Crazy Foreigners and Their Crazy Foreign Stuff

I've been reading a few travel blogs lately and I've noticed a snark-induced theme:


Why do they drive on the wrong side of the road? Eat heads of goats? Sacrifice their children? Use spoons instead of forks? Walk backwards up hills? Laugh at the sky knowingly?

I really don't know, sarcastic and all-knowing Western person ...

Well you see, I have been tempted to write a post along these lines. Mexico, where I have been living for the past year, is fairly Westernized so there's less opportunity for culture shock. Still, somewhere around the four to six month period when I stopped staying here for myself and started staying for my boyfriend, I began to have flashes of rage against the country I didn't exactly want to be in.

I started thinking things like:
  1. Why do Mexicans love foreigners when they first meet them and then promptly disappear into the abyss?
  2. Why do Mexicans never think I'm able to speak Spanish?
  3. Why do people need to try to kill me when they get on the subway?
  5. Please stop cat-calling me, I will kill you with my eyes.
... I could continue but then I'd just be adding to the cacophony. The underlying assumption to all this bullshit is that WESTERNERS DO IT RIGHT and everyone else got the message mixed up somewhere down the line.

When I stayed at a spiritual retreat in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala we did karma yoga one Saturday morning. This involved picking up trash in town. The organizer told us to examine our feelings around the trash. Were we filled with condescension? i.e. oh my God people pick up your trash already ew

Driving through Honduras later, seeing the trash heaped in the ditches and littered through the dry fields, I sadly had the same feeling. Except that poor countries don't have municipal systems to collect trash. Less wealthy people don't have time, education, or resources to get rid of their trash. I personally don't like trash everywhere but who am I to say Hondurans should feel the same way?

It's easy to make similar snap judgments. A Belizian guy rides a bicycle holding a baby freestyle in one arm. A Mexican shouts into his cell phone while furiously weaving through traffic. You probably have a few of your own. While it may come down to whether a state should enforce safety or certain regulations, the first judgement should still never be they do it wrong. Because the comparison is inevitably to some first world system that is assumed to be the blanket gold standard.

Also, it makes me feel dirty just to think:
  • Those crazy Mexicans...
  • Of course that's happening, I'm in South America after all...
  • This could only happen in China...
Because each and every Mexican is exactly the same, right? They all subscribe to the exact same Mexican-ness, impressed in them from an early diet of tequila and exposure to mariachi? Just like every American is a carbon copy of another American (those gun-toting, ignorant Americans!). NO.

So for me to get huffy that Mexico City is an evil breeding ground of noise (*cough* it is *cough*) should not be about that all Mexicans delight in soul bleeding noise pollution. Or that every Mexican enjoys tormenting me by eye-fucking me on the street. It happens, but it's not some God-given trait.

This whole thing could be more eloquent. I'm merely coming at it having experienced (experiencing) expat burn-out and the nastiness it can cause. But us-against-them paranoia, while mildly entertaining, isn't helpful in the least. It's actually insulting.


Jackie Donaldson said...

It's normal. Every culture looks at another as Us. vs. Them. You know, the anthropological Other. I try not to get on my high horse and try to stay open to different ways the world works. But it's a real challenge at times. And I'm an anthropologist. But the thing is, we all have our private prejudices based on what we view is best. That's okay. It's just a matter of whether or not, and how, we publicize them. I like that you're not afraid to admit them and challenge yourself with your preconceptions of what seems right or not right. What really got me, though, was when you wrote that at month 4 you changed from wanting to stay in Mexico City for yourself to wanting to stay for your boyfriend. I've been there before, and it's a miserable place be. When I returned to Lima to live after 1.5 year repose, I came just for myself. But I think that really hurt my boyfriend who, I get the feeling, wanted me at least partly to come for him. What can I say? I had learned the hard way the first time around that staying for someone else only serves to devastate one's self esteem and self respect. It seems that we can't win them all, we can only do what brings us joy in the moment. I hope you find your joy again soon. It's inside you. You already know that. I'll be here rooting for you, along with all your other friends and fans.

B.Kienapple said...

Hi Jackie, thanks for this sweet note! As an outsider you will inevitably be looking in as Other at an Other. It's hard to get around that. I just disagree when it becomes about judgements based on values that you haven't examined to be true or full-proof, only that they have almost always existed in you and around you. Also also, staying for someone else is the worst and you're right it does erode your self-respect. I really wanted to be traveling but I realized that at that moment he was more important. It's a tough choice to make. Anyway, thanks again for your comment!! B.

Elle Mahony: POV said...

If you can't drink the water, how do you hydrate, bathe, etc. ??


Related Posts for A Certain Bent Appeal Travel Blog