I went out with my first girlfriend for a long time. From my freshman year of high school through the summer after my freshman year of college. Long enough that when we (she, wisely) broke it off, I’d gone through adolescence and into young adulthood without ever having been single. There are important things you learn during those years: how to flirt, how to ask someone out, how to tell if there’s interest in the first place. And one that my generation pioneered—how to work smartphones and social media into it.
I’d never texted anyone before I started dating her, and because of my limited message plan, hadn’t much texted anyone else until after we broke up. There is a strict texting etiquette at the beginnings of things, and I only got an inkling of it with her. I was a bit of a social failure that first year at university. She was not, and the feeling of slow, torturous knotting in my stomach as I piled text on text trying to check up on her at 2am on a Friday night from my darkened dorm room is the reason why we have a code of communication in the US.
If you’re following the rules to a letter as a guy, you never text twice in a row. Inasmuch as you can, you never text first. You use emoticons rarely or not at all. Generally, you wait until the next day with a number—if she was that excited about you, you’d be with her and not wondering when to fire off a message. Most people don’t call. It’s an intricate dance between young people in the States, often enough both parties wanting to get together and both trying not to give off too much the impression that they do.
Saying “I love you” too early has been a trope in popular culture forever, and that reticence is now an integral part of the opening salvos of a relationship. The whole ‘we don’t want to put labels on it’ thing, too, is now less something that douchebags say on sitcoms and more part of the fabric of American dating. As I’ve explained it to Mexican friends: you ask somebody to go out, and if it goes well, you keep going out, and after long enough you kind of fall into the boyfriend/girlfriend thing; no formalization anymore, no giving out jackets and rings and asking folks to go steady.
All this is second nature to young people back home. You don’t worry about it because you just know, go about it automatically. The point is that Mexicans are in a different place. And it’s a problem for us volunteers.
If young American love is often about hiding—from your teachers at school, from your parents in one or the other’s house, from the cops and passers-by in parks and cars—then the Mexican version is about display. Hispanic countries are famous for their PDA, and both here and where I studied in Spain, you can’t make it ten steps into any public square without finding two young people tongue deep in each other, hands under shirts and waistbands. Private space is at a premium in multigenerational homes, high-schoolers are much less likely to own cars, and sons and daughters often don’t move out of their parents’ house until they’re married. So it’s all brought into the open.
A couple of the kids in my Ecochavos group are dating each other, and every time I get onto Facebook or WhatsApp to set up a meeting, there’s a new set of matched photos there, both of them hanging on each other; ditto sappy, syrupy statuses about everlasting love and life failing to go on. From the earliest hints of puberty to the day their marriages go sour, this is how Mexicans display affection—constantly, saccharinely, and publicly. Instead of making them more reserved, as it has, eventually, us, technology has served to make Mexican dating even more publicizable. And it makes me terribly uncomfortable.
Because we have a different way of going about it, American men have the reputation here of being muy frío, very cold, and I always mention it at the outset. A kind of disclaimer to signal early on what will be my total failure to live up to expectations. I had dinner with my host mom in the city a while ago, and before long it became clear to me that I was getting eyes from the waitress. I didn’t want to tip my mom off, so I left my number on the table with the check. A couple days go by and she texts me. Bully. We strike up a short conversation, I tell her I’ll call her in a week when I’m back in the city and leave it at that, head off to the feria with a couple of coworkers.
Next morning, I check my phone and find a dozen messages, first asking friendly questions, then a few wondering why I’m not responding, another couple demanding to know where I am, and a final one telling me that yes, I was right, Americans are frío, and she can’t believe me. She seemed like a nice girl, probably would have been a nice girl in person, but waking up to that cascade created an almost physical sense of revulsion in me, brought me back to those freshman nights playing the antagonist in Gaga’s “Telephone,” and I knew I’d never send her another message.
After dating that first girl for so long at long distance, there was a point at which I found everything easier over text or chat. Easier to compose my thoughts, easier to flirt. Not so anymore, and I only have so much patience for trying to get to know somebody, trying to hold an extended dialogue over my no-keyboard little Mexican burner phone. Which is crippling here—I have to force myself to participate because that’s how it’s done, and with every new message I send, the risk of a snowballing torrent from the other side mounts.
I asked some of my lady coworkers about all this at the fair and they laid a few things out. By and large, the more traditional the girl, the more this applies. They say they want to be doggedly pursued in a way that’s fallen entirely out of fashion in the US. The whole notion of playing hard to get and guys responding to it is still alive here. One of them told me that a few much older men were after her and that she didn’t think she was interested, but that if they brought her some more flowers and gifts and candy, then she’d give them a shot.
Anathema to me and most Americans, I think, men or women. There’s been a huge backlash against that kind of rom-com behavior in our culture, a ridiculing of the idea that women are to be won with presents or displays of manliness. Not so in Mexico.
Even the labels get more complicated here, and part of the problem is language. There’s no direct translation for ‘date’ or ‘dating,’ for one. I use salir for ‘go out,’ which works, and salida—‘outing,’ more or less—for date, although that doesn’t match as well. Neither is there any way to get to ‘I like you’ in Spanish. You can say me calles bien, ‘you fall on me well,’ something like ‘you strike me in a good way,’ but that’s also what you say about a third party when he seems like a good dude, and it doesn’t carry the right weight of affection.
Then you can say me gustas, which seems natural because gustar is our approximation of ‘to like’. Problem being that gustar actually means ‘to please,’ so what you’re saying when you say, ‘I like these tacos’ is actually ‘these tacos please me,’ and when used with people it has overt sexual connotations. So no good for the opening stages of a relationship, depending on how your opening stages go. From there, there’s just te quiero and te amo. Te amo means ‘I love you,’ and te quiero means ‘I want you,’ but without the sexual sense it would have in English and it doubles as ‘I love you’, so they’re no good either.
A total minefield. No easy way either to say ‘I’m going out with’ someone, which is how we handle things in the US until time served has made it obvious that we can start adding the –friend suffix to our boy or girl. In Mexico, the leap to novio/novia is almost immediate, which makes it hard to engage in the allergy to quick commitment that is the hallmark of US dating. This all tripped me up in my first adventure here, dating a girl four hours away in the city, when in moments of drunken optimism I advanced the vocabulary I was using and ended in short order much deeper in than I’d meant to be, and because of that the end was messier than it had to be.
So when my host family pesters me about why I’m not dating a nice girl from Jalpan, it’s difficult to explain the breadth of the baggage that lies between me and that. Especially now as I’m only six months out from the end of service, the idea of getting involved with a marriage-minded country girl seems like disaster on its face.
I spent a good few thousand words on this blog last year lamenting my loneliness, and now I’m fending off companionship when it presents itself here in town.
And, well, that’s Peace Corps. You live, you learn the culture, you make your choices as best you can.
And then you blog about it.