Random Pants


I was walking around San Francisco this morning when I came across a pair of jeans left bunched up on top of a public trash receptacle. Not stuffed inside, but sitting on top of it. Not given to Salvation Army or recycled or thrown out with all the other trash that one throws away from behind the veil of secrecy at one’s own home, but here on display in public, and left in a manner that suggested some hurry and desire to be rid of them in a flash. What is the story behind these pants? Did they have a rip and someone did a quick change on the street into a new pair and left these crumpled in place? Did someone have a sudden urge to galavant naked around the (very cold, I might add) streets of San Francisco this morning? Had someone been carrying around this extra set of pants with them for some time, hoping against hope to find just the right tailor to repair them and finally gave up the ghost after one last heartbreaking head-shake from a local seamstress? Perhaps they had refused to BeDazzle them with some lewd image? Maybe someone had been carrying around their partner’s pants and just at that moment learned of some infidelity and tossed them and the relationship aside in a huff? Maybe someone was carrying a huge pile of clothes down the street, so big that they couldn’t see in front of them, and this lonely pair slid off at just this place? What stories could this pair of jeans tell if it could talk?

Tell it like it is


With all the places I have been in the past two years, I can’t help but compare and contrast things about the cultures in which I find myself. Each has their own pluses and minuses, and each has an amazing way of revealing something about the human condition and its many adaptations. And I often find a small mystery in one culture that can only be answered by beginning to understand another. Case in point: Mexicans vs. Argentines.

I noted with some frequency when I was living in Mexico the distaste Mexicans have for the Argentines. They would use many words to describe them, but it boiled down to the fact that in Mexico, Argentines are seen to be rather snobbish and arrogant, and it was quite often I would hear Mexicans complaining about how demanding and rude the Argentines were in their eyes. I never really knew exactly what they were going on about, but my Argentine friends in Mexico seemed every bit as down on Mexicans as Mexicans were on them. There was clearly a clash of cultures going on here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Now that I have been in Buenos Aires for a month, I think I am beginning to see where the clash is. And it is interesting to note that here in Buenos Aires, I have yet to hear a single negative word spoken about Mexicans or Mexican culture for that matter. In fact, the few Argentines who have spoken of Mexico speak in often glowing terms. This is most likely due to the very small (non-existant?) number of Mexicans that are living here compared with the much larger number of Argentines living in Mexico. (Then again, there does seem to be some real cultural animus towards Peruvians and Bolivians here, but that is a separate matter. Every culture has their own xenophobia.)

One of the things that I have noticed here without a doubt is how direct the people are when speaking. It is not uncommon to hear a grandmother swear like a drunken sailor, have people tell you directly that they are or are not interested in seeing you today, hear strong opinions of all types on delicate matters, etc. In short and in general, they don’t pussyfoot around. Your feelings might be hurt, but you know where you stand with the Argentines.

Things could not be more different in Mexican culture. In Mexico, one almost never says directly what one thinks, it is considered to be rude. I remember many times pulling my hair out trying to understand what Mexicans were really thinking. I actually moved out of my first apartment there because my roommate was so non communicative and afraid of conflict. My friend George, who lived several years in Mexico gave me the following advice that sort of sums it up. He told me that when leaving a party early, for whatever reason, you just have to lie and say “I’ll be right back”, even if you have no intention of coming back. It would be rude to just say “goodbye” or “I have another party to get to” or “I am tired”. George told me that Mexicans much prefer a nice lie to the harsh truth. And I have to admit to experiencing many frustrating planning misadventures just because people thought it rude to say “I can’t make it next Wednesday”. They would much rather agree to something and then just let it drop. Argentines, on the other hand are precisely the opposite. And I have to admit to preferring it that way. My feelings don’t get hurt very easily, and I like to know where I stand with people.

They really remind me a lot of my own family. Maybe because there are so many Germans and East European Jews here, and they have had a rather large impact on the culture, or maybe it is because of something else. In my family, we just say what we are thinking to each other, and nothing is very hidden. I like the fact that we can say what is on our minds and at the end of the day still know that we love each other. This isn’t the same thing as being rude. It is obviously important to take care with people’s feelings. But I can totally see now why there is such friction in Mexico between these two cultures. At the heart of it is a very different sense of propriety and expression.

In sum, and to put it in a kind way for each, one culture places a much higher value on directness, the other a much higher value on politeness.

Beyond estimation of toast


I (like many people) am a user of several IM networks (AIM, MSN, Yahoo, GTalk) in order to allow me to chat with friends in each of these networks. (As a side note, I use a really nice single application called Adium to connect to all of them at the same time.) These networks each have their strengths and weaknesses, but Yahoo’s seems the most prone to being hijacked for spreading spam or viruses or whatnot. Being on a Mac, I am mostly immune to this sort of thing, but the rare messages popping up in Yahoo IM windows from complete strangers are annoying anyway.

This morning I got a message sent to me in Arabic. It was several paragraphs long and since I don’t speak the language, completely incomprehensible. Curious nonetheless to investigate the cultural differences between Arabic and English spam, I headed over to Google Translate to try to decode the message. What resulted was pretty nonsensical. Although there were a few words that alone had meaning, almost none of them taken together mean anything at all (at least in English). However, one phrase did stand out to me as pure poetry: “beyond estimation of toast”.

Thank you, voice from the ether. I will be pondering the mystery of this koan for some years to come.