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

Boston, You’re My Home

You can't tell how cold it is just from looking.

You can’t tell how cold it is just from looking.

Things happened last year. Lots of things. Terrible things.

A bomb went off in a crowded intersection here in Bogotá, killing two people and wounding almost 40, including its intended target, a former minister in the Colombian government. We found out about it at school, late in the morning. Teachers began scrambling for their phones, calling loved ones, making sure everyone was okay. I didn’t have anyone to call, but I still thought of all the people there. I knew that intersection well. I know it even better now — it’s my TransMilenio station, fifteen minutes from my apartment. I walk through there several times each week. I never think about bombs.

In July, a deeply troubled young man with too-easy access to weapons turned a Colorado movie theater into a combat zone. One of our volunteers, one of my close friends here, was from Colorado. From Denver. Her then-boyfriend’s parents live in Aurora. It could’ve been them.

In December, while I was spending a few days in my favorite town, another deeply troubled young man with too-easy access to weapons killed 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school. I saw the news while making breakfast in the kitchen of my hostel. I didn’t believe it. It couldn’t have happened. But it did happen. Having just spent the year working in a school, Newtown devastated me. I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing that it took me a week just to figure out how to cry about it. One of my closest friends here is from Connecticut. It could’ve been her family. It could’ve been someone she knew.

Those things happened. They touched me in various ways, either through people I knew, my own experiences or just the part of my humanity that gives a shit about other people. We always think we know how to deal with things. We think we learn. And then things prove us wrong.

On Monday, April 15th, Patriots Day, Marathon Monday, two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Boylston Street, right there, was packed with people eight deep — there to cheer on their loved ones, to support people raising thousands of dollars for cancer research, or just to watch some of the world’s top athletes do what they do best.

Plenty of other people have written about this, some very eloquently, but it bears repeating. Patriots Day is a special, unique day in Boston. I’ve been watching small-town Patriots Day parades, the early Red Sox game and the Marathon results since I can remember. Almost everyone has the day off from work. Nobody goes to school, hardly anyone to the office. Even the Sox get to leave work early. It somehow usually manages to be sunny, college students treat it as just another opportunity for day drinking, and thousands of people line the streets from Hopkinton to Copley to watch their friends, family and loved ones run. People train for years and travel across continents to run the Boston Marathon. Even people who don’t like sports like Marathon Monday. It’s an event, a spectacle, a day to revel in the freedom that our city stands for (and, yes, the freedom from a 9-to-5 day, too) and just enjoy people being good at something they care about.

This time, it wasn’t the parents of a friend’s ex-boyfriend near the location. This wasn’t a transportation station I know, or a state I’ve driven through. This was my city. These were my streets. I’ve walked down that street hundreds of times, stood in almost that exact spot to watch the Bruins victory parade, sat in the square trying to tan during my too-short lunch hour. I know hundreds of people who were near there on Monday. I know people running in the marathon. I know journalists covering the marathon. I know people who work in office buildings nearby, or live a few streets away. Because Boston is the size of a postage stamp, my parents live only five miles away; my brother, probably less than two. I know those streets. I know those stores. In the background of the video footage of the explosion are places I’ve shopped, places I’ve bought coffee, benches where I’ve sat. These are my streets. These are my friends. This is my city. Since the September afternoon almost 25 years ago when I first opened my eyes in Beth Israel Hospital in the middle of Boston, this has been my city. This will always be my city.

These bombings are not just some senseless act of violence. This is personal.

In the minutes and hours and day following this horrific event, I saw and heard voices from all over telling us to have some perspective. To think about others. To remember that the streets of Chicago are choked with the bodies of murdered young people abandoned by the systems that are supposed to protect them. To think about how events like this are a reality of daily life for people in Israel, or Pakistan, or Iraq. To weigh it against the US bombing, that very day, of a wedding party in Afghanistan, which killed dozens.

To which I say: yes. Yes, these things happen, too. Yes, these things are terrible, too. Yes, we deserve to give these equal weight, and our country needs to have a very serious conversation about why we value the lives and deaths of some people more than others. This is valid. But on Monday, April 15th, it wasn’t. Not for me. My smart, liberal, caring friends, who are deeply concerned with the ills of the world — I wanted to grab them and scream at them.

