Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #2: Giving Unsolicited (Beauty) Advice

“Your hair looked better yesterday.”

“You should wear red more often.”

“That dress makes you look skinny.”

“Why don’t you send your resume to that [university/publication/school/business even though it’s totally unrelated to your skill set or current job]?”

“You don’t have a Colombian boyfriend? You should have a Colombian boyfriend.”

“Have you gained weight? It looks like you’ve gained weight.”

One thing I’ve noticed over the last year and a half is a particularly large cultural difference between here and home in terms of the focus on appearance, and the corollary social acceptability of making comments based on that appearance. And not just from your mother or grandmother, which might be expected. No, this is co-workers, students, friends of friends, the apartment doorman, people sitting next to you on the bus. Friends of mine here are often surprised when I explain to them that, in the U.S., telling someone — especially someone you don’t know — that their hair looks messy or their clothing is unflattering is generally considered, well, rude. Here, it’s a public service. But wouldn’t you want to know?

And yes, okay, I understand that logic when it comes to spinach between your teeth or leggings that become upsettingly see-through in sunlight, but we Americans do seem to draw the line pretty quickly as far as commenting on physical appearance is concerned. Compliments are allowed, but anything that remotely resembles a critique is best kept quiet. Most of us have, at some point, been the target of a well-timed maternal “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

This isn’t to say that Colombians are rude — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They tend to be much more complimentary about pretty much everything, pretty much all the time. Last year will undoubtedly be the high point in my life of being told that I’m beautiful, as it happened at least once every day. The thing is, though, most Colombians say “You look/are beautiful” like the rest of us say “How are you?” which does somewhat take away from the significance of the sentiment.

Disregarding overuse of complimentary adjectives, though, the fact is that things that are interpreted as rude, insulting or invasive by Americans are just normal here. It’s not an insult if it’s true, right? And why wouldn’t you want to know your hair looked better yesterday, so you can do it like that again? In a weird way, I do understand this logic — it comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, not cruel, even if that help does come out sounding like something that would be best left unsaid. Still, as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to my appearance beyond what earrings I’m wearing (always the most important decision of the day), it’s been strange adjusting to people feeling like they have the right to comment on how I look.

I think it’s partially tied to the whole American complex of independence: I can dress however the hell I want, goddammit, and you don’t get to say anything about it. I definitely grew up with a bit of this attitude, and it hasn’t gone away yet, nor do I want it to. But on top of that, I also have more than a bit of a strong feminist reaction to it — while telling people how they look and how they should look is liberally applied to all genders here, it’s far more often directed at women. This is linked to all sorts of other underlying factors about beauty standards and how women are judged here, but there does seem to be a general sentiment that this advice is more “useful” for women. Because we care more, or because our bodies are public property for commenting, or for a whole range of other reasons which I’m sure would make for a great master’s thesis. On a personal level, though, it’s mostly just annoying. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m not exactly the type who enjoys being told what to do, unless it’s coming from a really good editor, and I’m certainly not in the habit of taking advice from any grown adult who thinks that sparkly pink t-shirts designed for teenagers or leopard-print pants are an appropriate fashion choice.

Then again, this objection is probably why I don’t have a Colombian boyfriend. Which, as far as everyone is concerned, is almost certainly for the best.

 

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#3. Aguardiente

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Eight Things I Can Now Competently Do in Spanish… and Five I Still Can’t

It’s often hard to know how much progress you’re making with a language, since the incremental daily changes are near-impossible to measure as they happen. We don’t walk around going, “hey, my vowels sound just a little better today than they did on Tuesday!” Language development is a long-term process, something that happens over months rather than hours. Still, there are times when I manage to do something or make some point in a conversation that I know would have been absolutely impossible for me a year or even three months ago. These are the moments when I realize that I am still progressing, that my Spanish hasn’t stagnated at good-enough-to-buy-bus-tickets-but-not-good-enough-to-win-an-argument-about-homophobia (which, for the record, is right about where it is right now. But onwards! And upwards!). It’s important to acknowledge these little victories, if only for the fact that it keeps me motivated and hopeful that I can keep improving, every day.

