Living in Mexico: Food for thought

“What do the Mexicans think of us?”

Recently, members of Merida’s international community have asked me this question with more frequency… I have debated back and forth whether I should post on the topic. After all, I have written about it before…  But for those who have missed some earlier articles, this is my take:

In any city of the world, when a minority is small, the locals have no opinion either way, but when that number increases, they start to notice things… There are now A LOT of new internationals living in and around Merida. One figure I heard recently was 20,000 in the city of Merida alone (this number includes all foreign residents – not just English speakers)

To generalize the opinion of ALL Mexicans is impossible, but those I know like “los gringos” – this is what they call all    Caucasian foreigners (no matter where they come from: USA, Canada, Europe, Australia – wherever) they use different terms for people who have other racial characteristics: (blacks: los negritos… orientals: los chinitos and so on)

I used to bristle at these monikers but I know they are not meant to be derogatory. After all, the nicknames that Mexican people call one another by (very openly) are quite expletive: Flaco: someone who is thin, Gordo: someone who is fat, Chula: a pretty young woman, Guapo: a handsome young man etc… It is part of the culture to be “descriptive.”

Nonetheless, the Mexicans I know do have criticisms of the international residents.

  1. Not speaking Spanish: It is seen as a lack of respect when new residents don’t bother to learn at least minimal Spanish – enough to be polite and ask basic questions is all that’s expected. This is not hard to do
  2. Because new residents fail to catch on to the social nuances, they often make mistakes. For example, not greeting everyone as you come into a room is considered to be very rude.  Speaking English loudly amongst Spanish speakers is also not looked on as being polite. Watch how locals behave, you’ll catch on.
  3. Failing to patronize local businesses: Of course there are items you need to buy at the big stores but neighborhood merchants desperately need your business. You’d create a lot of goodwill by purchasing eggs, basic cleaning or hardware supplies, some fruits and veggies, snack items, soft drinks, beer and so on from them.
  4. Unfriendliness: Newcomers are expected to make the first move. This can be a smile, a nod – whatever. I got to know my neighbors with what I call “cookie diplomacy.” Sometimes when I baked, I would pass some of it out around the neighborhood … I know one Santiago resident who endeared himself to the elderly ladies who live on his street by bringing a chair outside “to enjoy the fresh air”, as he saw they did every evening. Eventually, they asked him to join them.
  5. Insensitivity: Mexicans have a perception that some people come to live here and embrace all the advantages of the place, but fail to become part of it. One person I know is very critical of a foreigner who came to town, inconvenienced her terribly while renovating an old house next door to hers, over an eight month period… then turned around and sold the place to people who renovated still more.
  6. Tipping: In Mexico, tips are expected. Right or wrong, service workers depend on them. 15% is the standard amount in a restaurant. Other people: car parkers, grocery store baggers, gas station attendants, garbage pick-up workers, gas and water delivery people etc., etc., all appreciate a gratuity for their attentions. Ten pesos is standard.
  7. The Help: Those who work for you, even very part-time, must also be treated well. They really appreciate a meal and frequent drinks while working (water, a Coke), and if you can’t provide this, you should give them something to take home.  They also are grateful when you offer them clothing and household items you are no longer using.

One other unfortunate thing happens. Mexicans read about how they are portrayed in the foreign press and they sometimes assume that the internationals living here share the opinions. It’s important to let them know you are not of that negative perception. If you were, why would you be here?

Having said all this, I must say that my friends also recognize, and are very appreciative of the community efforts made by the international residents. For example, the spaying and neutering campaign was really seen as a valuable contribution.

So what’s the bottom line? I believe it is: R-E-S-P-E-C-T… if you show this, and consideration for others, you’ll get it back in spades.


Filed under Vida Latina

25 responses to “Living in Mexico: Food for thought

  1. Hello Joanna,
    Thank you for posting this. There are some who would improve their own situation simply by appreciating a few of the things you mention.

    One day, I was meeting another expat for an “American hour” lunch. As we finished, I mentioned, “Well, I have to be going. It’s a particularly hot day and the workers will need extra water, more ice, Cokes, and Squirt (“Quita sed!”) for their “Mexican hour” lunch coming up.”

    I was so surprised at his response: “Why should you buy workers drinks and ice? What does their boss do? Isn’t that his job? Where is he? I cannot imagine any of the rich Mexicans I know doing something like that.”

    The only thing that came to mind was, “This is my house and this is the way I treat my workers. Sorry if you don’t agree. Well, nice seeing you.”

    When people bring their “elsewhere” attitudes to another country rather than learning the local customs, they set themselves up for many unnecessary problems.

