Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On the inside

I have had some trouble posting due to technical difficulties lately, so this post is from two weeks ago. The blogging continues, and I have a lot to say lately, so stay tuned!

After returning from Boston last week, where I saw my mom run 26 miles along with thousands of other people, I see Mexico once again with the eyes of an American. The glitter on their clothes, the ceaseless grunts and rumblings of the buses, the sporatic whiffs of a struggling sewer system, and the thickness of the polluted air all seemed intense and foreign the day I got back. After stepping out of my shoes as an American immigrant to Mexico, it was hard to put them back on. The first day, I longed for the quietness of the traffic back home, the reliability of the transportaion systems. I longed for English and grass fields and crisp, cool air.

But a week has passed now, and the readjustment period is over. It's funny, the same things that annoy me about the attitudes here--the ceaseless need for action without thought, constant spontaneity and tendency to change plans--are also the things that lure my attention and interest time and again. While in my mind, I am headed home to study Spanish and go to bed early, in actuality I am going to talk talk talk in the kitchen with my housemates Mario and his mom, Mari and maybe head to a club to try my feet at salsa. And the distractions don't end at the door of my house. The streets are full of distractions. When I am walking home, I usually get stopped for one reason or another. People solicit spare change, sell tamales, ask for directions, strike up random conversations, all with seeming earnestness.

In the kitchen, we talk and talk and talk. I ask Mario how to spell different words, and the conversation expands to world politics and then bigger issues. He tells me about his experiences living in Canada, where he endeavored to market Mexican beans and meat to restaurants, and when he discovered that the culture he admired from Mexico seemed strangely closed and uninterested in the culture of Mexico. These issues always send me talking about the importance of cultural awareness, and my desire to learn more about Mexico.

The other night, Mario let me in on one of the most colorful and interesting aspects of Mexican culture--its variety o music. As the notes of Mexican music spilled out into the room, I was enthralled. The music conjured images of bubbles floating out from some heaven source. The sounds transported my mind to another reality. The band, Cafe Tacuba, is not popular in the U.S., and when I told Mario I'd never heard of them before, he said what a shame. When I said that I also hadn't heard of the legend Luis Miguel, he was a bit repulsed.

"They were born, became famous, the whole world said wow, that's incredible, this is wonderful. Then they died. And you guys never knew it." He's holding his arms up in an exagerated shrug when he says this, his lips pursed in a pittying smile.

I laugh and laugh. It seemed ridiculous, and I pictured a cartoon image of this situation, where all of us Americans were standing on our own map, facing inward, working on our computers and then heading to our couches, all of which face Hollywood. Down below on the map was the rest of Latin America, and they were all having a party together, the entertainment flowing in like multicolored waterfalls from various corners of the gloe--Mexico, France, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, the U.S. The people were laughing and jumping and moving to and fro, looking every direction to enjoy the fruits of so many different lands. And in this movie in my mind, we Americans didn't even hear the noise they are making. I laughed, and then I felt embarrassed for us, and then I thought about my reality back home, before I'd heard about these bands, and I realized I am a classic example of the oblivious American. As much as I enjoy other cultures, even pride myself on knowing about them, my work-hard-and-then-relax-mindlessly lifestyle cost me a lot of great music. And the music is only a symbol. As we look inward, and sometimes to Europe, for everything, we miss out on the rich culture of Latin America.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A dose of dinner

Here, dinner time is a lot more like a cocktail party than a sit down sort of affair. After work, I find myself standing and talking to Mario and his mother, Mari, in the kitchen. I find myself leaning on the walls and refrigerator, moving to the refrigerator, migrating around the little room to get out of Mari's way as she cooks, taking care not to knock over the carefully utilized space. We eat tortillas with beans and corn on the cob, which we cover in hot sauce and fresh squeezed lime juice.

It's a cramped space, where the hooks for the spoons are just below the ticking wooden clock. There is enough room for three plates, and there is no space to let dishes stack up in the sink, which is about two inches deep. Water comes out through a shower-like spout onto a tiled surface. Mari is sixty, wears a soft smile, and is always busy relaying tidbits of her day, cleaning the perpetual dust off the floors and counters, and reorganizing the crowded refrigerator.