A few of the things I can now accomplish in Spanish:

  1. Get something notarized without ruining any important paperwork (I am most self-impressed by this one. It’s a very confusing process, even in English!)
  2. Translate answers to questions as someone is speaking — again, without ruining anything important.
  3. Get from Bogotá to Manizales using three taxis, a plane and a bus without getting lost or ripped off.
  4. FedEx a document (to be fair, at this point I could probably fill out a shipping label in my sleep. Or in Mandarin).
  5. Get a haircut and actually have it turn out pretty much exactly as I want it.
  6. Explain why I’m a vegetarian and have people actually understand it. Insofar as most Colombians understand the concept of vegetarianism (anything more than “So you don’t like meat?” is progress).
  7. Give directions that are at least intended to be helpful and accurate.
  8. Take a yoga class without looking like a confused fool.

A few things I still can’t do:

  1. Make good jokes.
  2. Win the aforementioned argument about homophobia.
  3. Correctly write dates without double-checking the order of the days and months.
  4. Convince my attractive co-worker that I am obviously the perfect woman. Then again, I couldn’t do this in English, either.
  5. Explain American football.

The 25-Step Guide to Successfully Taking a Bus in Bogotá

  1. Walk to the intersection of the two largest streets near you. Hope that the bus you need will conveniently run along one of these streets.
  2. Every 15 seconds or so, turn your head from one direction to the other. You wouldn’t want to miss the bus!
  3. Decide you’re at least 60% sure the bus you need is green. Pay attention to all of the buses, but pay extra-close attention to the green ones.
  4. Squint frantically at the sign in the front window of each approaching bus, trying desperately to read as many of the neighborhoods as possible before it goes hurtling past you at pedestrian-killing speed. Attempt not to fall into the street while reading the aforementioned signs. Succeed at this, more or less.
  5. Get impatient after about ten minutes, decide to settle for a bus that passes even close to where you’re going.
  6. See a bus that has your destination in its sign. The bus looks especially rattletrap and scary. Let it pass.
  7. Take this previous bus as a positive sign that there must be other buses heading in that direction. Feel confident about your decision to wait for one that at least appears to have functioning brakes.
  8. Wait.
  9. Wait some more.
  10. Start to wish you’d just gone with the first damn bus when it came by. It couldn’t be that bad.
  11. Wonder whether the buses have all been rerouted today for some inexplicable reason. This is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, since it happens all the time.
  12. See the bus, finally! It says the neighborhood you need! It is also red. Try to figure out why you were so certain it was green.
  13. Hail the bus, which screeches to a stop about 20 feet in front of you. Scamper to it and swing yourself onto the stairs. Brace yourself for the bus to lurch back into traffic as soon as your second foot leaves the ground. Try not to fall back out the open door.
  14. Catch the strap of your bag as you push through the turnstile. Piss off the woman standing on the stairs behind you as you try to wriggle it free. Hope she doesn’t fall back out the open door.
  15. Give your fare to the small child sitting in the front seat, on the other side of the glass partition. She is probably the driver’s daughter. She is probably about eight years old. She should definitely be in school right now.
  16. Miraculously find a seat next to the aisle. Proceed to get smacked in the shoulder or face by the bags or arms or bodies of every single person who passes by for the rest of the ride. Wonder why spatial awareness is so difficult for everyone.
  17. Get stuck in a horrible traffic jam about ten blocks from where you boarded the bus. Fidget anxiously in your seat as it takes half an hour to go four more blocks. Hope your iPod doesn’t die.
  18. Check your phone for any scolding text messages. Reflect on the fact that your friends are probably going to stop hanging out with you at some point because of how goddamn long it takes you to get everywhere. Accept that you can only blame your chronic lateness on the transportation for so long before people expect you to start learning from your mistakes.
  19. Conclude that you have yet to learn from your mistakes. Try not to think about that Einstein quote about repetition and insanity.
  20. Breathe a sigh of relief as your bus finally passes through the green light to the sweet, sweet freedom of the open road.
  21. Resist the urge to strangle something when it becomes clear that the open road freedom only lasts for three blocks before it turns back into a tangled, cacophonous catastrophe devoid of any recognizable road rules or human decency all over again.
  22. For the next ten minutes, devote yourself to gnawing on your thumbnail as your bus slowly crawls toward an intersection with a major, TransMilenio-containing road.
  23. Elbow your way past the rappers or guitar players or ladies selling candy or whoever is currently entertaining/asking the passengers for money and leap off the bus as soon as it crosses the road.
  24. Take the TransMilenio instead.
  25. Arrive forty minutes after you said you would. Consider this to be a fairly acceptable time frame and, in fact, a minor victory.