Experiencing culture shock is very much like getting married. You spend the first year or so in rapturous enjoyment of one another in martial carnal pleasures and intellectual stimulation. One day, you wake up and wonder “What have I done?" and “Who is this person in bed with me who kept me up all night with her farting and snoring?"
Suddenly, the shock sets in that this person whom you promised to love and cherish until death do you part, is full of faults, has blaring weaknesses, and keeps you up at night with all manner of explosive bodily sounds. She is full of foibles and you know every single one of them. Worse yet, she knows every one of yours.
Moving to a new culture, as I discovered when moving to Mexico to live, is very much the same. You spend a year or two, maybe three, exploring, discovering, and having a grand time figuring out this new relationship you chose to have with another country and her people. You can't believe your good fortune to move here, a dream come true, and you can't wait to find out everything you can about your new country.
Then it hits.
You wake up one morning, turn to your wife and say, “What have we done and who are these people in whose country we live?"
Things were fine the first two or three years. Then things began to happen.
One day, while walking down the street enjoying the pleasantness of your expat home, you notice a well-dressed woman driving an American-made SUV. She stops at the small bridge over the tiny river (really a creek) and removes half dozen orange plastic garbage bags, which she proceeds to toss over the bridge and into the river. A trash dumpster stood no more than 20 feet away from her.
Another day, you are at the meat counter in the local butcher. You give your order to the butcher in your fractured but getting-better Spanish. The butcher acknowledges your order and begins filling it. Suddenly, from behind you, some Mexican woman approaches and literally elbows you out of the way. She begins shouting her order in a voice loud enough to break glass. She actually expects the butcher to stop what he's doing (filling your order) and wait on her. You soon discover that this practice goes on everywhere, everyday, without fail, and your ribs, swollen, bruised and aching, begin feeling like they might break from one too many Mexican elbows crushing them. This goes on in the post office, butcher shop, pharmacy, or on the street in a food kiosk. It doesn't matter where you are, someone will try to cut in front of you.
You soon begin asking,
"Oh, honey, did I miss something in all those expatriation guides we bought and read before coming to Mexico? Did they mention this stuff?"
Perhaps the thing which was the final straw that pushed me into the depths of the black pool of culture shock was getting shoved off the sidewalks. This happened not once, not twice, but three times. I was pushed into the path of buses that all promptly hit me and sent me flying into a building, or as in the case of one incident, into my wife. Oh, wait! That was the beer truck that hit me. My poor wife broke my fall that time. I was hit three times by buses. One time, a brick building broke my flight through the air.
Two things that added to the ever-deepening shock and which threaten to take me under the waters for good. One was my wife getting *** assaulted on the streets of Guanajuato. The other was when one of Guanajuato's landladies wired her outside security lights into our meter and then denied that she had done so.
Then, if this is not enough, you begin sharing with your Mexican neighbors and friends all that has happened to you. To your utter shock, shock that threatens to send you into full “tilt mode" and “this does not compute, hard drive breakdown is imminent mode" is when they tell you they are not surprised at what has happened to you.
They tell you.
I was told, more than once, that to have the landlady wire her security lights into our meter then not tell us was because we were rich Americans and able to afford it. I was told, more than once, that to have been shoved off the sidewalk and into the path of oncoming vehicles the size of Orcas was because Guanajuatenses are “anti-social" and “bad mannered. " The same explanation was offered for getting elbowed out of the way at store counters. We were told some Guanajuato men apparently think it is appropriate to attack gringo women. And to verify this, I asked at the language schools, which attract a fair amount of Gringas each month. The schools reported several attacks.
One school had to have the police come to the school to watch out for the women.
And mind you, Mexicans offered all of these explanations. Some even told us they were trained and taught from a very young age how to cheat Americans out of their money. Also, since we are all so fabulously wealthy, cheating Americans wasn't wrong. A different set of ethics rules here.
So, what does one do? Throw in the towel? Run away? Leave? Do what most do in the States, referring to my analogy of marriage-divorce?
What does one do when the light of the Mexican cultural day shines on you and the expatriation honeymoon comes to a screeching halt?
You make a choice.
Just like when you finally come to the realization that the person you married is not perfect and is full of human flaws, you make a choice.
Are the differences a deal breaker?
