Last month I compared the phases of cross-cultural love to being inside the head of John Malkovich.
This month, only 50 days away from my wedding, my perspective has changed; I don´t think being John Malkovich is crazy enough to describe what I am feeling right now! But alas, I am still here and plugging away, so I will continue with my journey…. to the fourth dimension of cross-cultural love and beyond.
The 4th Dimension: Maintaining independence and individuality
After deciding that you are in your cross-cultural relationship for the long run, love continues to keep you going, but only to a certain extent. You need to be a completely developed, fulfilled individual to succeed as a partner. Therefore, I knew that one of the most important things I could do to ensure my success in Mexico was to establish my independence and maintain my individuality. I have seen many American women come to depend so heavily on their Mexican boyfriends or husbands here as a way of defining their own identity that they cease to exist as individuals and instead, become only the better half or ” media naranja” of their partners.
As I mentioned last month, I arrived ahead of Carlos in order to establish this very important sense of independence. While he wasn’t here, I spent most of my time with his family. This was worthwhile because we came to love each other and I found a very important support group. More than anything, I became very close with Carlos’s older sister and her husband. We are close in age, and they were so kind and warm with me; they included me in everything and took it upon themselves to show me the best of Monterrey and Mexican culture. However, because I felt so good with his family, I neglected to work on relationships with my colleagues and people outside the family. I lost some very good opportunities to make strong friendships.
I can trace this decision to spend time with Mexicans only to my experience studying in Spain. For the first few months I was there, I had many American friends and I had a wonderful time, but I learned absolutely no Spanish. Separating myself from those Americans was the best thing I ever did because that is what opened up the door of opportunity to meet Carlos and my Mexican friends. It also facilitated great improvement in my Spanish. The rest of my year and a half in Spain, I did not have one American friend, and I liked it that way.
My first reaction upon arriving in Mexico, then, was something similar – I wanted to avoid Americans at all costs. This is the reason I did not spend any time with the Americans who were my colleagues at school. But slowly, I began to feel a need for people outside the tight, sometimes stifling circle, of Carlos’s family. It is hard to talk about problems with your boyfriend to your mother-in-law, because as much as she appears to support you or be on your side, at the end of the day, she is still not your mother…And if your only friends are your boyfriend’s family, who do you talk to when you need to vent about how weird they are or how they don’t understand you or your culture? Clearly, one must have a neutral third party!
So after my first 4 or 5 months in Monterrey, I made a much more concerted effort to broaden my circle of friends at work. It is a great place to make friends since the staff is young, dynamic, open-minded, multi-cultural, and multi-national. It has been a godsend working with this diverse group because I can get an American’s opinion on a situation or problem in my life and then ask a trusted, yet neutral Mexican for his or her point of view. I feel that I understand myself and the culture around me now that I have this diverse support group to listen to my problems and offer advice when I need it. Being surrounded by both Mexicans and English-speakers makes me feel at home. Why limit yourself to one language, culture, way of life, etc. when you can have the best of both worlds?
On another, more superficial level, I have found that being independent makes your connection with your other half even stronger. This is a rather obvious piece of advice, since you can find it in any issue of Cosmo or maybe even Seventeen, but I have found it to have new levels of success with Mexican men.
In general, Mexican men range from protective to outright jealous, and by dividing your time between him and your other friends, you really appeal to his jealous side. This was hard for me until I forged really good friendships on my own, because until I had those bonds, I preferred to spend my time with Carlos. I mean, given a choice between spending a Friday night with the man of my dreams whom I came all the way to Mexico to be with or an American friend I hardly knew, well, I always chose Carlos. He was the one I felt the most comfortable with. But he had other friends and a life here in Monterrey, and he didn’t want to spend every waking hour with me. I understood the logic behind this, and supported him 100%, but I still had trouble not feeling rejected or lonely sometimes. It’s just plain hard to go from having a lot of friends back home to having just one – your boyfriend.
Then, when we were in Boston for Christmas, I suddenly understood how Carlos felt. In Boston, I was highly independent, and sometimes I felt the urge to go out with my friends without bringing him along. I didn’t need to sit and watch TV with him just to have him at my side. Instead, I would leave him watching TV and go read in bed. This may sound silly, but I think most women who have spent time in Mexico to be with their Mexican men will understand this phenomenon of neediness – we like to have our men at our side as much as possible, even if we are the ones who always sacrifice to make it happen. It’s inevitable, but the trick is to get over it as soon as possible.
