning?
I think I miss cultural fluency most. Being able to read a situation, whether it’s in the grocery store, at work or on the road, is a luxury that goes unnoticed until it’s gone. Also, having a shared sense of humor or frame of reference means that things don’t have to be explained and aren't so easily misunderstood; it can keep daily interactions with others lighthearted, easy, and comfortable.
I also miss a common understanding of “how things are done,” which sounds like cultural fluency, but here’s what I mean: There are certain things that people just DO or DON’T DO in American culture, and when someone crosses those lines – it’s apparent and they risk suffering the consequences either legally, criminally or through social scorn. For example, you just don’t slap your child in the face in the supermarket. I’m not saying that they do that in Colombia (quite the opposite, actually), but it’s an example. Living in another country one instantly notices these breaches of our own ingrained social norms, and I’ve caught myself thinking (and sometimes saying out loud), “WHAT?! You can’t just drive in the oncoming lanes! I don’t care how slow your lane is – you just don’t drive the wrong way in the other lane!” But here – you do; it’s simple efficiency.  If the lane next to you isn’t currently being used, why not pop across the ole’ double yellow and take advantage of it, right? So what if you’re on a curve on a windy mountain road. So what if it means that you arrive at the head of the traffic jam by passing 40 other cars and now you have to push back into line – it’s every man for themselves! Or, as the Colombians would say, “Que pena!”

“Que pena!” is the perfect example of a breach of a social norm that drives Americans living in Colombia batty. A common catch-all expression, it can mean, “Oh dear, I’m sorry!” in an honest way when someone can’t stop the elevator door in time for you to enter. It can mean, “Well then don’t park there next time and I won’t have to back my car into your headlight!” And, sadly, it also means, “Sucks to be you!” when it is the only apology offered from your upstairs neighbor whose housekeeper just used way too much water to wash the tile floor, causing your ceiling to fall in and your lights to blow out. 

Okay, I've got to say this: there is the utterly maddening habit Bogotanos have of stopping wherever they are for whatever reason, with complete disregard for whatever is behind them. This means a four-person-wide conversation in a narrow, busy hallway in the Embassy, or someone stopping to reach for a particular CD on the floor of their car while on the highway. Or my husband’s favorite – parking the shopping cart in the middle of the aisle (and leaving it there), to search for whatever it is you wanted, despite the fact that there are five people pushing their carts directly behind you.

So THAT’S what I miss about mi tierra. I miss what I’m used to. I miss the following of unspoken rules. I miss knowing how formal or casual to be in any given situation. I miss “common sense” that really is only common to one’s own culture. True, being surrounded with a whole new set of norms is at first interesting, sometimes jaw-dropping (“No! No! No! You simply CAN’T leave a manhole uncovered on a busy road!”), sometimes fun, and often frustrating. In nearly any country I can find American music, TV, movies, clothing, or food – that’s not what I miss. The part that can’t be duplicated to the same degree outside the borders is simply the comfort of one’s own social understanding. Even crossing into Canada, which on the surface seems to offer a barely discernible difference, there is a (subtly) distinct difference. I’m not saying that I only want the same – quite the contrary! But I can’t deny a certain guilty pleasure in enjoying the familiar that is relaxing and rejuvenating.

Perhaps that’s why they call it R&R!

1 comment:

  1. I know that feeling Korea is just as bad. People pushing you out of the way for cucumbers. Others staring at you on the bus like you're hair is on fire. Mean women yelling at you on the subway for no reason.

    I miss humility in America. Shame and embarrassment.