Wednesday, October 05, 2011

This Message Brought to you by the W Curve

If you've worked with college students who study abroad, or HAVE actually studied abroad, or both, at some point you have probably been schooled in a phenomenon known as The W Curve. The curve is an illustration demonstrating a person's levels of happiness as they experience and immerse themselves in a new culture. And as you may have guessed, it is shaped like a W.

The first stage is the tippy top of the W - your honeymoon - you're so excited, and everything is new, and fun, and incredible. And then something happens, a little twist, and you flip all of that new incredibleness of the culture you're in to something that makes you feel like a bit of a misunderstood outsider: the language barrier, the differences in customs, the food, etc. You collapse back into yourself a little bit, trying to grab at the culture and customs you're used to and miss. That would be the first low point of the W curve. My explanation is a little less academic than others you can find online... like this one from Berkley. And yes friends, I met my flip to that low spot this past weekend.

Okay, before I actually explain that experience from my point of view, let me be very clear that I am going to be just fine. I think it helps a lot that I know exactly why I am feeling so blah, and that there will be a natural progression to a comfortable spot soon enough. I am not looking for a pity party by any means, and as Fiance has discovered, being constantly asked "hey, are you okay?" makes me really cranky and defensive. Since he is the one that has to deal with me - for his sake, don't be that person in the comments.

So this weekend. I had a mission, and I was excited about it: We needed to find a fabric store so I could buy supplies for our halloween costumes (assuming my sewing machine arrives soon, Fiance, I, Bubba and Mac going to be Mario, Princess Peach, Bowser and Yoshi, respectively), and then we needed to find a new small sketchbook so I can continue my habit of having a way to doodle in my purse at all times.

Once you know what they look like, you realize that fabric stores are super abundant down here. I don't know how to explain the set up of a fabric store in Mexico other than really claustrophobic. Prior to the trip, my mind's eye had imagined the fabric store to be just like those in the states, and since US fabric stores are rather my element, it was a bit of a blow to walk in and not know how to start navigating the place. Long story short, we managed to figure out how to get what I needed (except for the red fleece for the Mario cap), and we left semi-triumphant. I was disturbed at some of the communication, and really flustered that my less-than-large Spanish vocabulary had only barely been helpful. I'll get back to that in a second.

Then we started the search for a sketch book. I, really, had no idea how hard that would be. As you may have noticed in the states, you can find a variety of sketchbooks to choose from in literally almost ANY STORE. They have their own aisle in Walgreens, smaller ones can be found in the "impulse buys" section right before checkouts at grocery stores, I've even seen them in gas stations. So maybe you will be just as surprised as I was that 6 hours and 6 stores later, not one suitable sketchbook has been found in The Gigantic Metropolis of Monterrey, Mexico.

I about lost it (I did actually lose it. But I managed to get back to the hotel and cry in the shower instead of in front of people at least). While I could find crayons and markers and some really nice drawing pencils in any of the places we looked at, none of those same places provided BLANK PAPER NICELY BOUND in which to use those mediums. By the time we got to a place that DID sell sketch books but found they were tracing-quality paper of poster size or greater, I had to restrain myself from sitting down in the middle of the store and sobbing.

I gave up and bought a small notebook. It will do until our stuff gets here - somewhere in those boxes are two very lovely little sketch pads a friend gave me for my birthday.

So there you have it. I fell onto the bottom of the curve, I felt it happening, I knew it was going to, and for all that knowledge and countless times I've talked to students about how to endure it while I was working at the college... here still I am. The sketchbook was my tipping point, yes, but it only served to highlight the communication gap, and if I could, I would like to hop up on a soap box for a moment and ask that you pay attention to your interactions with people from here on out - because the few people that have done so for me here have eased my ick, so to speak.

I hope very much to not sound like an arrogant American. In fact, this weekend I watched an American woman raise her voice at her waiter in such a condescending way I felt sick. I don't expect anyone in a country where the national language is NOT English to understand English. What I do find reasonable, however, is that you have the common decency to see that I'm trying, and to try along with me. Friends, I implore you to keep the following in mind when you encounter someone who is not from an English-speaking country:

  1. Body language largely does not change. Mime back and forth, nod your head yes, shake your head no. Channel your inner Pip. I'll get it.
  2. If you still can't figure it out, don't walk away to find a new solution/ someone else who might help, without giving me a "just one second" motion. I am not mentally challenged, I will understand what you're signing and that I should wait, but if you just walk away you will make me feel incredibly worthless/ stupid, AND I will have no idea what is going on or if I should find someone else (perhaps in a DIFFERENT store where you won't make money off of me?!). The fabric store was a really poor example of this point.
  3. Your volume does not matter. Your speed does. Again, I am not stupid, and I HEAR you as you yell at me in your native tongue. I cannot, however, understand you when your words all speed together, and the loudness will only serve to fluster me too much to try and separate them out in my mind. Speak slowly, annunciate, at a normal, indoor voice level.
  4. To that same effect - think about your word choice if you can. It is much more likely that I will know smaller, simpler words. If you have to use a word that's not an every-day conversation sort of word, try to put it in a context where I can get a "gist" from the rest of the sentence.
To give you a great - backwards to my experience - example, let's revisit the American Lady I overheard this weekend shouting at a waiter:

It was at the restaurant attached to the hotel, where most of the staff does have some English... but it is not their first language. There's a universally understood give and take going back and forth as the American clientele practice their Spanish while the Mexican staff practices their English.

