- Personal Stories & Opinions>
- The Transition from Flattery to Condescension for the Foreigner in Latin America
The other day a friend of mine named Blayde was telling me about an afternoon he had visiting the parents of a gal that he has been seeing briefly.
He's known her for a few months now but are not actually in a serious relationship yet.
As I wrote here, it sometimes feels like Latinas want to "speed up" the process of introducing the man to her parents and sometimes even do it on the first date.
Personally, it sounds like she's trying to make things "more formal" by bringing him to the parents even though he hasn't agreed yet to a relationship.
Or whatever really.
Anyway, he tells me this odd thing he noticed about the mom that kind of rubbed him the wrong way but he didn't make a scene about it.
He just found it odd.
While at the dinner table with food cooked by the parents, they ask him if he has "ever tried enchiladas before?"
Now, keep in mind, they were talking for a while beforehand and he gave them some information about himself in basic questions and answers.
How he is from the US.
That he has spent 5 years in Latin America (really just Mexico in that entire time from what I know).
When asked the typical question of "what food do you like" and other cultural questions, he told them "huarache."
And, keep in mind, I wasn't there.
He simply told me what the moment was like as we got talking over beers not too long ago somewhere along Insurgentes Sur avenue.
And, to be fair, the question of "have you tried enchiladas?" isn't a terrible one to be fair.
But it's one that -- in the context -- can be understood why he found it weird.
Not offensive but he just found it weird.
Especially when questions went towards asking him if he has ever seen some of Mexico City's coolest sights like the Zocalo after asking him "what does he like about Mexico City?"
And, to be fair, it's again not a terrible or offensive question to ask in of itself.
Has he seen the Zocalo?
Just a question!
But, given that they know he has been here for 5 years now in Mexico City, you would think that "obviously he knows what enchiladas and the Zocalo are."
How the hell could he have missed the Zocalo after 5 years here?
That's such a stereotypical Mexican food that even Mexican restaurants in small town Iowa serve it.
And, if he likes something not as commonly served in the US like huaraches, you'd think he's heard of enchiladas right?
That'd be like asking a Mexican who has spent 5 years in NYC if he "has tried hamburgers" and if he has seen Time Square.
Of course he has!
Even if said Mexican doesn't like hamburgers (like maybe an American who thinks enchiladas don't look good and hasn't tried them), you can't imagine someone living for 5 years in either NYC or Mexico City and not having seen Zocalo or Time Square.
That'd just be weird as fuck.
Like how the hell did you miss that after all these years?
But much of the above reminds me of other moments that I've had personally.
"Legit You Speak Spanish?"
Once in a blue moon, you meet the rare Latin American who you get talking with and they just seem weirded out by the fact that you legit speak Spanish.
"Like what the fuck? The gringo know Spanish?"
And the funny thing is you could be speaking directly to their face in Spanish, they can understand you and they still find it weird.
This is especially common for Latin Americans who have very limited experience with foreigners (especially if they are older).
For example, when I was looking for an apartment in Cuatro Caminos area of Mexico City years ago, it wasn't much of a search as I found the place I chose quickly enough but I did explore to a few other spots.
One place in particular looked pretty legit that was only like 75 bucks more than the place I chose and would've actually been literally right just a few minutes walk from my girlfriend's place at the time.
Not to mention the neighborhood itself was much nicer looking than the spot I chose.
However, I didn't choose it for issues with the internet where it seemed to be absolute shit and I need solid internet for my work.
Plus, even though I kinda liked the idea of living closer to her, I also kinda felt it would be nicer too to have some distance too.
Anyway, I did consider the place and checked it out.
Showed up and met the lady at the door who owned the place and introduced me to it.
My girlfriend at the time was with me.
And we get talking for maybe 15 minutes at most?
Completely normal. We understand each other just fine. No communication issues.
Typical questions being asked: "what's the internet like? Can I check out the wifi because I need good internet for work. Are there restrictions on visitors? The shower has hot water?"
