Until you’ve tried it, you might not realize how difficult it actually is to peel back the cultural layers and decipher daily life in a foreign country.
This isn’t something you can do as a tourist, peering out of the tinted window of an air-conditioned bus. As an expat, you often manage it at your own peril—and at the expense of things you’ve spent a lifetime believing and taking for granted.
I didn’t come to Nicaragua to blend in seamlessly, “go native,” or become some sort of self-appointed judge, jury and cultural executioner. A lot of expats wind up collecting at opposite ends of the spectrum as either apologists in the land of “it’s all good” or relentlessly cynical critics. I’m not sure which is worse.
I always try to be a good neighbor. I treat people I interact with fairly and with respect. If I offer something to someone, I don’t expect anything in return. If my kindness is misconstrued as weakness, then so be it. I try not to let it get to me. But in spite of this, I often find I still come up short when trying to understand the culture around me and daily lives of the people who play by its rules.
It isn’t always easy to make sense of their choices or understand their motivations, and I have to resist the strong temptation to make harsh judgments or condemn with sweeping generalities, especially when disappointed. After six years observing the culture of Nicaragua up close, I’ve had to come up with my share of necessary explanations for some of these observations and—in certain cases—my conclusions have been disheartening. But rather than gripe about it or become a member of either one of the two groups that I referenced earlier, I decided to engage in a different approach. It’s really more of a technique than anything else, and I’ve found it quite effective.
Whenever I see something particularly baffling (frustrating, troubling, perplexing…go ahead fill in the blank) I try to find an equivalent polar opposite in the first world to balance my mood and put myself back on an even psychological keel. Since I didn’t pack my overhead projector for this presentation, let me offer a few simple examples:
If you’ve spent any time in Nicaragua, I’m sure you’ve witnessed a man riding a bicycle one-handed with a wide-eyed infant in the other. Down the street he goes, weaving through traffic without a care in the world. Meanwhile, the little gringo voice in my head is shrieking, “Stop! Stop! Where are the folks from Social Services when you need them?”
Despite their derring-do, a certain number of these Evel Knievels do surely crash and the kid, still too young to know how to fly on his or her own, goes sailing face-first into oncoming traffic. Am I wrong?
In the United States we have laws to protect children from that sort of recklessness and blatant stupidity. In fact we have all sorts of laws designed specifically to protect us from our own stupid selves. Reams of them. And if that doesn’t work, we can always find someone else to sue. It makes me wonder how so many of my generation survived the recklessness of a world before toddler car seats or child-proof medicine bottles came on the scene. In fact it’s a wonder our species didn’t die out long ago.
Lately, I’ve noticed that this safety trend has gone completely off the rails and into the absurd. Back home, baby strollers now have as many high-tech features and accoutrements as a carbon fiber Formula One race car, and children well beyond infancy are strapped into them like little Apollo astronauts, wearing hypoallergenic, flame-retardant outfits, unable to even wiggle but fully protected against everything from ultra violet rays to a direct strike from a medium-sized meteorite.
These strollers have become a sort of status symbol in the U.S. and cost more than my first three cars. As a proud survivor of the insidious, “Baby on Board” rear window placard plague of the ‘70’s and 80’s, you can imagine my distress when I see these elaborate shows of parenting to the extreme. Nicaragua, by comparison is a safe haven from this sort of nonsense. So feel free to enjoy your stay.
Now go ahead, try to hold those two images in your head simultaneously—the dare devil daddy and the SUV baby stroller. See how nicely they cancel each other out? Don’t you feel better now?
As expats, the challenge is to not blindly accept with a phony smile everything the host your country dishes out, but also to not gripe about everything endlessly. There is a middle ground—even if there are many inscrutable cultural differences pulling your attention in one direction or another. You just have to learn how to find it, and then hang on tight.
