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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cultural "Shockers"

By Silvia Uribe

Blue Sky
If you have never lived in a different country from the one you were born in, I submit to you that it is one of the most, exciting, difficult, sad, interesting, crazy, fun, and self-revealing things that a person can ever do. Having said that, I also have to admit that living abroad is a great learning opportunity that allows us to grow as human beings-- as long as we're open.

But today I won't talk about the serious, thought provoking experiences that life gives us, (usually in the needed dosage). Today I'm thinking about the mundane, the everyday little things that can make our life look like the puzzle of a blue sky, with tiny little pieces looking exactly the same, and no recognizable sign or indication of where they fit. The following are just a few examples:

Our first home in Santa Barbara was located in the Samarkand area-- a very nice, calm neighborhood. Too calm! I was perpetually wondering where all the people were during the day, the afternoon, and in the evening. Where was everyone? Cars cruised by only every now and then. But coming from one of the biggest cities in the world --Mexico City-- it felt not only lonely, but also plain boring. Our solution was to go a few times a week to a coffee place downtown to watch people go by! Who would've told me then how much I'd enjoy living in a calm area. I love it!

Once installed and ready to socialize, we got invited to a party at some neighbors' home. Charming couple! When we got there, they greeted us very politely, introduced us to a couple of their friends and left us standing there. We were very confused. The hosts never invited us, or anyone else for that matter, to have a seat. In our culture, a seat is the first thing we offer someone when he/she arrives to our home. Not knowing what to do, we decided to sit anyways, but no one else was sitting. It felt a little odd, or better said, very odd and uncomfortable. So, we decided to go do what we later learned, is called "mingle." Brilliant strategy to make new connections!

Have you realized that Americans refer to things, places, organizations, professions and even people by acronyms? If you're new to the culture, you're lost! And, to make it worse, text messaging has added a few abbreviations that are almost impossible to decipher, let alone memorize. Complete conversations can happen in acronym, or "text mode." After 15 years living here, I've learned the most common, but every now and then I'm still asking for meanings.

Now, think about the almost sacred rule in the American culture of not interrupting others when they're speaking. I doubt I will ever master this one! In my culture we don't call it interrupting. We believe that we're helping the other person find the right words, or that we're contributing to a lively conversation. Talk about different perspectives!

And lastly, the worst shock ever! When we learned that unannounced visitors are considered impolite here, I thought I had gone too far away from home. In our end of the woods, unexpectedly visiting someone shows the desire to be with that person, and so it is taken as a compliment! Similarly, the notion of time limits being set for parties held at home or for calling friends on the phone was unthinkable. When were people supposed to interact with their friends freely? For months, both our ring bell and our phone were like strange, dormant objects waiting to be awakened by an animated being. We were hoping for another human. Now, we understand the reasons for these social rules, and we abide by them

As you can see, we learned some things intuitively, and others the hard way. Some were easier to adapt to than others, and every time that we encountered one of these "shockers" it gave our family conversation for a while, until the next came by.

We learned the American way of living, its systems, and we adapted. We kept the good things that we brought with us and made ours those that would help us grow as individuals, and as community members. The term "assimilation", or the concept of a "melting pot" just doesn't cut it. For us, it is all about having a strong sense of identity, about learning and adapting. We can recreate ourselves a million times, as long as in the process, we don't forget who we are.

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latino perspective.

Cross-posted at

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