Why? Because we can work it to our advantage! Our Mexican men begin to take advantage of our availability. I found that when I was always available, I would call my boyfriend to see if he wanted to go to dinner and a movie at night, and he would give me a tentative “yes” because he didn’t have any other plans yet. But I was taken aback by this attitude, which I interpreted as, “Yes, I’ll go out with you as long as I don’t have anything better to do.” I knew this wasn’t exactly how he meant it, but when you are short on friends and people who appreciate you and make you feel special, this is how you interpret it!
However, when I had friends of my own and began to make plans of my own without consulting him first, I felt empowered, and my boyfriend suddenly realized he couldn’t use me as his backup plan anymore. I even began to notice he was slightly sweeter when I saw him after I had gone out with my friends. We both remembered that I have a good personality and am capable of making my own friends, and that made him value his time with me more. And just one last piece of advice: if you have a really good English-speaking, strictly platonic, male friend, this is your wild card. Your Mexican man will do anything to avoid your being with him!
The 5th Dimension: Dealing with Ups and Downs
Any relationship will have its ups and downs, but for a cross-cultural couple those “ups and downs” may feel more like a trek through the Himalayas. I have been able to trace all of my problems with Carlos to the following four reasons, three of which I find to be compounded by the cross-cultural factor.
1) Fear of living in Mexico
2) Breakdown in communication (Never talk back to a mad Mexican!)
3) Lack of personal down time (feeling smothered by everyone BUT your significant other)
4) Missing home (where they at least pretend to understand you!)
It has taken me almost a full year to pinpoint the sources of my stress and the problems in my relationship with Carlos. I hope that by talking about my experiences with these four factors you will have an easier time identifying your own factors, which I am willing to bet are similar…
I have to admit that at first, I was a bit afraid of Mexico. This is due mainly to the fact that during my first week in the country, I had a rather rude and startling introduction to the Mexican legal system after a friend of mine was thrown in jail on completely ungrounded charges. He suffered one year in prison until they finally got around to looking at his case and deciding there was no basis to the charges. This left me with a perpetual fear of being imprisoned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I am also afraid of people being in the right place at the right time here in Mexico; I have heard stories about people about my age who have stolen more money from the government than most people earn in a lifetime. There have been moments where I have wondered whether my boyfriend (and future husband), who is interested in politics, would be capable of doing the same…I could not live with either the knowledge of such wrongdoing or the fear of him being caught.
So one day I had a serious talk with Carlos about this very issue. I asked him outright what he would do if he were in a position where he could steal money from the government with impunity. At first he got angry. In my moment of panic, I took his reaction as a “yes” and only got even more nervous and upset. Finally, when I calmed down and stopped lecturing him on morals and values, he explained to me that he wouldn’t do such a thing and that he was insulted that I had asked him. I believe him, but he does come from a culture where this is almost acceptable, and that makes me wonder if he would be true to what he said if the opportunity was given to him. It’s a cultural fear factor that I still have not been able to get over 100%, even though I trust my him or I would not be marrying him. I hope I will get over this paranoia sometime soon…
Break-down in Communication – Keep your cool!
Women like to talk things over…Mexican men like to have the last word, and they feel attacked when women call them on problems in the relationship. My personal experience has been that it is very hard to bring up something that you would like to change or work on in a relationship. Carlos, for example, takes it very personally. At first he is on the defensive, not really listening to what I have to say. He gets excited, and I get frustrated. I have found, however, that the best strategy with him is to give him time to rant and rave a bit. I listen patiently and then, when he seems to have calmed down a bit, I continue to make my point in a very soft, loving voice. I explain why I feel the way I do and what I expect of him and what he can expect from me. I then give him time to think about it. Any time I raise my voice I get NOWHERE. He even told me once that no matter how loud I shout, he will always shout louder. (If that isn’t macho, I don’t know what is!) So I just make it my goal to never raise my voice with him. And I have been extremely successful with this tactic. After a short while it has been my experience EVERY TIME that Carlos stews over what I have brought up and eventually either realizes I am right or is willing to strike a very reasonable compromise. The trick to winning him over is to make sure it looks like he came to the conclusion on his own, without my prodding.
