We are currently living in Lima, Peru. Since January of 2013, we have also lived in Barcelona, Spain; Budapest, Hungary; Bogota, Colombia; Oaxaca, Mexico; and New Orleans, LA. In a few days, we will be packing up again to spend three months in Santiago, Chile. It’s such a dream that we get to experience these places and the best part of it is getting to live as the locals do. We shop at the same grocery stores, live in the non-touristy neighborhoods (except in Barcelona because c’mon...Barri Gotic!), eat at the mom-and-pop restaurants, enroll our older son in the local schools (where they generally don’t teach in English), and frequent the local playgrounds and parks.
We try to absorb the culture, but as much as we try, we’re never going to blend in. Fact is, we are 100% American. I speak Spanish fluently and have Andean features, but I’m still all Gringa. We have American values and ways of interacting with each other as a family that are sometimes in stark contrast to the values and familial interactions in other countries. This is a plus for us because instead of reading books about how people parent around the world (my guilty reading pleasure), we are seeing it unfold before our very eyes.
For example, we learned that in Barcelona, it is never OK to let your child run ahead of you lest he bump into people and generally get in the way. In Budapest, kids are expected to play together with minimal parental involvement in parks that to some American moms and dads may seem downright dangerous. In Bogota, we learned that is important that every child should greet “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good evening” when they enter a room or meet a person. In Mexico, we learned that we shouldn’t be surprised if the neighbor’s dog attempts to bite and snap your 4-year-old son’s neck - and that we shouldn’t expect an apology from its owner. In Lima, we learned that babies get sick from all sorts of things, especially the chill in the air.
“How dare they…”
“I mean, don’t you think it’s so stupid that they think that?”
And on and on. We thought our way was the right way and every other point of view was antiquated, conservative, stuffy, etc. We would walk away with our noses turned up, disgusted at the audacity of people, very comfortable in our America-centricity.
But, we have grown and matured these past few years. We have realized that it’s OK if people come up to us and comment about our children or their behavior or the way we decide to dress them. It’s nothing personal and most of the time, they genuinely really have the child’s best interest at heart (unlike some of the moms that I meet in American parks who casually throw in shades of judgement by talking about what THEY do differently instead of outright saying that I should do this or that).
I noticed that my attitude changed a few months ago. I was getting Roman, our 11-month-old, dressed for the day. Onesie? Check. Cute checkered shorts? Check. Baseball cap that he can’t stand wearing but will protect him a bit from the sun? Check. I strapped him into the Ergo and went for a walk to the park with Desmond, our 4-year-old. As I’m sitting on the grass watching Roman pick up a filthy-looking rock and put it in his mouth, a lady with a baby comes over to me.
“You shouldn’t let your son put those rocks in his mouth. I see dogs urinating here all the time. He’s going to get sick and he’ll get diarrhea.”
I’m grossed out by it, too, lady, but the kid needs some dirt to keep building up his immune system. Anyway, didn’t I just read about kids having less illness or allergy or something if they’re exposed to dirt? Doesn’t everybody know this by now?
“Why doesn’t your baby have socks on? The cold will enter through his feet and will make him sick.”
Seriously? It's 89 degrees out! You really believe that? Wasn’t that disproved with Louis Pasteur and germ theory in the 1800s? C’mon.
“Do you have a pediatrician yet? You should see mine. I don’t like the way your baby sticks his leg out when he crawls. It seems like he has a hip problem. You should take him to be seen right away.”
Get. the. fuck. out. of. my. face. Before I cut you and keep your cute baby.
But, I didn’t say any of that. I noticed that my defense mechanism kicked in. How dare she insinuate that I’m not doing the best for my baby? How can she be so rude? Doesn’t she know she’s crossing a personal boundary? Where I come from, we don’t say things like that to other moms…we just think it. Oh boy.
I took a deep breath and calmed down. It really didn’t matter that I thought my beliefs were correct; I was a visitor in her country and needed to be respectful of her beliefs. I realized that I could still be true to my beliefs and values without having to put hers down or make her feel that I think my way is better. When it comes down to it, the stupid little things don’t matter. I don’t need to hold fast to my assertion that colds come from being close to sick people and not because it’s cold outside. If she were admonishing me to not vaccinate my kids or to add some alcohol to their bottle at night to help them sleep, of course I wouldn’t do it and would gently, but firmly, explain why both were a bad idea. But, there is some wiggle room here and within that wiggle room comes a way to truly bond and connect with strangers in a way you normally wouldn’t be able to connect.
Three days later, we’re down at the same park again and it’s a lovely, hot, summer day. I look over and see a different lady with a baby approaching me, but I don’t panic. I look over at my baby boy and he’s eating Honey Nut Cheerios, playing with some baby toys on a mini quilt, and trying to pull his Thomas the Toy Engine socks off. She smiles sweetly at me and we engage in conversation. A real, wonderful, cross-cultural conversation. And at the end, I don’t even bat an eyelash when she mentions that Roman should be eating the regular Cheerios and not the sweet kind.
“Tienes razon. Gracias,” I say.
Thank you. You’re absolutely right.