Monthly Archives: September 2012

Standing out

Pásale, güera, amiga, linda, nena. Sin compromiso. ¿No necesitas reparar estos lentes?

If I were to walk down calle de Motolinia in Mexico’s Historic Downtown this is what I would hear. I would agree with the salespeople that I do need to repair my glasses, but I’m holding out til I return to Canada. Scratch that. Maybe they could fix the places where the coating seems to have come off. Next time I go to a museum, church or library that is what I will do.

These are some of the many words that people use to call out to me (white person, friend, pretty, baby). Some others are vulgar, so I will not repeat them. Mexicans selling things use words like this to get people’s attention. They use the same words to call out to Mexicans. In Nicaragua, people gave each other nicknames based on appearance, or some physical feature (they said they were funny, I did not get it, but, humour definitely has cultural boundaries that are not easily crossed).

These tendencies point to a system that lets people such as myself gain status, and that makes me uncomfortable. I think that hard work should pay off. By acquiescing to this system, because, on occaison, it has speeded up paperwork, am I just working the system to its advantage? Other times, when I face a woman on the other side of the desk, I sense they view me as a threat because things seem to take way longer than they should.

The words that come out of the mouths of salespeople are a shade away from the vulgar things men say on the street – aka sexual harassment – that there is no way of avoiding if you want to leave your housein Mexico and walk down the street or use public transit – and I am reminded me that there is an underlying expectation that a certain class of women are not to leave their homes – the things people say about the way women dress, or dance, or walk.

Hearing this kind of language reminds me, again, that in Canada, where I stand out less, and where I feel comfortable actively swearing at men who say these things, and telling them that my body is not availble for public commentary, we live in the same system where men feel comfortable telling women what to do, and some women feel comfortable acquiescing because it’s easier, becase the paperwork goes more quickly, because they’ll get free snorkel equipment (I turned that down today).

Men feel like they are losing power – indeed, women without children vastly outearn men (other than men of their same level of education). Do I feel badly? Do I feel badly that regardless of my qualifications I am guaranteed to earn less than a man with the same level of education, particularly if I get married (my status goes down, his goes up), or have children (whoah, career disaster)? It’s time for people to move beyond the expectations of their sex/gender. No one is more of a man or a woman (yes, keeping the gender binary for this one) because of how they look or act or where they choose to work (at home, outside of the home, freelance) or what name they choose for themselves. These are choices that should be availble to anyone. Women have so many options (most of what I have mentioned typically apply to women) and so many preoccupations (according to the internet, women focus on work, family, friends, “fitness” while men focus only on work). I think it’s time to share the bounty.

(The inspiration for the post came from my life and this article


Security in Mexico

Imagine this. You are on a bus, with someone you don’t know very well, and some unidentified man begins filming all the passengers on the bus. Did I mention he was escorted by a police officer? Imagine that your new friend starts to freak out. What do you do?

On the way home from Teotihuacán, I was with this new friend. I said, oh, this happens all the time in Mexico (because it’s true), and told her that I thought it was to make sure people don’t get on the bus who are not in the country legally (I think this is the justification). Of course, this would help if the bus hadn’t picked us up at the side of the road, taken our money in cash, and given us no receipt – often in Mexico you need to show ID to buy a bus ticket, and your name appears on it, with a specific seat number. So, she imagined that this would get into the wrong hands. At that moment, my inner dialogue was very fatalistic, and, I copped to two common expressions here:  “Qué va ser” “No se puede hacer nada.”

I firmly believe it is best to avoid confronting the police and the military when one is in a confined space, they have weapons, and are not known for their transparency. Is this the right answer? How can I engage with this situation in a way that aligns more closely to my beliefs and my desire not to be subject to powers I disagree with? I don’t want to become another face on a video where no one knows anything about me, and in fact, where those taking the video depend on me “blending in” with others, and losing my individual features.

Now we are venturing onto the territory of my thesis. In relation to representations of situations much worse than being filmed on a bus without my consent, I argue that characters, like people, are so repressed that they are reduced to their physical features, that they become interchangeable with one another. I also argue, however, that their is hope in this collective interchangeability. Since I believe that literature allows us to think about reality (historically, today), and my reality on Saturday was this dehumanizing situation on the bus, how can we see hope there? Is there a way to change that situation?


