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

Bogotá, Te Quiero

So it’s finally happening. Tonight, at 11:59 p.m., I board a plane at Bogotá El Dorado’s shiny new international terminal, bound for JFK. Touchdown at 6:02 a.m., the usual customs wrangling (potentially with a few more pointed questions than usual), and a transfer to the equally shiny JetBlue terminal for my connection home to Boston. Logan homecoming should happen right around 10:40 a.m. tomorrow morning, as long as the world is still here.

For the record, I’m not dealing well with this. Overall, I like change, but I’m not a big fan of the enforced kind, and plane tickets are nothing if non-negotiable (unless you have lots of money to throw around). The idea of reverse culture shock has always been something that I didn’t think really applied to me — I love travel, but I also love homecomings. Coming home is much easier when you love your city so much it’s like a physical affliction. Mostly, though, I’ve never really experienced it before. I’ve been sad to leave places before, and I have a long list of planned return visits to places that I left too soon (I’m coming for you, Amsterdam and New Zealand), but the only other time I lived outside of the country for a significant period ended with a feeling of relief more than sadness. I was so happy to come home from Argentina that I didn’t even have space in my heart for culture shock. You can’t be shocked by something that’s welcome.

But then this year happened. This year, where I’ve been happy and comfortable, challenged but able to deal with it and grow with it. I didn’t realize how attached I was here until my plane ride from Lima to Cuzco, about two weeks ago. I was sleepy and my hostel only had instant coffee (practically a cardinal sin to me, after a year of Colombian tinto), so I wasn’t in the best frame of mind from the outset. And then my flight — my flight was full of people like me. Full of loud, enthusiastic, poorly dressed American tourists. Everyone speaking English. Nobody saying “chévere” or wearing totally age-inappropriate clothing. After spending this year surrounded on all sides by Spanish, by friendliness and disorganization, this sudden immersion back into almost-America felt like parachuting into a suddenly foreign region. It was strange and uncomfortable, and I sank into my chair, protected by my headphones, to hide from it all. All I can remember thinking right then was, “I want to go home.” Home, in this case, meant Bogotá. Because maybe it is home now, in a way.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m super excited to be capital-H Home for Christmas, to see my parents and my brother, to sleep on my friends’ sofas, to drink good beer and stay out late and have normal conversations with people in bars without the immediate need to justify my presence there, to walk through Boston and take the T and eat the entire stock of the breakfast cereal aisle at Stop and Shop and watch college football for like 3 days straight and touch snow again and mostly just be home. A year is a long time to be out of one’s comfort zone, and despite the extent to which I’ve fallen in love with Bogotá, a little comfort couldn’t hurt.

The underlying layer of that comfort, though, is the knowledge that I’m coming back in three weeks. That might be the most comforting thing of all.

Happy Holidays and a festive New Year to one and all! If you need me, I’ll be at a bar drinking as much Sam Adams as one can reasonably consume in a three-week period. God bless America, indeed.

Hasta 2013, Bogotá!

15 Things I’ve (Almost) Forgotten About Since January

  1. What it’s like to wake up every morning and legitimately need to check the weather.
  2. The taste of bad orange juice.
  3. The concept of eye contact as a direct threat.
  4. How much I would normally be sweating this time of year.
  5. Underground public transportation systems.
  6. The existence of Wolf Blitzer. And Maureen Dowd.
  7. Established, consistent bus stops.
  8. Avocados that exist in sizes smaller than my head.
  9. How to parallel park (to be fair, I was never very good at this to begin with).
  10. The idea of standing in line for brunch.
  11. Milk that comes in cartons, or yogurt that’s closer to a solid than a liquid.
  12. Using my debit card for anything that isn’t a plane ticket.
  13. Running without feeling like my lungs are considering exploding out of my chest.
  14. Movies without subtitles.
  15. Millionaire Matchmaker (and my enduring love for it).

Show Me What an American Looks Like

This is me:

cats and i are one

…and also a cat. Of course.

I’m 5’4″, 23 1/2 years old, brown/brown. I’m totally blind without my contacts, my face gets covered with freckles when it’s sunny and I’m engaged in a lifelong battle against my eyebrows, which repeatedly attempt to annex the entire upper half of my face. I get told sometimes that I look Italian, or maybe Spanish, but my family heritage is straight-up German-Hungarian Jewish (and 1/8th mystery. That’s the fun part of me). The idea of whether or not I “looked American,” though, had never really occurred to me until I moved to Colombia, where I am told at least once a week that I don’t.