I admit that I originally had a hard time coming to grips with the high incidence of teenage pregnancy in Nicaragua. I come from a culture where it is assumed that if you want to avoid a lifetime filled with hopeless struggle, guaranteed hardship and limited opportunities, you don’t go ahead and get yourself pregnant at 14 or 15. That’s pretty much a no-brainer, as we so often like to say. But in Nicaragua, you are surrounded by teenage mothers on all sides. Did they not get the memo that having a baby is a serious proposition and a lifelong commitment that shouldn’t begin in adolescence?
Canceling out the huge teenage pregnancy issue in Nicaragua wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought it was going to be. Back home we’ve gotten used to and fully condone the choice of a woman already in her 50s to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on all sorts of state-of-the-art medical treatments that enable her to become pregnant, delivery a healthy baby against all biological odds, hire a full-time nanny and then go back to work in a high-powered corporate law firm six weeks later. And that’s a good thing?
If you’re not convinced, go ahead and put the kid in the high-tech stroller along with the rest of the armada of kids being pushed around in the park by the hired help. For the first several years of their lives, U.S. kids are so strapped in that they are unable to move anything but their facial muscles. And playing with other kids is now totally out of the question. Someone might get hurt.
In contrast, families in Nicaragua raise children collectively and there really isn’t such a thing as a single mother. Your average Nicaraguan won’t even understand the nomenclature when you get on the topic. It’s that foreign to them. Speaking of which, remember when the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” was the flavor-of-the-month feel good expression back in the United States? It was a catchy expression borrowed from Africa by Hillary Clinton, but it sidesteps the central issue that back home we destroyed the village many years ago.
Instead, we opted for the American Dream, which not coincidentally is built on a foundation of household appliances, highways and total isolation for everybody. In Nicaragua, villages and small towns are still very much a reality; they abound and the rich social fabric and family life that they foster continues to thrive in spite of what we would call dire poverty.
I know this might be starting to sound like an advertisement for cultural spot-remover, but this technique works like a charm! I’ve been known to smirk with superiority whenever I see Latinos wearing t-shirts emblazoned with slogans in English that they clearly aren’t able to read. Do they even have a clue what sort of silly statement they are making or how foolish they look? Now, if this is the sort of thing you find annoying, all you have to do to remove it from your cultural radar is to pair it up with another one culled from the first world.
Who hasn’t seen that equally commonplace sight of tourists from the first world strutting down La Calzada displaying bodies garishly tattooed with Chinese calligraphy? Go ahead and guess how many of them can actually read their own permanent adornments? I’m going to go out on a limb and say “zero.” I think I’ll opt for the t-shirt version, thank you very much. At least with silly clothing, you get to shed your ignorance at the end of the day.
Living in Nicaragua has forced me to reassess a lot of simple things that I once took for granted. It is not a social meritocracy; widespread corruption is not only tolerated here, it flourishes. For foreigners, this is often a source of acute and deep-seated frustration. Sadly, having goals or pursuing a dream is an exercise in futility for most people and isn’t even part of the cultural equation in Nicaragua.
In the first world we are immersed in a stew of ideas and maxims from a very young age that derive loosely from the Horatio Alger Pull-Yourself-Up-By-Your-Bootstraps school of thinking (even though that seems to be working less effectively with each passing generation). Today, a very large percentage of young Americans graduate from college with student loan debts the size of a home mortgage, which follows them like a shadow for the rest of their lives, tapping their resources and offering little in the way of real employment opportunities in return. For the first time in many generations, is likely that many young Americans will not be as well off as their parents. Yet at least for the time being, the myth persists undiminished by reality.
So there it is; in the U.S. it’s outsized expectations versus Nicaragua’s no expectations.
The challenge posed by living in a foreign country is finding a balance, a middle ground. With so many unfamiliar customs and issues, it just means that you have to start all over again. You must learn what to overlook, accept, edit out or literally step over on the sidewalk. It’s just part of the cultural equation of life in any country.
Once we learn to safely navigate our way through it all, we can get down to business and focus on the central issue of life. Which I’m still working on.
Robert Skydell is a retired architect and restaurateur. He lives in Granada and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.