Work and Rest Part 2

I work primarily at home. This morning, since my studio was been cleaned (hurray) I spent an hour reading at Starbucks. The rest of the time is spent at my kitchen table/desk ( I make goals for the week (I have a how-to-make-goals sheet I can give you if you want) and then divide them up into my planner by day (orange book in the photo). Then I do them.


In honour of the beginning of the week, I will share some thoughts on what these things are. In other words, work. I think our society has a limited definition of work, and it fails to recognize hours of unpaid work at home, raising children, largely done by women, the work women are expected to put into maintaining a specific image (more on the second and third shifts and my impressions of gender in Mexico in a future post). Our society also elevates some work over others, and some sectors will understand some jobs better than others. I, for example, have a hard time understanding what an actuary or a stay-at-home parent does, because it is outside of my experience. Society greatly rewards the actuary (financially). Society does not greatly reward the humanities grad student, the artist, the custodian or the garbage collector.

My work (as a graduate student) is something I enjoy: someone is paying me to read books (Rulfo and Sanchez Prado which you see in my picture), and write about them. Specifically, to prove that images of grotesque or monstrous bodies, feminized men, re-enacted crucifixions, alternate family relationships, and miraculous healing in novels and short stories from 1940 to 1980 point simultaneously and paradoxically to oppression and the possibility of social change; that these images in literature provide avenues to think about similar topics in Mexico’s political history and contemporary reality.

I have a sneaking suspicion the Ontario government, in its pursuit of a knowledge-based economy, did not set out to endorse my specific thesis; rather, its actions are justified through some macroeconomic analysis. The Mexican government may also fund me in the hopes of increasing relationships between the two countries, and, even though someone read my proposal, still thinks that it can form part of its development agenda.


Work and Rest Part 1

As I prepare for another week of work on my thesis, I have been thinking about rest, work and spirituality. One of my core values is work. This is due in part to my family – those of you familiar with my parents will not find this at all surprising. The other part might be due to being Mennonite – I did not grow up in an area with many Mennonites – so based on a small sample size – where I was sheltered from lazy people – I have come up with an alternate slogan for the sometimes religious and sometimes ethnic group. This could unite Mennonites and Menno-nots. Mennonites: anachronistically taking the Protestant Work Ethic to the next level since 1525. Indeed, hard work unites unites Mennonites who believe in hard work and capitalism, and Mennonites who believe in changing the system. Hard work is much easier, after all, than figuring out God, following God and how to live that out in relationships with others. Indeed, not all people care about these things. They just want to get on with their lives.

This background has shaped my feelings on work and rest. Read the ten commandments, we see that rest is good. Now, implementing this rest in a way that is less extreme than the most observant Jews is a challenge for anyone. We talk about this often at GCF. Given these conversations, and in the absence of dedicated church attendance, I have decided not to work on Sundays, and only do things I want to do. I also try and make these things helpful to myself. For example, less tv, and more (fun) reading. Today, I did podcasts –  NPR and CBC. Now, I will organize my week.

A Day in Teotihuacán

I went to Teotihuacán today – amazing. I could reflect on the pyramids, and the bus ride, and the conversations I had with my travel buddy for the day but instead I offer this list.

1. I am really pale. I should have figured out this whole sunscreen thing by now.

2. I feel like a new person when I eat vegetables. Why isn’t this part of the Marxist idea of a new man?

3. Can I pay bad musicians to stop playing?


Reflections of a TCK

Tonight have I thought about going for a walk, cooking, reading Naciones intelectuales (again), drinking beer or watching TV. I opted for cooking (turns out substituting asparagus for nopal cactus works well. nopal cactus for okra – kind of weird), a beer, and blogging.

The acronym TCK means a third culture kid. I am never sure if this label accurately applies to me, since I only spent two years of my childhood in another country, but I know that I have always felt at home meeting new people (just the meeting), traveling and not knowing what’s going on all the time. I have made career choices that explicitly relate to learning about another country and involve trying to fit into a different cultural environment (the academy is different from real life. Spanish language just adds a whole nother layer).

As I was reflecting on my experiences this evening, something surprising came to mind. First, that I had not experienced much culture shock in Mexico, ever, and especially not this visit. I think I was more culture shocked in Chicago’s South Side, frankly. (The story of my accidental on purpose visit there with my brother is the subject of my mother’s anxiety, and, perhaps, another blog post). Second, that I do not want to travel again ever. Third, that I want to go on an epic trip to Nepal, New Zealand and Europe (friends, you know who you are. I will come knocking. Soon.)

