March 2, 2011
When I graduated from GSU with my highly useful bachelor's degree in English Lit, I decided I wasn't quite finished getting to know Mexico and began looking online for opportunities to live with a Mexican family while continuing to learn Spanish. I found a one-year long program called Spearhead sponsored by the Latin America Mission. The program consisted of language learning while living in Mexican families and serving in some capacity in a church. I was accepted to the program and packed my bags for Mexico City. Again, I had NO idea what I was getting myself into.
Since Mexico City is so enormous, I learned to use the metro and travelled on it daily for an hour or two, depending on the destination. The metro in itself is an unforgettable experience, with vendors selling everything from books on how to make the best cocktails to pirated music blared out of a portable boombox strapped to the salesman. It's a bonus when the person with the boombox also has a microphone and is singing for tips. I learned to stand or sit, if I was lucky enough to find a seat, far away from "metro men" (not metrosexual). A metro man is that man with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel, hairy chest with silver or gold chains, a silver tooth or teeth, mullet hair, who thinks he is a sex symbol and God's gift to women. I also learned that in a city of 30 million or so, a lot of crazy people use the metro. A few times I got yelled at by random crazy people. And forget personal space at rush hour. I literally would shove myself into the throng of people to fit in some days. I learned that the best technique is like throwing yourself backwards into a swimming pool. That way you can really force yourself inside. That technique also works for getting out of the metro when it's packed.
I tried lots of interesting foods that year. Since the program mainly worked with lower middle class families and churches, we were taught to eat all of what was served to us, no matter what. For the most part the food I tried was really delicious. But a few times I choked down a meal and waited until it was fully digested to ask what I had eaten. One of those times I found out later that I had eaten moronga rellena, which is blood filled intestines. Another time I walked into my host family's home and was almost knocked over by the steamy stench of something in a large pot. I asked my host mother what she was cooking and she answered, "pancita". Pancita is menudo and thankfully I have never had to eat it. I think maybe if I hadn't smelled it first I would've been able to stomach it. Some foods are like that...the smell can keep you from trying it. My brother once came to visit me and I tried to get him to eat elotes, which is corn on the cob with lime, mayonnaise, cheese and chili pepper. He smelled the cheese, which is of the stinky variety, and decided he didn't like it.
I think the most stretching part of my time with Spearhead was living with families. Looking back it's hard to remember what was so tough, but I realize that's because I understand and love this culture now. Back then everything was foreign. I remember even the jokes were impossible to understand. I was a very rule-oriented person. As a culture, Americans are more follow the rules, stand in line (no cutting) kind of people compared to Mexicans. We have a very clear sense of right and wrong, black and white. Well, at least that's the way I was raised. Here it's kind of almost all gray. I say that in a good way. But back then, it was very shocking and my judgemental self had a hard time accepting without giving an opinion about everything. My host family pushed their small daughter under the turnstile in the metro so she didn't have to pay the ticket and to me that was stealing. Now I look back and think, "poor family" because they literally couldn't pay for her ticket. Now I understand how the system makes it impossible for that kind of family to get ahead. Now I don't judge as easily.
Culture stress (shock/ whatever) was explained to me like a person floating down a river on a raft that suddenly breaks apart and leaves the person grasping onto a plank. Eventually another person, of the culture that is stressing you out, comes along down the river and offers a piece of their raft (of a different color), and in the meantime the person finds another bit of their own raft and so on, so that in the end the newly constructed raft is now made up of different colors, representing a mix of cultures. When I first saw that illustration I laughed to myself, "yeah right, that's not going to happen for me". I was in the midst of a culture shock akin to me floating on the raft surrounded by crocodiles and the only escape was to duck into Kentucky Fried Chicken where a biscuit and some fake mashed potatoes made me forget it all. That is literally where I would stop everyday on the way home from language school. But eventually, I did start to understand the jokes and let my judgemental self shift a bit and even start to break a few rules. Of course that happened over a very extended period of time. I guess you could say I'm floating down the river on a red, white blue and green raft these days.
Posted by Karen at 10:13 AM