Culture Shock: Part One
“WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?!” I silently screamed, a death grip on the arms of my seat, as the big jet rolled down the runway. Too late. I was going to leave my beloved terra firma, locked up in this gigantic tuna can, for the first time in six decades, and there was nothing I could do about it now. It took a long time for my stomach to catch up with my rapidly rising body, and when that thing banked for the first time, I just knew we were “going down”. So went my very first flight, at age 63, from Minnesota to Texas, to meet someone very special I had met on line. (Reminder: never say never!)
My impression of Laredo, Texas, on that first visit, was that it looked just like upscale neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, except for the different landscape. There were all the same chain stores and restaurants, beautiful, expensive homes, and manicured lawns. I had yet to understand there were really two Laredo’s, the North end and the South End, where I would live, eventually.
The first thing that amazed me, was that although the family I was staying with had never met me before and really knew nothing about me, they casually left their beautiful home in my hands that week, as they all went off to work each day. When I expressed my amazement to them, they looked at me quizzically, as if not understanding why this would surprise me at all. I though of how it usually was at home, and how so few people I knew who would so easily welcome a stranger, as they welcomed me, with such complete trust. Sitting in the sun by a private pool, in the middle of February (!) was such a rush for this frozen Minnesotan, I can’t begin to tell you!
A year later, my cat unhappily stuffed under my seat, I again flew to Laredo to live with this very special person. She had found a home for us to rent in South Laredo, a neighborhood she called the “barrios”.
North Laredo it most certainly was NOT, I realized, driving to the house along intermittently lit streets lined with what would be called shacks where I came from, and would not be allowed to remain standing at all. Overflowing garbage cans, junked cars, broken fences decorated many small front yards that seemed to be mostly dirt where lawns would usually be.
But oh, how I loved our house, a large old hacienda that just radiated dignity in spite of her crumbling parts. Two foot thick brick walls, a strange layout of assorted rooms and additions hooked together over the years, she sat proudly on her large lot with a grove of trees shading the wrap round concrete veranda. This was where I was to spend many, many wonderful hours, writing about what I was living.
Josie was the first person I met in the neighborhood, a beautiful young Mexican woman who walked across the International Bridge each morning to her job as helper to the old woman next door, who needed someone to care for her. It took me awhile to catch on that it was Josie who was coming over twice a week, to haul our large garbage dumpster down to the curb for pick up. She’d seen me struggling with it, trying to pull it with one hand while using my cane with the other. She said, simply, “You should not have to be doing that,” and so, on her own, she had taken it upon herself to do it for us when she came to work on those mornings.
This incident was my introduction to a culture that not only respects, but reveres its elderly. It was the first of many times I was taken severely aback, even shocked, by how foreign this felt to me. I didn’t know how to handle this kind of treatment by total strangers or even how to accept it graciously. In fact, for awhile, it was acutely uncomfortable and raised painfully ambivalent emotions.
You see I was used to my own culture, where the (non wealthy) elderly are nearly invisible, and when we’re not, we’re often “in the way” of someone in a hurry. I was used to pushing hard against all physical limitations, so as to keep up and “stay able and independent” of a need for any help at all. Needing help meant being weak, so of course, I could not have that! I was very proud of the strengths and abilities I had managed to hang onto in spite of my disability.
So to have these people assuming I needed “help, was not easy for me. I struggled with my resentment of the very kindnesses that made me “tear up” at the same time. They hurt my heart, and I didn’t understand why at first.
So began my learning about the different cultural norms that exist between my own white upper Midwest upbringing and culture, and the Mexican American culture of this border town barrio. Fortunately, my partner, also from the Midwest, had been a resident of Laredo for many years, was there to help me through this culture shock.
I recorded impressions of my first walk around my new neighborhood on a bright February morning. First of all, everyone I met along the way looked at me. I mean men and women, eye to eye, and every single one of them offered a greeting. No one looked away, or pretended not to see me. No one. No one I met that day had an ear plug or a cell phone hooked to their ear.
A closer look at the humble homes and dirt filled yards revealed signs of life being lived: toys left where they landed, and easily reached again, comfy, ragged armchairs and old car seats grouped on porches for tired bodies to fall into at the end of long days at work, lengths of clotheslines tied from porch post to porch post, sporting the days laundry, cars with hood up, tilted on blocks, and waiting for the next stop in their resurrection. It was quiet in the daytimes, most people working, but in the evenings, the yards and porches filled up with families sharing food and laughter. I have never heard so much laughter, nor have I seen any people enjoy each other so much or so often.
My mind would suddenly take itself home, to the sights I am more used to. Block after block of beautifully manicured lawns and lovely homes without porches, standing silent and pristine so much of the time, unless it was a weekend, and everyone determinedly set about keeping the lawns and yards as beautiful as their neighbors. To neighborhood gatherings held usually in back yards surrounded by privacy fencing, meant for invited guests only. To beautiful neighborhoods where all signs of life, in the actual process of being lived, are carefully kept from view, in favor of appearances. Garbage cans concealed, laundry dried only in dryers, toys kept carefully picked up, imperfect lawn furniture immediately replaced with new, only nice new cars ever seem parked on the streets…but no more porches. No more places to sit to hail a passing neighbor. It made me feel so very sad.
On my first New Years Eve in the barrios, I was delighted to watch the celebrations all around me. People, families full of children, all gather on front porches and in yards, to set off endless fireworks, and eat great feasts together. We had not met our neighbors across the street, as they were gone working most of the time. But we went out to sit and enjoy their fireworks display and the great fun they had with it.
Just after midnight, several men, women and kids carrying dishes, came across the street towards us. Tentatively, they approached , offering full plates of food they wished to share. On seeing our warm welcome, we all shared big warm hugs and New Years greetings I could not understand, but could most certainly feel. I do not have enough words to tell you how that felt to me. I just do not. All I know for sure is that the glow on those faces was that of purest, unconditional love. I knew I was in the presence of the kind of courageous love that easily and effortlessly transcended all differences between us, every single one of them.
I have many more stories to tell of my time in Laredo, but will save them for another time. I do want to tell you of walking along the Rio Grande, and seeing young heads and hopeful faces pop up through the reeds, looking for safety. I want to share some of the hilarity of trying to communicate with a cable installer who had no English when I had no Spanish, and doing it all via charades. I want to tell you of some of the incredible Mexican American men I met who almost blew me away with their gentleness and respect. And then I want to tell you how hard it was to leave there, to come back home.
For now, remembering and sharing this much has helped me remember the good stuff that exists right now, right here among us all, if only we are open to it. Because there is absolute PROOF, free for the taking, that there is ample reason to continue hoping for a better world.
But in order to find this hope, I had to reach outward from where I was. I had to force my old, battered, land locked self to climb on that absolutely terrifying, giant jet fueled tuna can, and risk heading off to a totally unknown adventure in a different culture full of people I had never met before.
It was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions I have ever made.