Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bolivia Is Not Mexico

This post is part of a continuing series about the School of Christ in Cochabamba, Bolivia. All posts will be tagged "Bolivia." Read all Bolivia posts here.

Many of my friends and family have asked me, "So how was the food [in Bolivia]?" To be honest, the answer is kind of complicated. Bolivian food is not particularly my fave, but it was okay. As my teammate DeAndrea would say, Here's the thing: Bolivian food is not Mexican food. Further, Bolivian culture is not Mexican culture. Throughout the 21-day school, I kept having to wake up to this reality.

I'm not sure if it was the same for others on the American team, but most of my cultural references to "Hispanic" or "Latino" culture* are Mexican. In the United States, Mexican culture, food and language are interwoven into mainstream American life--probably most likely because a huge chunk of the contiguous U.S. used to be Mexico (please see: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848). I mean, the average American probably has at least some baseline knowledge of some distinctly Mexican/Mexican-American cultural markers: pinatas, burritos, tacos, Cinco de Mayo (which is actually not really celebrated in Mexico, ironically enough), the word ándale**, etc. It's just part of the North American experience. I would say that Americans probably know Mexican culture better than any of the "Hispanic" cultures simply because of history and proximity.

Furthermore, for me personally, I am more familiar with Mexican culture just because Mexico is the only Spanish-speaking country I've ever lived in prior to going to Bolivia this summer. I lived in Mexico for 10 weeks in 2010, and then for six months from 2014-2015. Living in Mexico, I was able to observe the way of life, the daily rhythms/customs, and pick-up on the subtler cultural mores (e.g. communication style, social etiquette). I don't purport to really know fully the Mexican culture (which again, is not necessarily definable in monolithic, generalized terms) BUT it is the "Hispanic" culture with which I'm most familiar.

All this to say, it was, at times, disorienting to be in Bolivia because I kept expecting things to to be, well, Mexican. Comforting things that I got used to in Mexico just aren't the Bolivian way of doing things. They were small, but notable. For example, in Mexico, the common greeting each morning is buenos días, and is said to pretty much every individual you come across. In Bolivia, the greeting of choice is decidedly buen día. So I started saying that instead. Bolivia is not Mexico.

Or there are just some Mexican words that don't make sense in Bolivia. For example, the idiomatic phrase of "having a cough" is traer tos in Mexico. However, when I used this expression in Bolivia, I was met with blank stares. So I literally just had to say, Are you sick? in Spanish, after a few unsuccessful attempts of just repeating the same Mexican idiom. Or another common word used in Mexico is platicar which means to chat, shoot the breeze, etc. I guess that word isn't a thing in Bolivia, either. Bolivia is not Mexico.

Also, the food. There are so many things I appreciate and love about Mexican food. In Mexico it's common to have beans and eggs with tortillas for breakfast. While we were in the school we didn't once eat tortillas! Or another favorite breakfast of mine is tamales with canela (a kind of tea made with cinnamon sticks and sugar), again, both things which are not Bolivian. It was so hard to switch gears and realize that I wasn't going to be eating Mexican food in Bolivia! Mexican food, which is so ubiquitous in North America, is probably easily much more foreign to Bolivians than American food! Bolivia is not Mexico.

While we were in the school we had few traditional Bolivian dishes: pique macho, sopa de maní and majadito.
Pique Macho
Sopa de Mani
Pique macho is a somewhat perplexing mix of protein, carbs, veggies and condiments. It's got it all: chopped beef, boiled eggs, some hot dog, fries, tomato slices, onion, (spicy) green pepper, mayo, mustard and ketchup. A truly unique dish. Sopa de maní, or "peanut soup," is also a very particular dish with a beef broth and ground peanuts, along with potatoes, peas, oregano and basil. It's quite distinct. Majadito is probably my favorite of the three, with well-seasoned fried eggs, fried plantains, rice and a salad of onion and tomato. In general I wasn't necessarily over the moon about Bolivian cuisine. Maybe it was because these dishes bear little to no resemblance to the Mexican dishes I am accustomed to and have grown to love. Bolivia is not Mexico.

I think the most disorienting thing about Bolivia was how similar it was to Mexico in some ways (which at first caused me to rely on my Mexican cultural heuristics) but then would totally catch me off guard by being, well, so decidedly and distinctly Bolivian. I don't know why I was so surprised. New information alert! my brain would signal to me.

For example, Bolivia is very similar to Mexico in its orientation to time (fluid rather than rigid), generosity (i.e. Don't tell a Bolivian you like anything of theirs otherwise they will literally give it to you), importance of the family, traditional gender roles (machismo) and mix of indigenous and Spanish culture (mestizaje). Yet there is an undeniably marked distinction between the two countries. Bolivia is not Mexico!

While at the school, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was going to encounter some Bolivian cultural markers that I was just not familiar with. The cultural things I learned while living in Mexico could only take me so far, and then I just had to "figure out" some new things, some new Bolivian things. It was a humbling experience. Learning about and adapting to a new culture can be an uncomfortable experience--sometimes it feels like trying to find my way around in the dark with groping hands--but I am grateful for the challenge it presented. It kept me on my toes and reliant on God rather than coasting on my prior knowledge and experiences.

Bolivia is not Mexico. And that's a good thing.


*I acknowledge first of all that it's problematic to lump all Spanish-speaking nations together like this, but that's a whole other story. 

**I'm not saying that any of these things sum up or define what it is to be Mexican/Mexican-American, but these kinds of "stereotypically" Mexican things are arguably embedded in the American psyche notwithstanding.

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