I can’t know for sure what the first thing any American notices about Mexico is, but inefficiency has to be in the top ten.

I’ve commented on Mexican life’s slowish pace, and the possible tradeoffs there might be between happiness and the tightest bottom line. I’m going to try to tie a few of those ideas together in this post.

When it comes to the bathroom, I’m a morning person. None of this showering at night business or running off to class or work with a head dunked in a sink. For better or worse, a trip to the facilities has been part of my start-up routine at every office job I’ve ever worked. There are the necessities to take care of, but it’s also a brief window to read, do the LA Times crossword, center myself after the commute and get ready for the day. A spiritual time.

And Snapchats to my high school buddies

This means home to me

So it’s jarring that every day when I arrive, the young woman who cleans our office is camped out in the men’s john. It serves as a janitorial closet, a dishwashing station, and general female hangout during the course of the morning. The women’s is too small to accommodate any of the things we store in there and we can’t switch sides because the men’s has a urinal. It’s doubly troubling, because as I’ve mentioned, my diet right now is 90% black beans and coffee.

Lola (her name is Lola, short for Lolita short for Dolores) opens the building in the morning, and depending on the day does maybe ¼ of her cleaning before the staff arrives. Sometime last February, Janessa and I were working on a project that seemed urgent at the time, and we got up four or five times in the course of a half-hour so Lola could wipe down our desks, sweep behind them, and then mop after sweeping.[1] Newly adapted to life here, we started to grumble around the fourth interruption—in the States, maintenance is before or after work, in the States, employees are left to be productive; you wouldn’t find a janitor strolling into a corner office at 10am and breaking up a conference call—on and on like that.

It’s true, Lola disrupts office work. Unavoidable fact. We’d all get more done if she cleaned while we aren’t here. If Janessa and I had left service way back when, I imagine that would have been our takeaway. But now it’s not, not even close.

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All Happy Families

I’m not close to my folks, not the way other people seem to be.

I'm not heartless though

I’m not heartless though

We moved from Nashville to Shanghai when I was six, and I saw my extended family during home-leave, the month of summer General Motors gave us to tour the US. I’d see Mom’s people in New Braunfels in Texas for a week and then we’d visit one or another branch of Dad’s side, in Oregon or Washington or down in New Orleans.

My mother’s father died when she was seventeen, and her mother passed during my last summer in China. We didn’t go back to Texas much after that. My father’s parents started ailing soon after, and what I saw of his brothers and their kids depended on who was caretaking at the time. I’d go years between seeing a given set of cousins, and there’s a group of Texans I haven’t laid eyes on in a decade.

When I went away to college, I took a perverse pride in how emotionally independent I was from my folks. Other kids would call home daily or weekly for advice and support while I might go months between phone calls. My parents had helped me to grow up an independent kid, and I thought it was all advantage at the time, that I was making my way on my own and better for it. That was a fiction and an obvious one—I wasn’t paying my own way, and there are mistakes I made in college they could have helped me to head off.

Even now, my folks are in China and I have less contact with them than, I think, any other volunteer has with theirs. Schedules and time zones keep us from Skyping, but I try to write more and make sure they follow the blog so at least they’ll have that bare-minimum of information. All the same, I don’t see family in the way quite the same way as my friends and fellow-volunteers, can’t imagine planning my future based on their geography, tethering myself to Nashville where they’ll retire.

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Monitoring, Reporting, and Devaluation

I want to talk about the Peace Corps, my little part of it, as I see it now.

To talk about now, though, I’ve got to go back and talk about then. The early sixties were (I understand) heady days for us as a country. We’d concluded what seemed like a successful police action in Korea under the auspices of the then-still-exciting United Nations, we were following our most charismatic president, and fears about the Soviet Union had (somewhat) diminished with his handling of the missile crisis and Khrushchev’s rejection of Stalin and Stalinism. We hadn’t yet come to know the horrors of Vietnam or the culture wars what would tear us apart.

We were on top of the world, and in that moment we still thought that we could save it. It speaks to the spirit of the times that an offhand remark on the steps of the Michigan Union during the campaign generated enough public excitement for Kennedy to create an entirely new and radical kind of development and diplomacy organization. The idea behind the Peace Corps is still appealing—we send bright, young all-American college graduates off to the poorest corners of the world and let them use their new-gotten know-how to improve lives abroad in the same way they’d soon be improving them at home. It’s a kind of beautiful optimism, a faith in forward progress that hadn’t yet been stymied by stagflation and internal surveillance and decades of proxy wars.

