Culture Shock: Mexico
China Poblana by Karen Apricot New Orleans
1. The notion of ahoritaAsk a Mexican to do something and he’ll reply ‘ahorita te lo hago’, which, to the untrained linguist, may sound like he will do it shortly. ‘Ahora’ meaning now, ‘-ita’ being the diminutive, it literally means ‘a little later’, but then again, these people are not literal. In the slightest. ‘Ahorita’ will mean anything from now, in two hours, maybe next week, maybe next Winter or maybe never. It’s something I found quite difficult to get my head round at first, as the meaning doesn’t change with tone or exclamation, it just kind of depends on the person you’re speaking to and the task at hand. Take my many coffee sessions with my great friend Chava, or Salvador (translation: the Saviour. No joke). He would say to me ‘ahorita voy por allá’, which meant ‘I haven’t left my house yet and I don’t intend to do so for the next half hour, if you’re lucky’.It’s not personal, it’s just that the notion of time here is lost on most. Ahorita is also something that is quite typical in Central and South America, but not really across the Iberian Peninsula, as many will see it as quite comical. Thanks, Carlos, but the ‘little later’ does exist across the pond. Time hasn’t stood still in Mexico, as the ruins, Spanish colonization and Nextel networks prove to all, but ahorita means absolutely nothing if you’re expecting something to be done quickly. The good thing is, though, you too can make use of it, when the right time comes. The romantic oration of ‘no quieres bailar conmigo, mamasita?’ can be answered to as follows: ‘sale, ahorita’. Rather sweaty and eager Latin lover can then go shake out some salsa moves with another unsuspecting female, and you’re not compromised by your answer, as it’s left open to interpretation. Note to self: doesn’t work back home.
Mexicans have a nickname for everyone, though not all are music to a year abroader’s ears. You may just be called ‘El Guero/La Guera’ (literally ‘Whitey’), ‘El Flaco’, ‘La China’... If you’re a bit plump, don’t be surprised if you’re referred to as ‘El Gordo’ and be rather grateful instead that you warranted the article ‘El’, thus elevating you to near God-like status (or at least, it’s nice to think of it that way). It doesn’t matter if there’s more than one Gordo in the area (there undoubtedly will be, those tortillas and tacos proving quite hard to shift for many a local). You might get an exotic animal name - ‘La Rata’, ‘El Hormiga’, ‘El Iguana’ - anything goes in the land of Me-hiiiii-coooo. Don’t get offended; if they’ve bothered to give you a nickname, you must have made quite an impression - a good one, at that. Plus it has something of the Western films about it - let’s hope you’re more of the Good, rather than the Feo (Ugly).
3. Macho macho man, I want to be a macho man
On paper and according to the constitution, women and men stand on an equal footing here. But, truth be told, sometimes it can feel like a bit of a meat-market. Some men here seem to think it’s perfectly normal to woo foreign women with sweet words involving shoving some ‘aguacate’ into some ‘torta’ (NB: nation of poets) and sexual innuendos are second to none, with ‘alburres’ seen as a national sport. Getting chatted up will happen on a daily basis, and there’ll be lots of staring. Though I can’t really speak from the foreign male perspective, I have seen many a Mexicana go giddy at the knees for a bit of French, English or Spanish totty. If you’ve got green or blue eyes, you’ll be the talk of the town. Yep, it’s the law of the jungle here, but it does make things a little more fun. What’s wrong with a little banter anyway? Most chat-up lines aren’t said aloud because they have an incredible success rate (though they sometimes do), but rather to ‘prove’ one’s sexual prowess. To me, it all seemed a little like male turkeys trying to win over the speckled turquette of their fantasies with various fluttering movements, followed by a few cackles here and there. Anyway, all you need to answer to any ‘hola mamasita’ is ‘que pedo, papi’ and they’ll know you’re in the know without necessarily having been on the go. Job done.
4. The lingo
Anyone who’s watched Amores Perros will know what I mean when I say that Mexican Spanish is colourful, to say the least. Take your regular ‘pedo’; it isn’t just about flatulence here, it can contradictorily mean making a fuss or having a good personality; it can also refer to someone who is drunk; or a problem on the horizon; or just quite simply ‘what’s up’...Who said Spanish wasn’t resourceful? Though a little daunting at first, it ends up being ‘a toda madre’ (not to all the mothers, but rather, well good). ‘Cabrón’, in some circles, is seen as a good attribute to have, in other situations, you’re in the middle of a slagging-off match. Just don’t mention your casual ‘hijo de puta’ here, as it’s seen as very rude. So is ‘coger’, you’re never going to ‘coger un taxi’ here, but rather the ‘taxi-sta’. And it’s more than likely you won’t want to get their meter running, if you see what I mean, so watch out for linguistic booby-traps. I think one of the weirdest things I found when I got here was just how informal the language is - you’ll soon find yourself using ‘pinche’ ‘guey’ and ‘no manches’ (trans: don’t stain!) on a regular basis. To the egg (that’s ‘a huevo’, which means cool). Don’t say ‘huevos’ by its own, unless you’re talking about breakfast, men’s genitalia or telling someone where to stick it.