I have studied Mexican literature very intensely for about a year and a half now, and Latin American literature and culture that included Mexico since the beginning of high school. Perhaps my reading of Mexican literature, culture, history and politics prepared me for my first visit? Perhaps Mexico City is a mixture of two cities that have greatly impacted my life: Managua and Cairo. Perhaps it was the perpetual allure of starting over, this time, in a bustling city with crazy traffic, crowded metros and imperfect people. (Side benefit: looking how I look. Side annoyance: looking how I look). Perhaps Mexico City is my spiritual home. The latter is unlikely, because I know that the desert is my spiritual home. (I’m looking at you, Purmamarca, Argentina, below, and Barranca del Cobre, Mexico.)


The second thought is of course that I want to never travel again. I like knowing where my grocery store is, where my laundry is, where my produce store is, where the metro is, where the bus is, and how to do bureaucracy. I don’t want to learn these things again. I want to be happy where I am. And be able to stay there.

The third thought, the thought that makes me realize I’m definitely a TCK in spite of my short childhood time abroad, is that I am planning a thesis reward trip for myself. A job would make this trip more financially possible, but I’m sure my parents would also help. To motivate myself to revise my admittedly imperfect thesis chapters, I am planning an epic imaginary trip. If I do even a fraction of it, it will be amazing. Of course, knowing myself, it will involve a lot of coffee drinking, staring at mountains, and eating the national variation of ice cream. But it will be in a new place, and that will be all that matters.

Sushi across North America

Tonight I had the strangest sushi of my life. I decided to be adventurous and order the “plátano rollo” or banana roll. I was definitely expecting a roll with avocadoes and rice, as per the order, but the Nicaraguan part of my brain thinks that plátanos are plantains, bananos are bananas, and maduros are mature plantains, plátanos verdes are unripe plantains (the list goes on), so that it would have been maybe maduros fritos in the roll. That would have been delicious. A roll with avocadoes, cream cheese unspecified seafood and rice, surrounded by a slice of a banana (or possibly ripe plantain, which in Mexico are plátanos machos), topped with jam, was less delicious than I hoped. I began to make a mental chart, comparing my sushi experiences in Canada, the United States and Mexico (the three countries that together make up North America).

To be fair, I have never been to Japan, nor do I have any idea what sushi tastes like there. In the US, I have eaten sushi in San Francisco, El Paso and Fort Wayne. Each place had its own charm: San Francisco’s Chinatown, El Paso’s ‘main strip’ and a restaurant across from my hotel in Fort Wayne. In Toronto, I have a name twin (first only) and our friendship largely revolves around us having sushi together, her helping me move, and me not returning the favour. In Mexico City I’ve actually only had sushi two places: once near my house and once outside of the Metro Revolución subway stop (that kind had no fish, but it was delicious). The reflections below are from the restaurant. (If anyone would like to fix the chart format, be my guest).

Canada (Toronto) US Mexico City
Types of sushi Many, especially featuring raw fish, crab, and avocado Had delicious sashimi in El Paso that did not come with rice (what??). On little boats in San Francisco, that moved around the cooking area. Many, prominently featuring avocadoes and “Queso Philadelphia” cream cheese.
Fish Meh Depends on location. California, amazing. El Paso, also good. Fort Wayne? Delicious. The fish in Puerto Escondido is better, but it’s the beach…
Special features Lunch specials,Discounts if you pay with cash Cheaper than Canada, tips should be 20 %. I sometimes forget this. Cream cheese. Arriving really late with the bill and inability to split bills.
Nationality Owners are likely immigrants from a country that is not Japan (it’s Toronto, that just seems a statistical probability)Wait-staff are definitely immigrants, also likely not from Japan, female. Never seen owners, except in San Francisco’s Chinatown (I didn’t make it to Japantown. That might have led to more delicious sushi).Waitstaff has been 50-50 male-female and sometimes immigrants.Cooks are all Spanish-speaking and male in Fort Wayne Owners appear Japanese and struggle a bit with Spanish.Waitstaff is Mexican and largely male.Cooks are all Mexican and male.
Level of confusion Medium, depending on English language communication issues Fairly low. Lowered once I realize that all rolls, regardless of description, include cream cheese.

Conclusions I draw: sushi is trendy, immigrants set up businesses they expect will help them earn money, often relying on an authenticity derived from their clientele’s inability to differentiate between Asian countries, and there are some eery similarities in food service between the US and Mexico.

What about you? Where have you eaten the best sushi and why?