    • Well said. Your workers probably left their village at about 4:30 am on the bus to Merida. Upon arrival, they’d need to take another to your house. Then they’d put in a full morning’s work under the merciless Yucatecan sun. Imagine their great pleasure when you hurried home in order to give them refreshments and exchange a few words about how the work is progressing… Every person deserves kindness and to have his work validated. To say that rich Mexicans don’t treat their workers well is a gross generalization. Yes, there are some SOBs in every socio-economic group but most Mexicans are not like that. They may not be generous “out of the goodness of their hearts” but they know if they aren’t fair they’ll get shoddy work… Everything that goes around comes around.

      • Joanna,
        You just cannot believe. There were several older workers and one young boy about 18 or so. It’s hard for me to guess anymore, I’m so removed from that age! Of course, you know what happens. The least experienced guy gets the heavy work. Day after day, he lugged sacks of cement up stairs, carried buckets of water, sand and gravel.

        I only heard him speak Maya, but he likely spoke Spanish as well.

        One day, I was packing the ice chest with fresh bags while he trudged by with more heavy loads. So, I made a fresh glass of coke with ice and said, “Oye Juan. Para usted y dile a los otros tambien.” He took a long tall drink of the cold coke.

        Looking up he said in halting English, “Thank. You.” Just floored me.

        Then, embarrassed at having talked to “jefe” I guess, he ran off upstairs. I didn’t even get a chance to say, “You’re welcome” or “De nada.”

        That “Thank. You.” meant more to me than knowing all the “rich Mexicans” could ever mean to my lunch friend.

        He really wanted to be sure I understood.

      • Thank you for sharing that story. Kindness is the easiest thing in the world to hand out and the more you do, the more you get back. To describe this, I borrow an expression from writer Amy Tan: “The Joy Luck Club” You give joy, you get luck…

  2. Nancy Walters

    Since my first encounter with Mexico 35 years ago I felt a deep understanding that this was the place I belonged. My living in Mexico has nothing to do with it costing less to live here or the weather or any of the other reasons many people come here. I love this country, its people and I respect its culture. Yes, everything is not how it is back in the states but I don’t care. I lived without a phone when I first came in the 80’s and without internet or a car in the 90’s. It’s not about the conveniences but a certain feeling about the people and the life. Successful living here is done with an understanding of the language and the culture, respecting the people and a willingness to be part of an incredible country.

    • I know how much you love Mexico and the magical realism that makes it so special. This morning I read an article in the Diario that began with “Despite its problems, Mexico is the land that inspired Carlos Fuentes until his final day on this earth. He could have chosen to go or write about anywhere, but he chose our country which shows there’s a lot to be said for it.”

  3. There was a very interesting program on Radio Universidad on Thursday. It was about “mixed marriages” or as I call them “international marriages” and living in a country that is not yours. Being in one myself, I paid close attention. One part that stuck out to me was when they said how in an international marriage the people make more of an effort to adapt and become a part of the new country, whereas in a same culture/nationality marriage, when they go live elsewhere, they stick together and expect things to be what they are used to. They are more critical.
    For all of us living in a country other than our birth place country, we have to fit in, adapt, appreciate and learn the local culture and customs.

  4. Eric Chaffee

    Hi Joanna,
    Here’s a fascinating article from the current online issue of WIRED about the benefits of speaking a second language (especially for writers!). ~eric.

    • Thanks for the link. It has long been known that speaking at least one additional language is beneficial to the brain. It is a shame that so many of us see language learning as impossibly difficult when really it is quite easy. Spanish is a particularly easy language to learn. The only difficult part is getting over the idea that it is hard.

      • Joanna–sorry, but I suggest you’ve bought into the “Spanish is easy” mind-set so operative in our native cultures. I’m still plodding through UNDERSTANDING SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING DIFFICULTIES (by Ehrman); and it turns out that the method by which a language is taught can be terribly mismatched to a particular student’s most productive learning style. I spent $3000 USD for private lessons in the USA, and for that I learned about three idioms, such as “tener ganas.” My instructor labeled me as “too analytic”. What the Ehrman book is teaching me is the value in discovering one’s own learning style, and finding a complimentary learning situation. I learn more by having breakfast at the same restaurant than I ever did at the famous school I attended. I’ve also finally found a tutor who suits my learning style as well.

        I’m just suggesting that people who “give up” may have been subjected to the wrong learning situations. One needs to keep trying. Sure, I can “get by”, but it is sometimes very stressful since some service providers do not try as hard as I do to be understood. “Hablame más despacio, por favor?”

