We are conditioned so effectively to play artificial roles that we mistake them for our true nature. Jean–Jacques
John, an expat who recently relocated to Colombia, approached the desk at the Medellín immigration office. “Cómo puedo ayudarte” (how can I help you), the lady behind the glass window at the reception counter asked?
John had no idea what she was saying, so he shook his head and said, “I want to apply for a visa. Does anyone here speak English?”
The lady at reception rolled her eyes and called over her supervisor who responded in English and looked over the information John had provided in the online application. “What is your nationality,” the supervisor asked?
“I’m American,” John replied in a matter of fact manner.
“We are Americans too Señor. What is your country of origin,” the supervisor insisted, knowing the answer but refusing to let John off the hook?
John was baffled by the supervisor’s response and clearly agitated at this point. He raised his voice–so much so that everyone in the waiting area looked in his direction–and said, “I’m from the USA which means I’m an AMERICAN!”
“I’m sorry,” the supervisor said as he pointed to the choices on the application form. “That is not a category we recognize here in Colombia. If you are from the USA, you must tick the ‘Estadounidense’ box.”
“What the hell is that,” John quipped, showing his confusion and frustration at what he perceived to be the astounding ignorance of the immigration official as well as the bureaucracy which employed him?
I saw the sign ‘Real Estate—Apartments and Condos for Rent’ so decided to stop in and inquire. The professionally dressed middle-aged man running the office approached me and asked, in his decidedly American accent, if he could help me. We chatted for a few minutes about my desires for a living space—small, a studio apartment with a balcony—and he then asked my price range. When I said I would prefer something under US $1000 per month, he laughed and said, “Well, you’re not going to find anything for that price unless you want to live in a (with verbal stress) MEXICAN neighborhood.”
It was September 2016 and I was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico looking for a small apartment to rent on a long-term basis. I was so shocked by this American’s brash rudeness and the way he was disparaging the citizens of the foreign country where he was a guest that I couldn’t respond. I simply turned and walked out. I thought about his attitude a lot over the following few weeks and wanted to return to the office and give him a good telling off but I felt it would be wasted energy and a stressful confrontation that I didn’t need.
Fighting cultural bias within
Living in a variety of developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America over the past 15 years has taught me a great deal about my own attitudes and prejudices and forced me to examine my cultural biases in a way that I never would have done if I’d remained in the USA. I’ve encountered my share of ugly Americans (and other Westerners) on the road—such as the real estate agent in Puerto Vallarta–and I must admit that I’ve also fallen into that category on some of my worst days.
As those of us who’ve traveled extensively or lived for long periods of time in poor developing countries can attest, things often just don’t work as efficiently as they do back home in one’s comfortable Western environment. Sometimes things don’t work at all—things like electricity, hot water and most importantly an internet connection. The food is different. Sights, sounds and smells can be offensive. And the locals may not speak a word of English (egads!).
Besides the normal bureaucratic trials and banking challenges, the things that slowly grate on my nerves are the incessantly barking dogs, blaring music from huge speakers placed in the street as ‘neighborhood’ entertainment at all hours and seemingly complete lack of the concept that noisy activities might be disturbing a neighbor. I believe the vast majority of the locals in all the countries where I’ve lived have been kind and caring people, so what gives with the lack of consideration for others when it comes to noise?