An example of this tactic happened one day outside the store Soriana. We were about to go inside when somehow the topic turned to my desire to study for a master’s degree and how this might interfere with our plans to have children. We had said that we would wait a year and a half after marriage to have kids. This sounded fine with me in theory, but once I arrived in Mexico and began exploring my options, I decided that pursuing a master’s was something that I wanted and needed in order feel fulfilled. Since my current job is willing to pay for my studies as long as I continue to work full-time during the day, I would like to take advantage of the offer. Yet, I would find it very difficult and very unfair to a newborn child if I continued to work and study after having a baby. I would literally be occupied all day and all evening. I wanted Carlos to understand the importance of the masters to me, and consider postponing having a child for two and a half years after the wedding.
At first, Carlos was extremely flustered and rather bothered by my audacity in wanting to change our life plan. He was adamant that it had to be a year and a half because we had already agreed on that (like a year before we were even in Mexico and engaged!). After a half an hour of huffing and puffing, while I just kind of sobbed quietly and tried to remain patient, he suddenly calmed down. Then, without any encouragement from me, he turned to me and said, “You know, you’re right. Go ahead and study for your masters. Just try to begin as soon as possible.” And then he gave me a kiss and a big hug. It was like he had had a divine inspiration. From that moment on he has not given me a hard time about either the masters or when we are having kids. This same pattern has happened to us numerous times. On the flip side, I have witnessed some major problems in relationships of friends who are not as patient with their Mexican partners and raise their voices back to their boyfriends. This is a terrible generalization of an entire nationality and culture, but I honestly think there is some truth to this…do not threaten the Mexican male ego if you eventually want your way.
Lack of personal downtime
This factor is made worse by the fact that I am living with my boyfriend’s family, but I think even the best of Mexican families can become stifling for an unsuspecting gringa used to her independence and freedom. Carlos is understanding of my need for freedom. But often, the tension that I feel with the rest of his family affects my relationship with him. Since I can’t really talk back to his family or tell them to back off, I must hold all of my resentment in, and unfortunately, I usually vent my frustrations on poor, unsuspecting, undeserving Carlos. Sometimes, I find myself moody and just plain cranky to him.
The source of most of the tension I feel at home is the fact that Mexican women rarely do anything alone. So, for example, it is often hard to convince Mexicans that you will be alright walking across the street to the convenience store alone. Sometimes I like to just go out for a walk by myself, but even that was hard to communicate at first. My mother-in-law would always insist I take my sister-in-law along, which is fine sometimes, but not always; I think best when I am alone and some of my best ideas come to me while I am walking. It’s the way I am, and I am not willing to change myself completely just to adapt to Mexican culture. I do not believe in constant company. I need time to breathe so that I appreciate the time I do spend with people. But I have found that often this just comes across as being anti-social. ” Sigh.”
I have finally come to grips with what I have to do to be happy. I compromise when I feel I can without losing my sanity, but it´s not fair to us, as foreigners to always have to be the ones to give up our customs. No, we cannot expect things to be the same as home while in Mexico, and Yes, we should try to adapt as much as possible, but it’s not fair for anyone to ask you to give up who you are, either. They have to learn to accept us foreigners for who we are and who we will always be at heart. If they are unable to do this, then that is their problem. So now, when I feel smothered, I explain what I need (a walk alone, some time to read, etc.) and why to my boyfriend’s family. Now that they know the reasoning behind my actions, they have become much more understanding, and I feel one tiny but significant step closer to being liberated…and Carlos is happier, too, when he is not taking the brunt of my stress as my personal punching bag.
I just mentioned that I am independent, and that feeling smothered is a big stress factor in my life. Now, let me contradict myself. Sometimes I also use Carlos as my punching bag because I feel alone and I miss the affection and love of my family. The key word here being MY family. Your family may drive you crazy and you might even fight like cats and dogs when you are together, but when you are looking at living a lifetime apart, well, trust me, you start to miss them. I suppose more than anything, I often crave the company of those who best understand me. Ultimately, I know that even if I fight with my family, they will still love me, and they won’t judge me like in-laws could. I miss being able to be 100% relaxed with my family members. Plus, I have started to realize that we will see each other as much as possible, but no matter what, we will always miss some milestones and important events in each other’s lives now that we are living in different countries.
