Blunt Cross-Cultural Conversations
Received a last minute tour request from a gal that I hesitated on but agreed to when she mentioned being pregnant and I adore babies, even unborn ones that look like alien gerbils on sonograms.
Then my heart fell when we met and I learned the couple had been born and raised in Mexico City. Instantly I was more nervous than normal as Mexicans already know what I’m talking about, having grown up here, or don’t because they were never interested. Plus my sense of humor is way to Northern for many Mexicans to enjoy.
I flipped through stories in my head to select ones they may not know and pondered what jokes not to tell. About twenty minutes into the tour the couple started asking me about the gringos in San Miguel and we spent the next two hours discussing just that, which was what really interested them.
Turns out they live in Cancun, among a large immigrant population from up North. (Recently read an article on how insulting it is to refer to folks from the US in Mexico as “ex-pats” but Mexicans in the US as “immigrants” and like trying to use “folks from the US” instead of “Americans”, a change of vocabulary often helps a change of mind.) It was fascinating to play compare and contrast with life in Cancun as their expectations of San Miguel were very dated.
They thought San Miguel was “A Gringo Disney Land” and were surprised to see so few learning the local government now gears towards the 1-2% economically speaking of Mexico City. That’s why bars and restaurants have been remodeled to look like establishments in Manhattan or Miami Beach as that is what the Mexico City crowd is used to. Foreigners can come along for the ride but they aren’t the target audience.
The couple had heard that San Miguel had foreigner-run NGOs (non-government organizations) that provided all sorts of services to locals. My reply was that may have, quite a while ago, been the case, but today the larger, more economically successful NGOs impact Mexicans mainly through employment. That so little, if any, filters down to an actual charitable purposes and you’ll never find publicly promoted, outside audited, financial statements like are required up North. With donations from the US and Canada dwindling and ever increasing overhead and employment costs, NGOs are largely businesses trying to survive rather than charitable institutions.
We chatted about how well foreigners integrate into Mexican culture here which is certainly a mixed bag. Second (third, or whatever) homeowners tend to be wealthy, well-educated and traveled folks that want to learn all they can while on vacation. They make fascinating tour guests and voracious book readers on San Miguel.
Some move here full time and can’t get enough of Mexico forever learning the language and how to help, when possible, in the least intrusive manner. These are the folks that sponsor someone’s education, healthcare or come along behind when a Habitat for Humanity type organization has built a home. They then donate utensils, beds, linens, etc. for that recent home owner to get a jump start on their new life in what had been an empty house.
But there are many resident foreigners that will scream from their rooftops “they don’t care what the locals are doing”. So determined to pretend they are still in a Houston suburb they’ll steadfastly refuse to understand even the basics of living in Mexico. Yet will gripe when their help “mysteriously” doesn’t show up at their doorstep to clean or cook on Three Kings’ Day or Holy Week. And never query them about “unexpected” traffic delays or parking difficulties.
Then there are a handful of folks on US government pensions that are thrilled to have a maid, cook or gardener for the first time in their lives and are blissfully happy at their economic good fortune. That lasts for about a year as the realization of along with some economic advantages is the cost of being in a new culture. No more Target runs at midnight becomes bothersome and they return North.
Then we chatted about how the foreigner population sees itself. I stressed how what we were discussing would literally blow the minds of many immigrants from the North (goodness, ex-pat is so much easier to type!). That, as a culture, we gringos see ourselves as the center of the universe and can’t fathom alternative perspectives even among each other. But, if all we foreigners disappeared tomorrow, unless you worked directly for a foreigner or foreign run NGO, our absence would not be noted.
We closed off the tour with discussions of security. The young lady was concerned as the mother of two and one on the way, crime in Cancun had changed. Before, she stressed, you simply knew to avoid certain areas at specific times, now crime was more random in timing and location. I assured her we had the same issue.
For example, with every newly elected government the drug dealers from the old regime, that don’t leave, are picked off and replaced by those with ties to the new power structure. The last transference of power featured killings of women in broad daylight on busy streets. It’s one thing to be “safety first” and not walk around at 2AM drunk as skunk in a dark alley far from centro, but hard to protect yourself when simply dropping your child off at school and you’re behind the car being shot up.
As always, it is enjoyable to have blunt cross-cultural conversations if only to realize how much we all have in common throughout Mexico.