I realize, of course, that this mindset comes from a position of privilege. The U.S. is certainly not a perfect racial and ethnic melting pot of equality or “colorblindness” or whatever your chosen nomenclature for that impossible ideal may be. I’ve never been stopped in traffic for no good reason, nor had someone speak to me slowly and loudly because they assume by looking at me that English is not my first language. People don’t ask me where I’m from, or where my parents are from, and expect to hear me say the name of another country. At home, at least, I obviously do look American** enough that nobody gives my citizenship a second thought. I recognize that this is a privilege that many other citizens don’t have, and that’s a whole different and far more important battle — but it’s not the one I’m involved in right here, right now. Right here, right now, I’m trying to explain to people (and kind of to myself) why exactly I get so offended when people insist that I don’t look like an American.

Being told I don’t sound like an American is a compliment — it means my Spanish is good enough that people mistake me for a foreigner from another, less verbally-embarrassing country. Argentina, sometimes, because of the accent I picked up there, or Brazil, because I don’t sound like a native Spanish speaker. I’m more than fine with this. Not having people know right off the bat when I speak that I’m a gringa is both a testament to the fact that my Spanish isn’t filled with horrible flat vowels and overpronounced h’s, and it makes my life a bit easier in terms of not standing out or getting ripped off. Go ahead and think I’m from Portugal when I’m speaking, but once you know I’m from the States, please don’t tell me I look wrong.

My issue with this has little to do with any sort of desire to assert my American-ness all over the place. After all, I am not exactly the world’s most “hoo-rah!” patriotic Yankee. For starters, I’m from the People’s Republic of Eastern Massachusetts. I was raised on skepticism, grew up under the idealism-crushing Bush administration, have never watched NASCAR or “American Idol” and I don’t even eat burgers. But there are legitimate reasons I’m proud of where I’m from, and it will always be an inherent part of my identity. I certainly wouldn’t choose to identify otherwise unless it were for my own safety (there are some countries where it’s just better to be Canadian).

But more than the slight to my ego, it’s upsetting to me that the idea of what an American looks like is so narrowly defined as the “gringo” look: tall, white, with blond hair and blue eyes (apparently, they think we’re all Nordic). Because the thing is, very few Americans actually look like this. We (or at least I) take pride in the fact that there is no distinct American look, except for maybe wearing t-shirts all the time, and it saddens me that the entire, amazing cultural/ethnic/racial range of what an American might be is almost immediately negated when you travel to another country. You don’t look like this; therefore, you can’t possibly be this.

Obviously, people’s understanding or concept of a foreign culture they’ve never experienced is based entirely on the information available to them — or rather, the information they choose to absorb. I encountered this plenty of times last year while trying to explain to people at home that it was in fact highly unlikely that I would be kidnapped by the FARC, or listened to the tenth person in a row make the same stupid joke about drug dealers. But considering how tuned in many Colombians are to American pop culture, it’s kind of astonishing that their image of the North American is strictly limited to the gringo. Movies have their own bucket of issues with minority representation, but it’s not like every single person present in U.S. pop culture or media looks like that. The president doesn’t. Angelina Jolie doesn’t. Selena Gomez certainly doesn’t (I know, I know. I’ve been spending too much time with middle-schoolers). There are tons of high-profile Americans who don’t remotely fit into that mold — and yet, it’s still assumed here that that’s what we all look like.

I don’t think for a second that this image of the blond American gringo exists only in Colombia. It’s definitely present in a lot of countries — it’s just that I happen to be living here, so here is where I’m encountering it. There’s not much that can be done, really, to change it — when people have an image or stereotype fixed in their minds, it’s a hell of an uphill battle to change it (hi, all my parents’ friends who are still convinced I’m going to die here!). All I can do at the moment is keep looking like this, and hope that some people notice.

** for the purpose of this post, I’m using “American” to mean ” a person from the U.S.” I realize that isn’t technically accurate, and I’m sorry for the nationalcentrism, but there isn’t an English word for “estadounidense” and I refuse to write “person from the U.S.” every time because efficiency. It’s a problem, but it’s not a battle I’m prepared to take on right now. Please forward your complaints to the people in charge of the English language.