Monday, August 6, 2012

Standing out, fitting in

We end each day exhausted here, whether we've worked hard or not. It's a strange and somewhat disconcerting feeling to come home from work in the early evening, as we have countless times this year, collapse on the couch, and believe that we could easily nod off until the next morning.

It's only recently that I've begun to realize that our chronic lethargy is due in large part to the intense, near-constant energy we put to the task of simply fitting in - of minimizing, in whatever way possible, in every moment we spend in the presence of others, the extent to which we stick out like sore thumbs, attract curious stares, prompt giggling, cause confusion, provoke frustration, or rouse pity. In public, we keep our profiles as low as possible, trying our best to dress as the locals do and prevent our nasal English from reaching beyond each others' ears. Our heavily accented Spanish is laced, as best as we can muster, with elaborate politeness, in the attempt to convey just how grateful we are for the listener's patience. With our local friends and acquaintances, the pressure is a little lighter, but not by much. Though it's now more or less habit to announce our entrance into a room with a hearty "¡Buenos días!" or "¡Buen provecho!", it's still a bit of a mystery, for me at least, where to put my hands as I'm circling a room and kissing each woman on the cheek, and I can't say how many times I've almost gone in to kiss a man on the cheek when I'm in a rhythm. I know it would make a great story for someone someday, which makes it almost worth it, but it would also make me the paragon of foreignness (and, inevitably, the butt of jokes till kingdom come), which is exactly what I'm trying to avoid. All by way of saying, of course, that cultural norms are complicated, and attempting to follow them is energy-sapping.

But in these last few months, it's finally felt as though all that energy has started to pay off. We're much more confident to share a story, no matter how halting, while at the breakfast table with staff. If the restaurant where we do karaoke nearly every week had a punch card for free sopa azteca or conventos after buying 10 or 20, we certainly would have earned several by now. Every time we go there, we meet our boss Naty's wonderful family: her two kids, two grandkids, her brother and sister-in-law, often her parents as well - four generations at the same table. Sure, we'll miss the food, the language, the culture, and our lifestyle in general when we leave in a month, but it's the people we'll miss the most, people we've worked very hard to fit in with - and largely succeeded - despite all of the barriers.

Like so many US middle class individualists, we've spent so much of our formative years trying to distinguish ourselves in a variety of ways - how we dress, the sports we play, the musical instruments we learn, the grades we strive for, the music we listen to, our sense of humor. Though beards are certainly not at all uncommon among men my age, I know that mine, on some subconscious level, is an assertion of my identity, another way to stand out.

In a few short weeks, we'll be heading back to the US, where the norm is the attempt to stand out, not to fit in. Maybe one of the things we love most about living here (and one of the reasons that we're bound and determined to move back) is the enormous challenge of integrating into a new culture and the rewards that come with it. That challenge won't be there when we get back to the States - it will be easy to communicate with everyone, and we'll know what to do (more or less) in every situation. We'll have all the comfort foods we grew up with, beautiful autumn weather, and the same families we've always loved and adored. But we won't have sopa azteca, awkward moments interacting with street vendors, or weekly karaoke marathons. Knowing that our wonderful family and friends will continue putting up with our urge to stay abroad, we'll be coming back for more in January. And, if all goes well, we'll have many more nights of disconcerting exhaustion, but we'll sleep well knowing that our challenge here is worth the effort.