5. Traffic and bus networks
What networks? There are no designated bus stops which means any corner’s a good place to stop for your local bus. Buses come in two shapes and sizes: the American school bus type, complete with refurbished interior (note the various shrines to la Virgen Guadalupe) and dodgy three point turns, or the rather more cramped (I like to think more cosy) Volkswaggen Camper Van. Imagine seeing 10-12 people in one of these - that’s pretty much full capacity, and you might be fighting for somewhere to sit with a bag full of tortillas for company. If you get a bit car sick and don’t really fancy a rather distressing ride (with potholes reminiscent of indents circa the Ice Age), needless to say, you won’t enjoy travelling without a seat belt. However, if speed is on the agenda, you can get from A to Z in 5 minutes flat, traffic allowing. Don’t worry, the driver will do his best to make sure a chockabloc road is no match for the beautiful white combi. Crossing roads, on the other hand, can be a little stressful - I had thought that cars would stop at a crossing/red light or for an unsuspecting pedestrian; turns out it’s really 50-50 here, so don’t take your chances against oncoming traffic, word to the wise.
6. Picante - claro que pica
Aaaah chilies. Born and raised in the bastion of international cooking, with its rows of curry houses and Thai restaurants, I felt prepared to tackle the green and red peppers of Central America. After all, how much harm can one of the little blighters do? A particularly vicious specimen happens to be the Serrano variety. Nothing to do with the succulent ham you happen to find in Spain. Nope. This is reeeaaaal spice. Hot hot hot spice. Small bite, nano-second of tranquility, burning sensation at the tip of the tongue, followed by lack of feeling for the next ten minutes, with only the odd intake of air to rather pathetically soothe and then antagonise the paralysis - kind of spicy. I was going through the sort of hot-flushes you might expect of some middle-aged woman. From then on, though I did feel slightly nannied by the locals on other things (they like to take care of you), food advice was noted and darn well listened to. So, in short, don’t whack on the salsa unless you’ve tried it first (this goes for red and green), the onion and yellow chili mix might look pretty but by all means taste it before you slap it on your taco and don’t think that because it’s been smoked, it’s less likely to detonate like a firebomb once it hits your palate. Another point to highlight for the vegetarians amongst us is that, for the most part, Mexicans believe meat to be the staple to any diet. Rotund and ready to rumble, cooks aim to please with delicacies such as tripe, brain, more offal and the cow’s tongue, with a cebollita on top (that's your portion of greens for the meal). A lot of weird and wonderful cuts, delivered straight to your tortilla, from the multitude of taco stands around the country. Of course, you may decide that you fancy something a little more sober or just a little more European - and that’s fine, you can get cow’s bum instead. Or some sort of steak, though the notion of ‘rare’ is virtually non-existent here, and you’re likely to get dished up a piece of meat that looks and tastes a little bit like the sole of a shoe. Having said that, good food can be had all over the place, and at dirt cheap prices...£1.50 will get you an incredible meal, full to the brim of either meat, fish (which, by the way, is out of this world here) or stringy cheese. Don’t fret too much at the hygiene and learn to eat with your taste-buds (not your eyes), and you’ll be fine.
7. Song and dance
Folkloric Mexico certainly is everywhere. Far too many dance types are available, but if we’re going to mention a few, you’re bound to come across banda, cumbia, salsa, merengue or even ranchera. And reggaeton. The stuff is huge here, and even if your body coordination isn’t up to scratch, you’ll be asked out for a dance. Go with the flow and you’ll learn a couple of moves you can repeat time and time again. A good one to dance to is banda, as all you do is swirl countless times with your partner, until you feel a little dizzy - by far the easiest dance on the list. It may not be your idea of fun, but pairing off to do semi-pliés is all the rage in this country. I, fortunately, managed to find the only Mexican in the entire country that couldn’t put two feet together to save his life. My reputation on the dance floor was thus salvaged, as I was seldom asked to shake some moves. Mariachis really do exist, and you can get them to sing for you for a small fee. Karaoke is also on the up, so listen out for the local pop songs as there’s nothing more embarrassing than being passed the mike and being caught humming in front of a rather excitable crowd. Overkill? Yes. Fun? Possibly. Really popular? Absolutely.
8. Family life and friends
Mexicans are very, very warm-hearted. Despite what they might be portrayed as in the news, they will go out of their way to help people out, especially if you are foreign. At first, it can come across as being a little overwhelming, if you’re used to people being a little frosty. Accept the invitations open to you and make the most of it. Don’t expect Mexicans to always pay for everything; they’ll try to, but you should also return the favour, so wires aren’t crossed with the opposite sex (unless you want them to be, that is). It is also very common for natives to live at home well into their 30s, something that I found a little difficult to understand at first. But all in all, it’s an amazing country, with some very special flavours and customs. Well worth a bit of culture shock, that’s for sure. Watch out for the hair gel, though - it’s the equivalent to Spanish mullets out here...