Tuesday, May 10, 2005

where are you from?

Since I spend a lot of time out and about by myself, I often get approached by curious locals. I guess Mexicans find us gringos less threatening alone. In any case, I’ve found that almost invariably, regardless of the intent of the person, the first question they’ll ask me is “where are you from?” When I first arrived in Mexico, I’d answer without hesitation that I was from the U.S. I soon learned, however, that in these situations, honesty isn’t always the best policy.

Now, the majority of people that approach me do so with friendly intent, and it’s pretty easy to identify these types. They’ll come up and ask politely in Spanish, or possibly in English, “Hey buddy, where are you from?” They might be studying English and want to practice, they might have lived in the U.S. for a bit and what to share their experiences, or they might just be curious as to what the heck you’re doing here. One time I was sitting at an outdoor cafĂ© in Oaxaca on a Sunday morning and there was a very well-dressed family sitting at the table next to me, obviously just having come from church. I could see that the father was looking at me, and eventually he came over to my table and asked where I was from. I told him that I was from the U.S., and he invited me to come sit with his family. His two pre-teen daughters had just started learning English in school and he told me that they were very interested in practicing conversation with a native speaker. Of course, the last thing in the world these two girls wanted to do was speak English with an American and they were horried when their dad brought me over to meet them. I chatted with them a little in English, then we quickly switched to Spanish and I had quite a nice talk with a very pleasant family.

That’s an example of a positive “where are you from?” encounter. There have been others, however, that were not so fun. These are/were always initiated in Spanish and usually with an aggressive “Hey Gringo!” In these cases, the speaker is an 18-30 year-old man, often drunk. When I’d answer that was from the U.S., I’d have to listen to all kinds of abuse about Bush, Iraq, Afghanistan, U.S. immigration, and how we Americans think we’re hot. So I quickly learned that with these guys, it was best to lie. “I’m from England,” became my response. But this too turned out to be problematic. For one, if the person knew anything at all about current events, I’d still get crap about Iraq. But even if they didn’t, I’d be in trouble because they’d then want to talk all about English soccer, of which I know just enough to hold a 5 minute conversation. So I’ve switched to a new approach. Now I tell them: “I’m from Sweden!,” which has the effect of producing the most blank facial expression you could imagine, and at least 15 seconds of dumbfounded speechlessness. When they finally recover from this mindblow, they’ll mumble something like “yeah, umm, well … how about those %#$%^# Americans? and shuffle off.

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