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Feeling Nuts In Mexico

Ilya Adler

In Mexico, when you go to a traditional marketplace, or a store around the corner, it is not unusual that a number of things will be packaged in small plastic bags with a close-knit knot, and not a shoe-like knot that is easy to untie. This may include a sandwich to go, a pound of lemons, a portion of nuts, among many other items.

In a completely unscientific manner (which often yields an observation closer to the truth), I have noticed that for most non-Mexicans this hard knot is a real nuisance, and after trying to untie it, they give up and rush to get a pair of scissors or a sharp knife and break the knot altogether. On the other hand, most Mexicans patiently and delicately untie the knot, often without looking at it, and "voila" the bag is open without any damage done to it. Often, after taking a small portion of the content, they close it with the same close knot originally used.

I believe the metaphor fits perfectly well with the general feeling non Mexicans get about the Mexican culture. It all seems so hard to open, so difficult to untie, without breaking "it" or breaking yourself. People will say yes, but they mean no. People will tell you they will meet you at 10, but show up at 11. People swear they will give you something tomorrow, but they forget. People tell you they are not interested in a project, but expect to be invited in. People living in large cities like Mexico City deal every day with traffic insecurity, with black-outs, with a lack of water in their houses. This uncertainty, which drives most folks from the developed world crazy, seems to be taken with a grain of salt by Mexicans. They even use an expression like "ni modo," which translates something like "what can you do about it?" as an immediate answer to the many uncertain events that will happen in every day life.

Then there is the formal world contrasted with the informal one. The most obvious expression of this is what happens in the economy. Sure, you have Wal-Marts, Sears, McDonald's, and many other formal business ventures; but you also have the informal street vendors on most corners offering you just about any product or service. You have the electricians, plumbers and construction workers who work without giving invoices and who are not in the official statistics of the economy. You have maids, drivers, people who keep an eye on your car parked in the street, and so many other activities that fall within the informal economy that it would be impossible to number them all. Calculations vary, but an estimate of 50% of the economy is not an exaggeration of how big the informal sector is.

However the formal and informal go well beyond the economy. Mexico has sophisticated rules, a sophisticated constitution, and countless politicians who invoke the legally-run and legally-based way of doing things. But reality is a different story, and for every law and regulation there are exceptions, something that provides another informal activity, which deals mainly with getting around the many complicated rules and regulations.

Treaties and social/political agreements also are neurotically caught in this formal/informal dilemma. Many conflicts have a legal face to protect, and then the real solution, which is for the government to look the other way with what is happening. Schools have rules, but any important authority can override this rule. In fact, the culture really does not see rules carrying real power: Power lies in the people in positions of authority, the same ones who write or override those rules.

Then there is common, informal knowledge that defines what is or is not allowed. For example, most street curbs in Mexico are painted yellow, which means that parking is not allowed. In some parts, the color does have a meaning: If you park there, there will be a tow truck a few minutes later taking your car to a lot, usually far from where your car is. However, there other street curbs that are also painted yellow, yet people somehow know that it is okay to park there. How do they know this?

And in trying to compare Mexico to other cultures, you find that in some aspects it is like other countries of Latin America, but in other issues it appears to have more in common with Asian cultures. No wonder culture shock in Mexico also happens to Latin Americans - often more severely - because they do not expect this society to be that different from theirs.

I am only mentioning some of the unusual characteristics of life in Mexico. No wonder so many non Mexicans simply feel nuts.

You have to be patient. Just like it takes patience, skill and optimism to untie the knot in the bag of lemons sold to you, so it is with this culture. Slowly, with patience, with wisdom, each knot can be untied, until one day it all makes sense. Then, finally, you feel sane and not nuts.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2005 by Ilya Adler © 2008
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