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.

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