Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Typical expat culture shock

My husband Andy and I had only recently arrived from the UK to Belize, Central America and were trying to figure out how to make friends here. Inviting one or two local cowboys to a movie night seemed like a good way to us.

That evening, as Andy was putting some bowls of popcorn on the table, I was scanning our rather extensive DVD collection. All of our stuff had arrived from London a few days before and we were still getting to grips with how much stuff we actually had. As a matter of fact, the unpacking of the 20-foot container had been a rather embarrassing experience. All the Mayan families had gathered around our house to watch us unpack. With each item that was lifted out of the box, they let out a loud “Ooh!” and “Ah!” I had never felt ‘filthy rich' before, but I did then. Out of shame I ended up giving away quite a lot of things. The families grabbed anything we didn't want. Down to the boxes themselves, which they apparently turned into wardrobes.

“So babe, do you think they will like 5th Element or The Matrix? Or will those movies be too far out for them? We don't have any John Wayne movies, do we?” I just didn't know what DVD to pick.

But before Andy had a chance to answer, the cowboys arrived with a knock on the door. And they hadn't come alone; our deck was filled with what looked like a complete Mayan village. There were the cowboys, their wives, their wives' parents, their children (lots of them), their nieces and nephews, babies suckling young women's exposed breasts, even their dogs had come along. This surely wasn't what we had been expecting. And they all looked like they were going to a wedding, with the little girls in frilly white dresses and the little boys with shirt and pants and freshly washed hair, that their moms had glued to their heads in tight side-partings. Looking at these clean and proud Mayans, I felt like a total slob. To me, movie night always meant ‘T-Shirt, sweatpants and no make-up'. But obviously, things were slightly different here.

“I'm sorry,” I said, as everybody poured through the door in near silence “We don't seem to have enough chairs for everyone”. But nobody seemed too bothered about the lack of chairs; they just squeezed as many people on the sofas as possible (nursing mums and grandparents on the comfortable seats, the kids sat down where ever). The grandmother looked ancient and dignified. I thought that she was at least 80 or 90, but found out later that she was in fact only 57. I guess the years of hard labor, the Guatemalan war and the many children she had, had taken it's toll.

Whilst I was attempting to be a host to the women and children, Andy and the guys had taken control of choosing of the night's movie. Pretty soon they reappeared with their choice of the night; “The Godfather”.

I blocked the guys from moving towards the DVD player, saying: “No way! We can't watch that. That's way too violent for these children.” Andy shrugged his shoulders “They said it was okay with them”.

”No, no, I'm not having that” I snatched the DVD out of Andy's hands and walked back to the rest of our collection, followed closely by the cowboys. “We don't mind. Our kids watch movies like this at home too.”

I wouldn't budge and asked them to choose again. They picked “Die Hard”. I said no. They picked “The end of days” I said no again. I picked “Peter Pan”. They said no. I picked “The Wizard of Ozz”. They didn't even answer me anymore.

Andy, in the meantime, was getting annoyed with me.
“Simone, what's your problem?”
“They don't care about their kids watching violent movies, so why do you?”

“Well, whatever the policy is in their house is their problem. I can't change the policies in my house. And my policies are no violent movies for young kids”

We eventually settled (grudgedly on my behalf) on Star Wars. They got their bits of violence & I hoped that the kids would at least enjoy the funny aliens.

So this was one of our first introductions into Central American culture & it taught us two important things:

First of all, be cautious when inviting people in Central America. In the US or Europe you may invite 200 people to a wedding and expect 100 of those to show up. In Belize you invite 50 and can expect 200. It's just the way things are here. Invitations are a kind of free for all & people love to bring their extended families along.

Secondly, even though the Maya community seems very friendly, innocent and peaceful, they do expose their young children to violent images and movies & the children's play often reflects that. They may run around with fake Ninja knifes and pretend to slash each other's throats. But even in the midst of their “throat slashing” sessions, they will waive at you and smile the sweetest, most innocent of smiles.

So, will we ever fully understand our local community? And will they ever fully understand us? Probably not. Still, this is what makes living in a different country and culture so interesting. We all look at each other, shake our heads and smile. And even the most mundane becomes interesting when done in such a different way from what we were used to.