The other night I started whining and complaining about money to Carlos. The wedding is too expensive…we are never going to be able to put a down payment on the house we want…yadayadayada. I was grasping for anything to complain about. Then all of a sudden I started to cry, and cry, and cry. At first I didn’t really understand why, but then it hit me. I am nervous about all of these important decisions that I am making on my own. I am used to having my mom as my confessor, personal advisor, financial planner, etc. and now that she isn’t here to make me feel better, I felt really sad and stressed. I realized that once again, I was taking my nerves out on Carlos because he is always there, he is the only one I feel comfortable enough with here in Monterrey to show that ugly side of me. This, obviously, cannot be! I had a long talk with him about how all of a sudden I really feel like an adult, and this change feels even more dramatic because I am away from my family-my best support group. He was very understanding and just held me tight while I talked and rambled and cried. Then I felt better. Much better.
Looking at the long term
So now that I have conquered my fears, identified the major sources of problems in my relationship with Carlos, and decided to settle down in Monterrey, I have been considering several strategies for dealing with the move. My favorite strategy is to become fabulously rich and successful. This would allow me to buy a summer home in Boston, a spring home in Madrid, a fall home in Italy, and a winter home in Mexico. I would be a citizen of the world, and never face the reality of living in one city for the rest of my life. If this strategy falls through, however, I do have some other thoughts on how to make living in Mexico for the rest of my life easier.
I consider myself extremely lucky. I think it might have even been fate that brought me a Mexican from Monterrey. It really is the best place in Mexico, I think, for me to settle down long term. Living on the beach in Cancun sounds wonderful, but what kind of career opportunity is there for me outside the tourism industry? Living in Monterrey, I find the best of both worlds – American and Mexican. Taco joints are side by side with American chain restaurants, and although I find the existence of Chili’s sad in terms of globalization, it works out great when I have a craving for favorites from back home. When I was living in Madrid, for example, it was nearly impossible to find brownie mix or chocolate chips for baking. It’s strange the things you start to miss, but it’s those creature comforts that make living long term in a foreign country just that much easier. Here in Monterrey, I have been able to find almost anything I want, and for anything else, the Texas border is just two hours away.
I have also learned that if you want to be successful financially in Mexico, you really need to own your own business. The positive thing here is that small mom and pop style businesses are still thriving, despite the presence of the invading chain restaurants from the north. Back home, I had never really considered opening a business because I saw it as something that only rich people could do. But Mexico is full of stories of people who got rich from selling popsicles or hamburgers in the street. I don’t know if selling popsicles is for me, but I sure like the idea of starting small and inexpensive and growing at a steady rate until I can actually buy my houses for each season of the year!
One of my main worries about living in Mexico long term is money. Even in a big, rich city like Monterrey, there is not much of a culture of saving. Financial planning seems like a foreign concept. People here have far less debt, but they also have far less savings. I have found that many Mexicans are unprepared for medical emergencies or retirement and expect their family members to maintain them if something should happen. I think it’s great to rely on family, but I would never want to burden someone that way. Anyway, Mexicans don’t seem to see it as a burden, more as a responsibility. Maybe it’s just the people who I am in contact with, but I feel that Mexicans live by the “Whatever will be, will be” attitude. I have to admit, I find this unnerving, and have already talked to Carlos about how we will save and manage our money, etc. He has agreed to let me manage the finances because the one positive piece of credit he gives to Americans is the way we handle our money.
The last really important question that an independent American woman should consider before marrying and settling down in Mexican culture is the role she will play after marriage and after becoming a mother. I have always been very clear with Carlos that I have no intention of leaving work after the wedding, and I plan on returning to work after the birth of our children in the future. I am a very active person and I would go crazy tied down to the role of a housewife. Carlos could not agree more with me, and fully supports my working as much as I want. Today, Mexican men seem more and more accepting of working women, but it’s still a good idea not to take your freedom to work for granted!
So that’s it for my journey through the dimensions. I feel this article may be confusing, but I feel confused by the issues around me. It’s sink or swim here as a foreigner, but at the same time, it’s never clear which way is up. The way I see it, so far I’ve dipped only my baby toe into Mexican culture, but the water temperature is just about right to pull me in for more. So, if you are still reading this, you are now inside my mind, and I have succeeded in pulling you into the vortex of dimensions and challenges that make up my life in Monterrey.