Because they saw that news alert and thought, oh, how awful. They didn’t see it and immediately wonder where their only brother was that day. Their minds didn’t start racing down the list of people running the marathon; their high school friends who had biked the whole marathon route in the middle of the night before; their former co-workers who were standing on the finish line; their father who, years earlier, might have been standing on that line as well. They didn’t grow up with “Yankees Suck!” as a mantra, spend teenage afternoons hanging out doing nothing in the grungy Harvard Square Pit, know every T stop between Alewife and Ashmont by heart. This isn’t their life. It’s easy to call for rationality when it isn’t your family or friends who might be lying in a hospital bed. It’s easy to watch like a movie when you’ve never eaten at the restaurant that is now a pile of broken pieces of metal and bodies. It’s easy to cast it against the world’s other ills when it doesn’t feel like someone just walked up to you, looked you directly in the eyes and then punched you right in the face. It’s easy to tell other people how they should feel. It doesn’t mean they should always listen.

And no, I don’t personally know any of the victims (as far as I know, yet), but that’s just a matter of pure, stupid luck. And, in a way, I do know them, because everyone in this tiny city, where half the population has allegedly met the mayor, everyone knows one another somehow. One of the three people killed, a little boy from Dorchester whose father had just finished the race, was 8 years old. He could have been one of my kids when I worked at a summer camp in his neighborhood in 2011. Another, a young woman who loved to watch triumphant runners cross the finish line, lived in my hometown of Arlington. She worked at a restaurant half a mile from my house. The third was a graduate student from China studying at Boston University, where my brother spent four years and my father still teaches. I don’t know these people, but I know who they are. More than 170 other people are in local hospitals, many with fewer limbs than they had on Monday morning — thank whatever higher power you believe in that we have the best medical facilities in the world, and amazing people who could respond to this disaster as well as anyone could hope. But still. There’s no reason they’re lying in Boston Medical Center or Mass General or Children’s Hospital, no reason there are still pieces of them lying in front of the Forum restaurant, no reason they will never run the same way again.

But there are other things, too, and these are things that go beyond your politics or stereotypes or what you think you know from the movies. These are the things we mean when we talk about driving away the darkness. Again, people have pointed these things out, but they bear repeating. When (or if) you watch the video of the explosions, wait until just after everything shakes, and then look. You’ll see people — cops, firefighters, medical teams, and just ordinary people who happened to be nearby, people like Carlos Arredondo and the sergeant who saved a young woman named Victoria — running, not away from, but toward the site of the explosion. There’s not even time to think — it’s just an instinct. You see these people tearing away barricades, clearing those uninjured from the scene, lifting people onto stretchers, motioning first responders over. You see two young men in military uniforms spring instantly into action, ripping away dividers to reach injured people. You see police officers remaining calm, directing others to safety. You see doctors and medical professionals who just finished the race immediately turn to help others, ignoring their own exhaustion and failing muscles. You see people allowing the best of themselves to come through in the worst of situations. You see what I see when I think about my city.

Boston is far from perfect. We have a long history of vicious and institutional racism, segregated neighborhoods, deep class divides, religious discrimination, belief systems that tend to lag behind our more progressive government policies, and a less-than-welcoming attitude toward outsiders. We have a reputation for being one of the less-friendly cities in America, to put it kindly. We’re always in a hurry. Our streets make no sense, people’s directions aren’t any more helpful, and where you went to school is often the ultimate test of your value as a human being. These things are true, and they are significant, but there are other things that are true, too. People in Boston believe strongly — sometimes too strongly — in the values we hold dear: independence, free speech, solidarity, the right to our opinions, the importance of family (both by birth and by choice) and the indisputable fact that the Yankees do, and always will, suck. We are fiercely loyal, and ferociously protective of the things we deem deserving of protection. We are convinced that our city is the center of the universe because we really believe it can be — the potential is there.

Platitudes come fast and easy after an event like this. President Obama is from Chicago (the other American city I consider something close to home). He didn’t grow up in Boston. He doesn’t know Boston (because this is what we do — if you’re not from here, you never will be). He doesn’t know just how true it is when he says that we are a resilient city. We are beyond resilient. We are unbreakable.