        Again, one’s levels of comfort, stress, and even assistance, and such come into play. One lady even suggested that my ability would be much better were I not living alone.

        Yet, it’s all part of the adventure, isn’t it? We learn a lot about ourselves simply in the process of learning.

      • I do not mean to make light of those (like you) who are serious students. Once you get into an upper intermediate level, learning Spanish is not “a day at the playa.” But I stand by my claim that the basics are easy to learn. However you bring up a valid point… everyone has a different learning style and you need to find a teacher who “connects” with you. As you also mention, you have learned more Spanish by going often to the same restaurant. The staff speak with you, you interact with everyone… The real key to language learning is to learn by doing. Many language learners are very afraid of making mistakes… they need to get over that, and once they do, they’re off and running… ¡Mucha suerte!

    • Thanks a million for that link, Eric. It’s quite interesting, and confirms my long-held belief that learning another language is not necessarily easy, nor is “bilingual” easily defined. I support the first commenter’s definition of real bilingualism, the goal I’ve always held for myself, and never achieved. So far, I’ve not seen “bilingualism” defined in the Wired article, nor “thinking in another language.” (Just because one is forced to use the other language does not mean they are “thinking” in it, as opposed to translating it before responding.) A personal example: I now have a very easy time giving my phone number in Spanish–I am thinking in these particular numbers. But ask me to give it in English, and I go through the slow-translate phase. Yet, the reverse is true when I’m asked the less frequent question about my codigo postal.

      Achieving real bilingualism is not easy.

  5. eldafani

    Interesting post, one often hears about integration of immigrants from the “south” in the “north”, but no so much about the opposite. I guess the challenges are just different, and my feeling is that it has a lot to do with embracing individualistic and collectivistic values, respectively.
    Greeting from Hamburg

    • Daniel! How good to hear from you. I agree with your conclusion and I know that you too have experience with these same issues. I think the most important consideration is to ask the question: “Why?” … “Why am I here?” And if one’s behavior doesn’t mesh with that ideal, it’s time to re-think things…

  6. Thank you for saying all this again. For those who have not purchased your book “Magic Made in Mexico”, I would strongly recommend it. I, too, believe that courtesy and respect are paramount. Simple things like stepping aside to let an elderly person pass on a narrow sidewalk and offering a polite greeting would be appreciated. And you can see the appreciation when purchasing items from the local merchants, even when stumbling over the Spanish.

    Sometimes, in the rush of all that we do on our brief trips, it can be easy to fall back into our “Norte” habits. It is good to be reminded that we are guests in Mexico and that we should be respectful of the people and the culture.

  7. I often think about “why I moved to Mexico” vs. “why I stay here.”

    The latter is so important–everyday I gain something, something which makes me feel like a better person. That is a benefit I’d never have predicted when I made the move here. There is, I’m convinced, a basic friendliness and helpfulness of the Mexican people which is unmatched by anything I remember in the USA.

    Sure, I’m generalizing–but such ideas are the fodder for more scholarly inquiries.

    Thanks for an informative post, Joanna.

    • As always it is lovely to have your perspective Alinde. Yes, it is in the basic nature of people here to be friendly. But sometimes they have experiences that get their guard up… it’s even more important to give these ones a really BIG smile

  8. I have never said hello to a Mexican and not been greeted with a generous smile and–perhaps–a look of relief. If we all put your suggestions into everyday practice, we could wipe out the stereotype of the norteamericano. Sometimes I slide on giving greetings by blowing kisses and saying “besos en todo.” I’m making a resolution to quit that practice.

  9. Thanks, Joanna for distilling a complicated subject into the most important key points. Of course these all are very important, but from my personal experience (and mistakes) I would say that if newcomers start out by learning enough Spanish to be unfailingly friendly with the neighbors and buy in the local shops, they plug in to the neighborhood goodwill network that is worth more by far than anything else. Getting started on the right note is really important.

    • Amen to that Marc. Communication (spoken and via body language) is the key to success. There are people who are under the impression that they don’t need to speak any Spanish to have a full life in Mexico. While its true that many people speak English, not all their family and friends do, and you won’t meet all those interesting people if you don’t speak Spanish.

  10. Lee

    At the risk of repeating myself, too, I found that if I’m walking on a quiet sidewalk and an older local person is walking toward me, I make sure to look right at him or her and murmur “bueno.” (I murmur it because I’m embarrassed by my pronunciation.) Nine out of 10 times I get a warm smile or a nod, or a “buenos dias” in reciprocation, especially if it’s an elderly woman. I was raised by my grandmother, so it’s easier for me to demonstrate old-fashioned manners, which pays off in Merida. Respect the elders is Rule #1 around here.

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