She and Mario, her son, stand in the kitchen and laugh about the silliness of things. Once I watched them argue for twenty minutes about whether there is a God, their voices rising to punctuate their sentiments, Mario's that religion is inherently bad, and hers that it is inherently good.

The other night, Mario argued against religion for the sake of all the wars it has caused. I cut in to counter that wars fought in the name of religion are not really about religion at all, but rather people's egos. Exactly, said Mari. But in the end, I had to agree with Mario's point that we cannot know for certain whether Biblical stories have any grounding in fact. However, I couldn't help but also agreeing with Mari that those stories can serve a purpose. I suppose I always tend to think stories serve a purpose.

These conversations are a great way to practice my Spanish, and also a great reminder of how far I have to go before I'm fluent. After that conversation, Mario and I found ourselves congregating in the kitchen to exchange ideas. He's always surprising me with his ideas, making me more and more aware that an educated view of Mexico is not exactly what I assumed it was. Take Sunday's debate, for example. The biggest soccer game of the year was commencing in Guadalajara's stadium: Chivas (of Guadalajara) against America (of Mexico City). I'd been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to get tickets and was about to head out to a bar to watch--the next best option.

Mario, a music fanatic who is always taking walks into the center to see what is happening, was not interested in the game. He scoffed at what he sees as an overabundance of pride in Mexican soccer.

"We never move up in the World Cup," he said. "Mexico never wins. But then everyone says oh, Mexico is so great. It is not. It is stupid," he said.

I said that it's understandable that Mexico does not do that well in the World Cup since the economic situation is so poor. I said it must be hard to train for soccer when you are thinking about how to put food on the table. He immediately countered that Mexico is not that poor. The problem is the attitude, he said, that people do not care enough about real success, just about hype and screaming and cheering.

Later that night I watched the game at a dark billiards bar where people were all crowded in, sitting on the extra chairs the place had pulled out of their back room. There was a big screen at the front, all filled with green and the graceful curving runs of players into open spaces and to chase and tackle. The word GOOOOOL flashed across the screen whenever a goal was scored. Soccer is a really pleasant game to watch because it's so fluid, and the play requires such careful and continual attention by all players. All the thinking goes on mid-game, in the heat of the moment, and for this, I was mesmerized. The winning goal was scored with a straight bullet-shot towards the goal, which was redirected at the last moment with a sharp header at the side pocket. The bar erupted. People jumped, swore, flung their fists into the air.

The Chivas won 3 to 2, and it was surprising that they did not win by more since they were ranked highest in the league, whereas America was ranked last. Such a close game makes headlines more interesting and fans' fights more real. After the game, they head out to the statue of the Minerva, on the edge of the downtown, to jump in the fountain and yell and scream. But it's a theater of sorts, according to one of my students. And the next day, the ecstasy of the coaches and the players that make headlines and front page photographs are not entirely genuine. He said corruption reigns among coaches, who have betters interests in mind, often advising their players to miss a goal here or there in order to make a few extra bucks. He shakes his head in a deeply annoyed way when he tells me this, the same sort of expression I get from people when the name Felipe Calderon comes up, or the word government, for that matter.

There is so much suspicion here. Take the way my boss deals with his teachers. When I started, the secretaries told me that the reason for all the paperwork was not about record keeping. Instead, it was to make sure I was "actually working."

There is suspicion about success too, said Mario on Sunday night in the kitchen. There is an unspoken understanding that the status quo is to be maintained for the preservation of happiness. That means no climbing any social ladders. Staying true to your friends is about remaining true to a particular level. If you're not careful, when you climb up in success, you can climb out of your social circle.