I have a necklace I received as a Christmas gift just before I moved to Colombia. It’s one of those popular Etsy ones, a sterling silver pendant in the shape of Massachusetts, with a heart cutout right where the city of Boston goes. I’ve worn it every day since I arrived here, to remind myself where I come from, who I am. Because no matter where I move across the globe, there’s a piece of my heart and my identity that will always be there, perched on the waterfront, looking at the lights.

And I’m not alone. We are a small city, but we contain multitudes. And we are too many, and too stubborn, to ever knock down.

Queremos Paz

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This past Tuesday, April 9th, was an important day here in Colombia. It was the 65th anniversary of the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, which set off the riots known as the Bogotazo, which killed between 3,000-5,000 people and destroyed much of downtown Bogotá in just 10 hours. That riot and the ensuing instability led to widespread violence across the country and set the stage for the beginning of the civil conflict that still exists today.

As if that weren’t enough, Tuesday was also the Day of Victims, created by the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which was created to facilitate the process of remittances and returning land to the millions of internally displaced refugees across the country. Of course, this law has yet to actually accomplish much, but some recognition is better than none, right? Across the country, people commemorated this day in different ways — and here in Bogotá, almost a million people marched to the city center to demonstrate their support for peace (here’s an article in English for you gringos). Both the president and the mayor of Bogotá participated in the march, as well as several other famous Colombians and a whole lot of people from a whole lot of different places on the political spectrum. No matter your feelings about the politics of the situation (and, as always, there are more than enough feelings to go around), it was an impressive show of citizen participation and expression.

Now, people have different definitions of what peace means, and how they go about supporting it. For some, it means getting on board with the ideals of the talks currently taking place in Havana between representatives of the Colombian government and guerrilla groups. Others may believe in the end more than the means, or take action on a more local scale. Yet others, like those who criticized the march as apologizing for or even supporting the FARC rebels, may believe that the road to peace does not lie through these kinds of negotiations. And for others still, it is less political and more personal — a goal that every Colombian can work toward in his or her private life.

Ending a war is not like winning a video game — you don’t just beat the last level, save the princess and suddenly it’s all over. Not in the DRC, not in Syria, and not in a country ravaged by decades of civil conflict. These things take time, and effort, and extraordinary amounts of courage. They take forgiveness — for the fighters who may hope to reintegrate back into civil society, for the military and state police apparatus that have committed serious crimes in the name of winning the war, for the perpetrators of violence that has driven millions of people from their land and family homes. These things are not easy. These things are beyond the capacity of many people, and hard for many of us to even imagine. I’ve never lost a family member to drug violence, answered the phone to hear a voice on the other end tell me my father’s been kidnapped, driven around in an armored car full of bodyguards because it’s the only way to feel safe, or wondered whether today is the day I’ll be in the wrong place when the newest bomb goes off. Most people here have grown up or lived under the shadow of violence. It’s always been there, just like the mountains.

The shadow is beginning to fade. But it won’t disappear on its own. Chasing away the darkness requires positive actions. It requires hope. It requires faith. It requires people who truly believe in the potential of peace, and who are willing to work toward that, who are willing to cooperate and help one another move through and past this painful history. It requires people with great strength of character and the ability to remain positive through dark times. It requires, in other words, Colombians.

I wasn’t born here. I’m not Colombian by birth, and I have no right to claim any sense of belonging to this process. I recognize that. This situation, both the positive and the negative, is their birthright, not mine. But I live here, I love it here, and I care deeply about the people I know here. They deserve this. They deserve to wake up and go to work in horrible traffic and arrive home at night to see their family together and safe. They deserve to work in good jobs without worrying that they may be jeopardizing people they love. They deserve to travel through their gorgeous country without feeling threatened or avoiding certain regions altogether. They deserve their land back. They deserve their livelihoods back. They deserve to be seen as more than narcos. They deserve to be treated with the same dignity and afforded the same opportunities granted to citizens of other countries, not interrogated at every border and repeatedly denied visas based only on their nationality. They deserve the opportunity to make their country what everyone believes it can be, to rise to their potential instead of being held back by jungles filled with men with guns and destructive wars on drugs inflicted on them by foreign powers. They deserve their real birthright: not the one dripping with blood money and long-held grudges, but the one that moves to the rhythm of salsa and cumbia and bursts with the colors and joy of the country’s natural beauty.

They deserve peace. Merecen la paz. Que la llegue.