So on and so on.
No communication issues whatsoever.
She understood everything I said despite the accent and I understood her just fine.
Then we get to the kitchen and basically done with the little introduction to the apartment.
To which she turns around and asks me "what do you think of the place? When do you think you could move in?"
And she nods away as I respond.
But then something comes to her mind real quick and she forgot to explain to me something important about the hot water with the shower.
There was some special way you had to turn the hot water on by messing with some stuff and you would have to give it like 20 minutes or so for it to get hot enough and not forget to turn the thing off after you are done with the shower.
Before she got explaining that though, she stood in front of the heater thing and quickly asked me "but you speak Spanish right?"
Before I could even answer, my girlfriend at the time answered "siiiii, habla español "
I nodded away and reiterated what she said that "yeah, obviously."
And she goes on with the "OK, well you speak Spanish pretty well but this is complicated. This is how it works."
And, maybe 5 minutes later, we left as there wasn't anything else in the apartment to show and I let her know (in Spanish oddly enough) that "we'll let you know when I can move in if I do."
That was that.
But, putting all this together, it reminds of another incident.
The Odd Question by a Colombian Aunt
To be fair, old people always have odd questions, don't they?
Perhaps their memory doesn't work very well or whatever else.
Anyway, I can relate to what Blayde was sayign because I had a similar moment in Colombia years ago that was also kinda weird.
In meeting the family of some former girlfriend of mine in Colombia, we got to know each other well over the months.
Would stop by where her family lives and even visited a village of where her extended family lives as you can read here.
Anyway, there was some fat aunt of hers that had seen me before and known me over the months.
Made small talk with her too.
Ate with her and other family members at the table.
All of it.
And, from what I know, she even knew about a trip that Marcela (my girlfriend at the time) and I took to a nearby city called Santa Marta.
After all, I remember Marcela notifying the family in a Whatsapp group (which included the aunt) about our trip and how long we'll be gone.
Her family members -- and I think the aunt if I'm not mistaken after all these years -- gave the usual "have a good trip!"
We had a hotel booked before and spent a few nights at a nearby beach over there.
Which, for those who don't know, Santa Marta is very close to Barranquilla.
So it wasn't like we went to San Andres Islands or Miami.
Anyway, during another table conversation over some food, the aunt asked me at some point if I "know where Santa Marta is?"
To be fair, I don't remember how long this was after our trip but I'm guessing maybe a month because I was only in Colombia for 7 months.
But Marcela cut in before I could respond as I was eating and said something like "yeah, we were there recently."
And the aunt looks me and her and goes "ah yeah" and then begins explaining some event going on over there in a week and how we should visit.
She wasn't trying to be a dick I think.
Perhaps just forgot about our trip to Santa Marta.
No big deal.
But let's cut to the point anyhow.
Let's get to it.
When you first arrive to Latin America, you might take it nicely when someone says to you that "you speak Spanish well."
In fact, you rarely find it weird or offensive even years later into living down here.
However, there comes a point where it does feel weird.
Let's be real here -- if I went to a random Latin American in the US who lives there and I know that he has spent years there and I say to him "your English is so good!" that could be seen as weird or offensive.
In fact, plenty of Latin Americans do find it offensive.
And, when I say Latin Americans, I mean those born and raised in Latin America but have only been in the US for some odd years.
For example, when I lived in Ohio, I went to a fraternity often for parties and there was a certain moment where someone else said to this Costa Rican dude about "how good his English is."
Now, to be fair, this Costa Rican guy was the type to take some things too seriously as I wrote about with this example here.
Anyway, it was particularly weird for this one guy to compliment the Costa Rican and his English because they were both part of the same fraternity.
They know each other for many months!
Have gotten drunk together.
Lived in the same building.
Why the fuck does he need to tell him randomly that his English is good?
Of course it fucking is!
