Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Culture is Fun…usually!

Our co-worker, David Gómez, began a 2 year stint in Uruguay last week. Uruguay, situated to the south of Brazil and the northeast of Argentina, is a Spanish-speaking country. So the cultural adjustment should be minimal, right? Sometimes we make that assumption, that speaking the language is the same as understanding and adapting to the culture. Not true.

Imagine the cultural adaption needed for someone born and raised in New York City who suddenly finds themselves living in Appalachia, or someone raised in the North that is served grits for breakfast (is this edible?). This is a virtually inexhaustible topic, and a fun one to write about.

In one of David’s first blog posts, he mentioned that the word for dishes in Mexico (trastes) is the word for someone’s rear end in Uruguay. You can imagine how David’s simple question, “Would you allow me to wash your dishes?” could be interpreted! (You can read about this in Spanish HERE.) Hispanic pastors in the U.S. have to deal with this language dynamic continually, often clarifying a term before using it from the pulpit.

The same occurs in English. To our friends in Great Britain, a flashlight is a torch, and a Band-Aid is a plaster. Other words can potentially get us both in trouble. Napkin for us is tampon for them. Pants for us are trousers for them, and pants are…something else. Words are also spelled differently: colour/color, centre/center.

The point to all of this is…being bilingual is not the same as being bi-cultural. One can learn to be bilingual (or at least acceptably so) in 2-4 years, give or take 10 years. Being bicultural takes a lifetime.

A couple of examples among hundreds that I could mention. When we have groups from the U.S. here, they generally eat in Mexican homes, but occasionally we’ll take them to a nearby mall, and they’ll eat at the food court. Invariably, Mexican young people will tag along (this is good), and I always do my level best to make sure our Mexican friends have money. But sometimes, for whatever reason, somebody doesn’t get the $, and this happens:

At a table full of U.S. kids eating their fast food, there is a Mexican that is not eating. I am sure that the young people from the U.S. assume that (1.) if the Mexican wanted to eat, he would go order something and (2.) if he really wanted something, he would ask, or just grab some French fries.

In the mind of the Mexican, he is probably thinking (1.) I wish I’d have money in my pocket to join my friends and (2.) I can’t believe they don’t realize I’m not eating and at least offer me some of their food! I know this because at least one Mexican has confided in me that they couldn’t believe how rude the U.S. kids were!

In nearly all cultural dynamics, there’s a positive and potentially negative side. Mexicans generally are much more others-aware. They will at the very least acknowledge the presence of everyone, even a stranger, with a greeting or some other gesture and smile. The downside is that Mexican people are generally quite sensitive. People from the U.S. might label this as hyper-sensitive. A lack of greeting, or smile, or an invitation to interact can be interpreted as a snub. On the other hand, Americans appreciation of directness and honesty can run roughshod over sensibilities and sensitivities. The Latin form of indirect answers and round-about logic in order to avoid at all cost any personal offense can drive northern neighbors crazy!

1 comment:

TINA! said...

I would think it is actually easier (in one aspect) to come into a culture not knowing the language... BECAUSE.... then your not expecting it to be easy...