Kate, Outbound to Mexico

June 4, 2018

What is Culture? Future Outbound Candidates, as you get ready for Outbound Orientation II (also known as Cultural Boot Camp) in Lake Yale, I would like to share my perspective ten months into my exchange. Before exchange, I was like many of you: culture refers to food, traditions, history, and language. I remember researching the Day of the Dead, typical dishes like mole poblano, and the history behind the Cinco de Mayo when I was writing my research paper. Now after truly experiencing a change in cultures, I realize that culture is so much more subtle, that is way more than what we think, and much deeper than a dictionary definition.

During my first week in Mexico I remember my host family telling me, “Ahorita we are leaving,” which means in a little while, whenever, or who knows when. And I, with all the innocence and naiveté of a small child, immediately put on the worn hiking shoes that had brought me to this strange place. I still remember how I sat down next to the door, ready-ready to leave in any moment, ready to overcome the day’s challenges, ready for everything. Except waiting. In other words, prepared for everything except what I did for three hours. Despite my confusion and frustration, I fell asleep, and when they woke me up, I was still ready and also lost in my new world.

Although now the story makes me laugh and I think I looked like a fool (and surely you too), the truth is that I did not understand. I reasoned like this: if “ahora” means “now,” adding the “ita” should change the word to mean more immediate than now, like the phrase “right now.” My confusion didn’t come from a misunderstanding of language, but more than anything, my lack of knowledge of the Mexican culture. Through my experiences living as a foreigner in another country, I have seen-no-I have felt and experienced this complex phenomenon known as culture.

What is culture? Upon hearing the term “culture,” many think of food, for example, the tacos of México or Italian pasta. Others imagine traditions and customs like the ofrendas (offering) for Day of the Dead, the dragons of Chinese New Year, or Carnaval in Brazil. Although these are definitely elements that form part of this concept called culture, culture goes much far beyond this. I would define culture as the shared ways of thinking, feeling, and doing of a society or group. I include thoughts and feelings because we include the context in which we live in together. There are things that cannot be explained because that is just the way they are.

In my first months in México, I had a thousand questions about everything that seemed strange and different. Why is it better said “se me rompió el vaso (the glass broke on me)” instead of “rompí el vaso (I broke the glass)”? Why do we greet we each other with a hug and a kiss? Why do we say “miss” to the women teachers and “profe” to the men? How am I going to get sick if I go to bed with wet hair or walk around barefoot? “That is how it is,” they would answer, and the lack of “logical” explanations frustrated me so much. Why “that is how it is” when for me, nothing made sense, and everything was strange? Now I understand these cultural differences, and they are normal, part of my daily life, something that I do not think about because culture, through the process of socialization (mainly by our families and formal education), gives us the feeling of what is considered “normal.”

In addition, cultural norms reflect its deeper shared systems of perceiving the world, thinking, and feeling. “Ahorita” represents the Mexican perception of time, a style in which relationships with people are more important than a fixed schedule. All the hugs and kisses are the ways a warm people express their love and affection, and “se me rompió (it broke on me)” compared to “rompí (I broke)” reveals an underlying tendency to avoid blame. All this part of culture is something that cannot be explained by a book or a touristic website, but something that we have to experience for ourselves, even making (sometimes embarrassing) mistakes.

The process of adapting to a new culture sometimes can be very uncomfortable. That is common when two distinct systems of living crash together, like my exasperation with “ahorita” and the stiffness with how I greeted people and my frustration with every “tápate (put on a jacket)” and “cómetelo (eat it)” and “ya duérmete (go to bed already)” and the nerves in my stomach every time I opened my mouth to say anything in Spanish because I come from the United States culture that prefers punctuality, personal space, and individual privacy. The first step to adapating is to accept that everything is different, not better or worse. I am proudly bicultural, just as comfortable and happy in México as in the United States.

Culture is what unites us; it lives within and around us; it forms us, and we shape it; it gives us part of our identity and has much more influence than what we realize. Living in another country requires much more than speaking the language. We have to learn the cultural intricacies because culture is truly what dictates daily life, determines how we interact, and defines part of how we think. So, now, I receive my lectures and drink my five liters of lemon water (it supposedly cures almost everything!) with a smile inside because I know it means that I matter to them. And when I hear “ahorita,” I calmly keep doing what I was doing until I hear the door because at the end of the day, I may have some Korean features and the American mind, but I am a Mexican at heart.

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