And so the Costa Rican dude -- while he wasn't an ass about it -- was a bit of a smartass in his response and did seem slightly offended.
Looking back on it, I can understand his irritation now much more than I could back then because I hadn't really lived abroad or tried to "immigrate" to another country if that's what you want to call me.
The fact is though that -- on the surface -- such a compliment sounds very nice.
But, in a certain context, it just rubs some people the wrong way.
Like why the fuck would you think that my English isn't so good or be surprised by it (especially after speaking with you in English for so long)?
It reminds me of this moment here in Mexico City where a cleaning lady -- someone who I had spoken to on a few occasions already -- said to me "wait, you really speak Spanish?"
What the fuck?
It's almost like that we -- the foreigners who speak their language -- are some fucking ghost to these people who can't believe that -- right before their very own eyes -- is a foreigner who speaks their language.
They just can't believe it!
And, on top of that, you see the same thing play out beyond just the question of language.
When you have a foreigner in your city who has spent 5 years here and you ask him if he has seen something that OBVIOUSLY he would have seen by now.
At the very least, I could forgive the mother for asking Blayde if he has ever tried enchiladas. It still sounds retarded to me because who the fuck hasn't eaten enchiladas after 5 years in Mexico but I could see it happening!
But not visiting the Zocalo before after 5 years?
Give me a fucking break.
Really? You're not sure if he has?
At the end of the day, what this comes down to are three very fundamental issues.
First, we should be fair here in saying that most people asking these questions aren't usually trying to be dicks. No need to kick their ass. They are just trying to make casual conversation and truly might have these questions.
And, on that point, the reason why I included the "fat aunt of Colombia" is because I think that's a classic example of someone who actually isn't being dumb about it and genuinely forgot that we took a trip to Santa Marta.
Second, you have the mental blockage that people of any nationality have in regards to foreigners.
This mental blockage always makes them doubt that we have done things that OBVIOUSLY we have done already and have done right in front of their face.
Like speak Spanish.
Or, if you know he has been here for years, visit obvious places that how would he have not seen by now?
This mental blockage just -- for whatever reason -- makes some locals in any country (including those in Latin America) find it difficult to see us foreigners as "being permanent" to their community and also familiar with any aspect of their culture, history, language or places of importance.
Third, even if a foreigner does immigrate and "become permanent," he will always have "the outsider effect" in my opinion as I wrote here.
While he is objectively always a foreigner (even if he gains citizenship) and should accept that (especially as few locals would see him as a local even if naturalized), he obviously is still going to find some offense when moments make him feel as an outsider.
This is especially true when said foreigner has dedicated so much of his life and effort to live down here (not to mention if he happens to have kids, a business, a home, a life and maybe even residency or citizenship).
Even with all that commitment, to be reminded of being as "an outsider" can be annoying and I think that is part of the reason why some foreigners can get annoyed at moments like this.
But, on top of that, obviously they can be annoyed for other reasons when asked dumb questions that just don't make sense.
Like asking if "you speak Spanish" after spitting out Spanish right in front of their face (or English and any other language) or if they have been to some obvious place that they clearly would have seen by now.
Going back to how I started this section of the article, it demonstrates as well how the comment "you speak x language well" can at first be seen flattery and then be seen as even condescension years down the road after so much time living here.
And, above all, keep in mind that everything I have said here isn't specific to Latin America.
I'm pretty confident that there are expats/immigrants to other countries who have experienced the same.
For example, I've known a guy for a few years who is an expat from the US who lives in China with a Chinese wife and their kids they had together whose mom of his wife has asked him dumb questions like "wow, you know how to use chopsticks?" despite having eaten with her in person obviously on numerous occasions.
It's not an issue with Latin Americans specifically but really with people of any country or region in the world.
Like with the Costa Rican guy, it happens in the US also.
Though, on a personal level, I think the issue is deeper in countries that take in less immigrants than others as you'd naturally have less locals exposed to "the foreigner" becoming an immigrant, a part of society, naturalized as a citizen and very accustomed to the language, history and culture of the new country.