PC_Leave country

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To Kill a Mindset

I wrote awhile ago that Peace Corps volunteers make good bigots. Generally, statistically, we’re privileged white people traveling to all the poorer, browner, and yellower parts of the world. We arrive in classes of universal inexperience that serve as crucibles for culture shock and adjustment frustration. All of our angst and anxiety bouncing off each other in conversation after conversation. I want to get into that bigotry. My bigotry.

Hey there

Hey there

I’ve brought up volunteer chats as a mechanic twice now, and I’d like to explain. Imagine that you’re at a big weekend party with all of your friends, and after two solid days of debauch, one of your hosts sits down to tally what everyone has contributed so you can split costs and share the burden. It’s going okay, but then one of your friends starts complaining about how little she drank compared with everyone else and makes a scene over her bare-minimum contribution while the rest are happy to round up and pay it forward. You think about it for a couple of minutes after it happens and then you let it go.

Now imagine you’re one of the last to leave. It’s you, your hosts, and a couple of other stragglers. One of them says, “Can you believe how cheap whatshername was just now?”

“Yea, what an asshole,” another friend chimes in, and suddenly you’re thinking yea, she was an asshole, and you spend the next ten minutes consumed by breaking down how and why and what a total culera that chick was. Prejudice grows between us like this, through nasty little circlejerks when we aren’t paying enough attention to what we’re doing to each other.

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Edward Said and Defining Mexico

The Mexican is lazy, is hardworking, is prone to violence, is hospitable. He is dirty, clean, like to other hispanics, unlike other latinos, shares racial strengths with the indians, has inherited cultural decadence from the Spanish. He lives in an old country with old values, he finds it hard to adapt to new ways of life, he is itinerant, moving to new locales to leech off other peoples. “The Mexican” and “Mexicans” are a lot of bullshit.

When I sit down and slam out a blog, beer in hand, I take on a responsibility. All Peace Corps volunteers and all the expats like us do the same. When we write about our host countries and peoples, we define them, to ourselves and to our audience.

There’s a book about it.

This book

This book

Said describes the way that “Orientalists,” scholars of the nearer and farther Easts, created a body of ideas, papers, art, and literature, that took on more reality than the physical East. When making policy or business decisions, Westerners responded to this constructed pseudo-Orient rather than the real. I’m simplifying. A lot. But I’ll use Mexico as an example of the same.

The parts of this country that I have seen—massive pine woods, cloud-forests, alpine streamlets and freezing waterfalls, the chic-as-fuck city of Querétaro and its eco-cafes and burgeoning urban-hippy scene—none of it has anything to do with the impression I had of Mexico before shipping out.

If you think of all these things when I say Mexico, you're Mexican and/or a liar

If you think of all these things when I say Mexico, you’re Mexican and/or a liar

Where did my previous impression of Mexico come from? From the great American collective unconscious. Flashes of Speedy Gonzales combine with lectures on the Mexican Revolution and vague images from a trip to the Alamo. Cormac McCarthy novels blend into the Man with No Name and The Magnificent Seven. It’s a powerful mental image of white linens and sombreros, now overlaid with narcos and beheadings.


We think of this

Almost none of that conception has anything to do with the “Real Mexico,” just like the way the rest of the world literally thinks we only eat hamburgers and hot dogs in the States has the tiniest bit of truth (we eat hamburgers sometimes) while missing everything else about us. “Mexicans eat tacos right?” “Well yea, but they’re different than ours and that’s not the point.”

The image, the pseudo-Mexico of The Three Amigos and shitty restaurants, it is the Mexico that we respond to, as voters, vacationers, businesspeople, and politicians. You have to go somewhere to start to know it. I don’t know Mexico. I don’t even know Querétaro, or Jalpan. But I’m a sight further along than I was beforehand, enough to know that what I thought I knew, I didn’t. What you have to realize is that the false American idea of Mexico is all the Mexico there is for the majority of Americans.

Perfect, right


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