Or, do you choose to live with your mate in spite of and sometimes because of his or her weaknesses? You learn love is a choice, not just the emotional feelings. You learn to cope and to negotiate the differences.
In culture shock, you do the same thing. You make a choice. You learn what is and what is not a deal breaker. You figure out ways to cope with the bad and choose to love the good. And, just as in the process of marriage, you have to negotiate the differences. Instead of bailing out because of your miffed feelings, you sit down with your spouse and talk out the difference to find a mutual way of coping with one another's faults.
Not to talk them out, not to put it all on the table, will result in a fractured relationship and then come the divorce lawyers.
Not to talk out the differences in a new and perplexing culture will result in the same thing: a fractured relationship with the culture and then repatriation to your home country.
I have chosen to love this culture in spite of and because of its differences. I am doing so by doing two things. First, I am putting it all out on the table by writing about it. I write about what bugs me. Secondly, I have talked with Mexicans in this culture about my issues. I found members of the culture who have helped me immeasurably. Let me just say that not one Mexican with whom I have discussed the issues that have dominated my column and essay writing lately has taken offense at those issues I've brought to them.
What is turning out to be the deal breaker for us is not the Mexicans but the American expat community
In response to my using the writing venue to air my issues and inform the unsuspecting potential expat of what's at stake in expatriating to Guanajuato, I have received emails ranging from schoolyard and childish name-calling to wishing for my death. It would appear that at least a great deal of the Guanajuato expat community, as in the San Miguel de Allende expat community, cannot stand the free speech granted us under American and, get this, Mexican law.
I would go on to generalize that more Mexican nationals understand what's at stake in the expression of free speech than Americans do. It would also seem that the few Mexicans I know who became naturalized American citizens understand free speech more so than most born-and-bred Americans. In fact, I was sharing my recent trials and tribulations with the American expats in Guanajuato with a former German citizen who is an expat in Guanajuato. His response was that Americans, the so-called vanguards of free speech in the world, understand little about what free speech is.
You know what, he is right. The American expat community here and the one in San Miguel have been my main opponents. One even resorted to sending me an email virus in an attachment, as if I were stupid enough not to figure that one out. The person didn't even bother to disguise his or her email address.
One has just got to ask if the principles of free speech have been so evacuated from the minds of Americans that their lives can be turned upside down and disrupted over someone exercising his free speech option in opinion and editorial writing. And that's what my writing has been-opinions and editorializing.
My German friend asked me why these Guanajuato American expats don't sit down and write out a well-reasoned and critically thought-out rebuttal to my columns and essays. The only answer I was able to give him was that apparently, when they try, all they can manage is profanities, vulgarities, and death wishes and threats. That's about it. (One fine upstanding Gringo woman wrote and suggested my wife and I move to Iraq. What could possible possess this woman to say that other than she wants us to go to Iraq and be killed?)
I close this essay with two thoughts:
So, what is wrong in America these days? What is going on?
In an article entitled, Why Americans Don't Care about Free Speech, the author says this:
"This too is not a new problem. I highly recommend Leonard W. Levy's Emergence of a Free Press, which uncompromisingly examines the hypocritical conditions in which the American system of freedom of expression was born. Freedom of speech was resolutely claimed during Colonial times, but its advocates saw it as a means to attainment of their goals, not an end in itself, as they proved by smashing the presses of pro-British printers during the revolution and by prosecuting royalists and other adversaries under the Alien and Sedition acts afterwards. Benjamin Franklin, whose own brother had faced prosecution under the colonial government for printing revolutionary opinions, declared himself completely comfortable after independence with the common law of seditious libel, which allowed the new government to prosecute its adversaries for their ideas. Levy wrote, “The American people simply did not believe or understand that freedom of thought and expression means equal freedom for the other person, especially the one with hated ideas". And neither do they today. "
Finally, Free Speech has at its heart a kind of optimism that Free Expression will triumph in the end. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said the following regarding the “marketplace of ideas" in his dissent in Abrams v. U. S. :
"[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas- that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. "
These are inspiring words to me as a writer and as a Christian. The only tragedy I see is the “Market Place where the Free Trade in Ideas" thrives has left the building! Who closed it down and where can I find it again in America? If it is still there, I cannot see it. All evidence would lead me to believe that Market Place is no more in America.
And, I am led to believe, it is no more, or never was, in the microcosmic example of the American culture here in Mexico-The Gringo expat communities.
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