I say that because, while I have never been to a a place like China, it always has struck me (from the stories I've heard of expats living there) that "integrating" is a little more difficult (or impossible?) when compared to Latin America (culturally, racially, legally, linguistically etc).
While I've never been to a place like China, I'm only saying that based on the impression I've gotten from a few expat folks I know who relocated over there.
With that said, I should be fair to Mexico and broader Latin America in that, compared to other countries with less immigrants getting naturalized, I don't think the issue is as severe here (even though it is a phenomenon you might still notice south of the border).
Putting that aside, obviously then your mileage will vary when it comes to this issue in regards to where you are from and where you immigrated to.
The issue being, as I said, this odd "mental blockage" where you get comments from locals that makes you think that they see you as "a fresh gringo off the boat" that arrived yesterday and isn't actually part of society nor knows anything about the local society (despite demonstrating years of commitment to said area with all the blood, sweat and tears involved).
And, like I said, sometimes the comments are not like that and are just genuine mistakes that don't matter (like the question of the Colombian aunt) to comments that are more understandably annoying and/or confusing that hit harder at the "outsider effect" (like with the examples of Blayde and the Zocalo, the Spanish of a gringo, the English of a Costa Rican, the chopsticks of the foreign son-in-law, etc).
In the examples above (outside of the Colombian aunt), such a scenario can also make some foreigners wonder if said local sees them as some hapless retard.
Equivalent to going to a random immigrant in any country (be it the US, Mexico, China, etc) and going "OH SO GOOD! SO GOOD! YOU SPEAK (English/Spanish) SO GOOD! YOU USE CHOPSTICKS WELL!! WOULD YOU LIKE A COOKIE?!? WHOSE MY GOOD LITTLE FOREIGNER?! WHO?!? WHO?!!? YOU ARE!!"
Still, even in those examples covered, I'd again like to emphasize that they are not really great examples of disrespect. They shouldn't be overemphasized to be more than what they are (small moments of being asked odd questions). It's understandable why an immigrant could find them annoying, odd or offensive but let me clarify one last thing with a tiny bit of advice.
My main advice -- to end it on a positive note -- is to not take it personally when confronted with such a moment.
It might be annoying!
Personally, I don't find such moments usually annoying for the most part but I can get why some would.
And why I don't usually get annoyed is because most people are not trying to be dicks about it (even when their comments are beyond those of the Colombian aunt and truly don't make any sense).
Absolutely nobody in the stories above were trying to be dicks.
What they said could be perceived as annoying to some but they didn't have bad intentions with what they said.
Not even the dude at the frat party to the Costa Rican guy was trying to be a dick.
Having said that, you do have that occasional xenophobic bird out there who might want to REMIND you that you are a foreigner and hate you for it and you are clearly in the right to knock said cunt down a few notches.
This might be the type who is jealous of you having a local girl by your side (one of "his women" so to speak even if she wasn't fucking him to begin with).
Or perhaps it's like an Argentine woman that I met one time in Bolivia who tried to correct me many years ago on how to pronounce the word "sal" properly and went on a near autistic screech going "SAL!! SAL!!! ES SAL!!!"
However, for a lot of people, I'll say it again that most are not trying to be rude and generally are just suffering from some "mental blockage" and are just making casual conversation anyhow at the same time.
Try to explain that "of course I have seen the Zocalo" or whatever is the topic but don't be a cunt about it if they are not trying to be a dick to you.
After all, the world doesn't need more negative energy already, does it?
Of course, I'd understand if you get annoyed and just "vomit all over them" in some condescending response.
To anyone living as a foreigner in another country, small annoyances can build up over time and sometimes are let out in not the nicest of ways.
But try to understand that their odd questions aren't coming with bad intentions.
But that's all I got to say.
If you got anything to add, drop a comment below.
And follow my Twitter here.
Thanks for reading.