everyone, stand still (and clean up after yourselves).

9 November 2011 § 2 Comments

Every time I sit down to do homework, study, open a beer, or go for a walk, the pesky NaNoWriMo voice says: you could be writing right now. Right now, you could be writing. Even when I AM writing, you could be writing more. Fucking hell. In two days there’s a school talent show, which to me is funny and exploitive and a kind of a cheap way to promote camaraderie among the international students at a small, private, and very expensive arts and design university where the local students all but completely ignore us. According to one professor, it’s because they’re as scared of their English as we are of our Spanish. I keep telling myself that when I walk up to a tico to say ¿que paso? It doesn’t happen very often.

That same professor brought us to the San Pedro Mall yesterday, for an exercise in observing non-verbal communication. You have permission to stare. I know you were raised in a culture where staring is bad, he says with his endearing broken English, but if you ever wanted to, here is your chance.

We were to observe how people interact, with eye contact, touch, personal space, gestures, fashion, and just about anything else that comes from a place other than the mouth. And anyone who knows anything (or who saw Hitch, or has ever read a book on assertion, pick-up, or social skills, etc. etc. etc.) knows that despite the massive importance and priority we place on language (spelling and grammar excluded, to be fair to facebook, twitter, and whatever quack invented text messaging) very little of what we communicate is what we actually say. It’s everything else that matters: body language, breathing, the number of times we interrupt someone.

I sat in the food court, despite the awful smell of fast, fried food, to watch people eat, and talk, and not eat, and not talk. And wipe their mouths. And occasionally kick each other between sips of root beer. I listened to quick Spanish and tried to pick up on phrases. I watched couples eat in silence, never once looking one another in the eye. Pigeons patrolled the floor for dropped fries, despite the somewhat indoor nature of the place. Children ran about, playing with strangers and asking questions. When their parents went to find a seat, they did not yell for their lost child. The kids knew where the food was, and went when they wanted to.

I saw only one leash on a human being yesterday, which is an unfortunate improvement from the states, where it seems parents who are unable to gain the respect of their children resort to cute monkeyface backpacks with four-foot-long canvas straps attached to them. Once, not too many years ago at a certain mall in South Florida (ahem, Palm Beach Gardens), I watched as a very fat person, whom I am still unsure as to whether it was a man or a woman but had long, greasy and curly hair nevertheless, yelled at their son, who was perhaps five years old (and attached to one said backpackleash), and when he didn’t listen, yanked on the leash so hard, the kid fell on his butt and slid across the tile floor to his parent’s feet.

Mortified by the smell of the food, I had to book it out of the food court after only ten minutes or so, but there was one interesting thing I noticed: no one, and I really mean no one, picked up their trash from the table, or that they had dropped on the floor, to throw it away. No one took their tray to the bin to clear it of leftover ketchup and salt and place it in a neat pile for some humble worker to collect later on. Nope. And right when I was like well, in the states, at least we tend to clean up after ourselves. even if not everyone, most people do, (Having working in cinemas for years, I should know reality better than that, but it’s generally true. outside of movie theatres.), one of my US American classmates, apparently hip to the tico way of doing things, got up from the spot where he’d been eating, left his tray and trash sitting on the table, and left.

On our way out of the mall, I asked Joaquin (my professor) why ticos never clean up after themselves. He said that it would be taking someone’s job away from them, and we wouldn’t want anyone to feel inadequate, would we? The guy has a wit I do not yet fully understand, and though I feel like he picks up on my sarcasm with ease, there are times when I can’t figure out whether he is searching for an English word, or saying something with as much Gary Larson cynicism as it sounds like. Whenever I assume one or the other, I’m wrong.

Anyway. San José is not a clean place. It’s a city where gasoline and oil pour into every third storm drain with alarming regularity, and where some storefronts are two-parking-space large trash bins, apparently because no one walks between the raised sidewalk and that side of the shop. Trash pick up in resedential neighborhoods is a race: every house has a metal basket (think of a very large picnic basket) on a post about as high as a mailbox would be in the States. Into these baskets go every bit of trash and garbage, in or out of plastic bags (and holy shit so much plastic gets used here!), free to fall onto the sidewalk and thus into oblivion because no garbage man in his right mind would bend over to pick up a piece of trash, per the requirements of his job. And apparently, neither would a resident of said neighborhood.

I have seldom felt so useless when I pick up a piece of garbage here to try to find a home for it, that I have picked up the very unfortunate habit of ignoring it altogether, to wait for someone else to pick it up, because it’s their job to do so. And we wouldn’t want anyone to feel inadequate, would we?

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§ 2 Responses to everyone, stand still (and clean up after yourselves).

  • Noel says:

    It is almost like saying, why should I brush my teeth? Isn’t this what dentists are for? We wouldn’t want dentists to feel inadequate, would we? The difference between typical Hispanic culture and Anglo-American culture is striking, to say the least, the main difference is that the former is more family oriented, expressive, and colorful. Anglo-American are more individualistic, greedy, and lame. No offense.

    • People do what works for them. If you look at the history of Latino culture, the need to remain together is evident and obvious: if there’s not enough money for a kid to move out when they become an adult, he stays to support his family, sometimes until he gets married, or longer. In the US, there’s the more individualistic attitude you mentioned – that in order to be productive people, we need to strike out on our own, and accomplish what our parents did not, could not, or to simply find our own path. As for the greedy, well, there are greedy people in every country (the variable being what they think is possible once ____ has been obtained), and lame? Injured donkeys are lame. US Americans have established themselves as the most powerful country in the world, for better or worse, and have not done so by being “lame.”

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