The lady was one of a number of people I've seen here that have the audacity to come to another country, not speaking the language, REFUSING to try and learn even a few basic or courteous words, and expecting that those around will cater to and perfectly understand them. This is the type of person here that sincerely enrages me, because if a Mexican person has run into even one of these people, they will (rightfully) decide they want nothing to do with any other Americans... like me.

She had plunked herself down at a table, and ordered chips. And she wanted salt to go with them. She said "HEY, YOU" to summon the waiter to (which let's be honest, is super rude in any culture), and then followed with: "SALT SHAKER. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? I NEED A SALT SHAKER. A SALT SHAKER. DO YOU ACTUALLY KNOW WHAT I'M SAYING OR ARE YOU JUST NODDING YOUR HEAD AT ME. DON'T WALK AWAY I WANT A SALT SHAKER."

She was loud enough that every other table could hear her. The tone of her voice was clearly condescending and belittling, and whether the words made sense to you or not, you could tell she thought the waiter was an imbecile. She was incredibly rude. And, if I could be really picky ( I am certain this is the root of the communication barrier between her and the waiter) why are you asking for a salt shaker?! The SHAKER portion of that statement is confusing him - he has likely not studied "shaker," and for all you know, there isn't a direct translation for a salt shaker, but instead it's called a salt holder or something (actually, I just looked it up. It's all one word: Salero, Sal means salt, and ero is a form of a verb that means to distribute or spread). Why wouldn't you just ask for salt? How else would a restaurant bring it to you but in a shaker?

I ended up picking up the salt shaker at our table and telling the waiter who was clearly flustered at this woman's loud insistence, that "she wants one of these" in Spanish. He thanked me and went to get one for her (I hope he spat in it). She said thanks, and looked at me, and gave me a little nod / eye roll combo that clearly signified "how stupid could he be, am I right?" He may not know "shaker" in your language lady, but he definitely knows what your little head bop meant. GOD I hope he spat in your stupid salt, you should be ashamed.

One day I will have to sit down and write out what words you really SHOULD know before venturing to another language's home. They're not incredibly numerous, but there are words/ phrases I am happy to say I use every day, and I can tell that even though I am pronouncing them in a way that betrays the idea I might be Mexican, the effort behind them is appreciated.

But I digress. Friends, keep those four bullet points in your mind, and one day maybe you'll help someone like me have a much more enjoyable experience in your presence.

In different news, the food here is different. Did you know that? I've realized that the only time I really took my camera out this past week was to photograph the different food. But that's what you're really interested in, isn't it? Haha. Here's some different foods for you:


"Fancy" restaurants around here will give you a little shooter of this soup before your meal. What is it? Shrimp concentrate. I am not lying. It is as disgusting as it sounds, and it smells worse than that. So I guess, color me impressed if you can even manage to get a taste, because the smell will make you stop before it gets to your lips. (This is not a W curve comment, I have had this soup presented to me a few times now, and I have always thought it was this level of disgusting.)



This is a mixture of tequilla, sangria, and salty, carbonated tomato juice in a can. Make sure when someone gives it to you that you try it before you read the ingredients listed on the can. Because if I had read the can before I took a swig, I would not have thought it tastes as good as it does. Also, don't go having much more than one can of this stuff in one sitting because... well did you read the ingredients? You're not driving anywhere, that's for darn sure.


This was at the deli. It's so hard to see (I was trying to covertly take a picture so as to not be that girl), but the top shelf of that freezer? It is entirely normal to buy an ENTIRE PIG at the deli. It was only 80 bucks. So that was interesting.

This is a Torta. It is definitely a fatty-fat-fatty mcfatterson comfort meal, but oh golly it's tasty. slow-cooked, shredded pork, avacado, onions, a giant dollop of sour cream, all piled on a big soft, fresh baked bun. C (of C+Y fame) is officially 2 for 2 on bringing Fiance and I out for "so good it's stupid" authentic Mexican food.

That's all I've got for this week y'all. Go forth, and be nice to other people. :)

1 comment:

K said...

Definitely agree. I will never again look at or think about foreigners in my country in the same way having been in that situation abroad (and having had a meltdown or two of my own). Never again. Aaaaand we need to catch up. I might have hit my first significant low spot after having arrived home triggered by a ridiculous situation. :-/