Ah! Terrible! Awful! I said. But it's not all peaches and cream in the U.S. either, Mario reminded me. He lived in Toronto for six months about a year ago, on a business venture. Yes, I know, Toronto is in Canada, not the U.S. But I'd say it's a pretty safe grounds for comparison. He said everyone seemed so closed, so preoccupied with work. It was difficult to meet people. They seemed distant and uninterested in him, which really appalled me. I would hope that any normal American would naturally find it interesting that he had travelled thousands of miles to another country to embark on a new business. Despite the fact that he was an educated professional, having worked as a lawyer in Mexico, and was genuinely interested in learning about their culture. Before he went, he'd been curious about the U.S. and Canada and unimpressed with Mexico. But once inside the U.S. productivity machine that he had admired from afar, he found his heart beating more profoundly, more strongly, for Mexico, where people do silly and fun things every day...not just on weekends.

But here, I feel aimless in the empty hours of chatting and sitting and standing, of standing around appreciating a ray of sunlight for its mere existence. I have time for myself to do yoga, read, practice salsa. But I feel a lack of urgency, a lack of goals. There is a lack...of some aspect of personality I am constantly running into in the states--that sharp-eyed look of pensive critical thought. It's not that I think we are right in our approach. The rest of the world seems to think we take ourselves too seriously. But I'm American. Ultimately, I miss the same thing that Mario did when he was in Canada: my own country.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The in group

Today I spent the hour from three to four, when I would normally be teaching, getting the scoop on everything from sexual references to how to get soccer tickets. When I arrived at Sitra, a company that does construction for Holiday Inn, my students were upstairs in their offices eating. They had three computers stolen earlier that week, so they were unable to learn English today. Ignoring the illogic of their conclusion, I agreed and sat down.

We sat in chairs and on desks, some of us spilling out onto the patio, a smoke cloud from one woman's cigarette rising into the air. I learned all the stuff they don´t tell you in Spanish class. (Well, normal Spanish class, that is. My Spanish teacher is pretty cool and does let us in on street talk sometimes.) They told me that fruit has a lot of sexual insinuations, like that lemons mean small boobs and melons big ones. And that if a man asks you if you want chile--assuming you're not in a restaurant--he probably isn´t talking about food.

I laughed along, as they raised their eyebrows suggestively at me. Naturally, since we were on the topic of lude sexual references, they brought up spring break in Puerta Vallarta and asked me if I'd been. They assumed that all Americans had been there for crazy parties. I told them no, and they were shocked. They asked me if spring break is crazy in the U.S., and I said not as crazy as in Vallarta, and they said it´s the American vacationers that make Vallarta crazy.

We spent the entire hour of class talking and laughing about nothing. The one Mexican woman who stayed to explain their antics told me at one point that even she was not sure what exactly they were talking about, so we found ourselves on the same side of the line, shaking our heads and rolling our eyes at the sporatic uproars. There comes a point when the gap between the sexes wins out over that between cultures.

After class, we all filed out of the room into the spacious hallway overlooking the downstairs. It´s a big new building, not fully furnished, which they just moved into, and has the same clean lines, simple designs, and light colored wood and marble that new U.S. office buildings has, a stark contrast to the buildings I am usually in, which boast an array of colors and designs. At the top of the stairs, I found Hector and Pedro, two big soccer fans, and finally got to the insider´s question I was most interested in: how do I get a hold of some soccer tickets? They told me the sad news that tickets for Sunday's game are usually about 3,000 pesos, about $300, which would be more than a paycheck for me. Pedro is going because he has season tickets. The game is between Americas, the Mexico City team, and the Chivas, which is Guadalajara´s home team. Although Americas is ranked last and Chivas is one of the best, it is a long standing rivalry that always attracts a crowd. Guadalajara used to be the capital, and it lost that standing to Mexico City some time ago. This is one of the many reasons locals tend to tell you that Mexico City is not a good place to work or visit. There is an intense city to city rivalry.

So I´ll have to wait for another game, but my students tell me that time is running out. I can´t purchase tickets in advance either and will have to go to the stadium the week of the game in order buy them. A lot of things we do online or at Costco they do through friends. Take medicine for example. It´s like buying illegal drugs. When I wanted iron for cheaper, I had to wait five extra days for my Mexican housemate´s friend to get the delivery for me. But I saved quite a bit of money. It's all about who you know.