Linguistic slips in Oaxaca

Opinion by Margaret Wenzlau
Aug. 5, 2013, 3:22 p.m.

I take full pride in the fact that I spent my first week in Mexico vocally expressing an attraction towards my host mother.  Honestly, what was not to like about someone who welcomed me kindly into her home, provided delicious Oaxacan food and was always good for a laugh?

She seemed to have an interest in me as well, always asking questions about my plans and treatment of my natural blonde hair.  “What beautiful blue eyes you have,” she mentioned regularly.  Whatever signals were sent between us, I did not, in fact, feel any attraction to this 59-year-old woman.  The same was true of her 89-year-old mother, to whom I had expressed similar sentiment.

A Spanish instructor in Oaxaca finally corrected the slight grammatical difference in the two very different ways of “liking someone.” To think that dozens of Oaxacans sat silently, politely listening to my somewhat sexual sentiment towards my hosts speaks to their nearly universal politeness and my miscalculation that high school Spanish would prepare me for the complete cultural immersion I desired.

Teachers early on warned me of a few slippery slopes for Spanglish speakers.  For instance, unless you surely have a baby in your belly, don’t express embarrassment with the phrase, “estoy embarazada.” The exclamation for excitement, “estoy exitada,” has a time and place, but it ought to be avoided in both professional and public settings.

But I never learned that gustar, when referring to a person, means a whole lot more than friendly appreciation.  Even though it translates to “the women fall well at me” in English, I should have used the phrase “las mujeres me caen bien” to express my innocent liking of the lovely ladies that I stayed with.

However, before learning about this verbal trickery, the misunderstanding left me expressing false attraction all around. And I am glad it did.  Acceptance of my inevitable mistakes allowed me to fall right into my rightful place as an American tourist – and behave just as obnoxiously as my compatriots – without any shame.

Before I learned to appreciate my mistakes, I wasn’t my chatty self.  There was plenty that I did not understand when I first got to Oaxaca.  My natural tendency to ask questions would normally kick in, but I remained silent throughout the majority of my early curiosities.  I feared making a grammatical error or stumbling over my words.  Perhaps an inability to perfectly form Spanish sentences with rolling “r’s” would undermine my presence in the Bing Overseas program.

But no matter how hard I tried to hide my ignorance to the language and culture, my touristy self  – even my Palo Alto self – slipped through the cracks: I sought out cafes with WiFi, looked for a yoga studio and expected to find recycling bins in close vicinity.

I nearly ducked and covered at the sound of the tri-daily firework celebrations.  Never once did I venture out alone out of the city center – perhaps at the advisement of my host families and teachers.  I remember thinking on multiple occasions, “I need to do something cultural, like go to a museum or performance.” I did go to a museum on the last day, and that’s where I found all the other tourists in the city.

Ironically, it was the moments in which I allowed my inner tourist to come out that I made the strongest connections to Oaxacans.  A foundation of any tourist-local relationship is the question and answer conversation. Basic questions worked the best. For example, in relation to food, I always asked, what am I eating? Is it traditionally Oaxacan?  Can I make it at home?  And to get my local counterparts really going, I asked, what do you think of the government?  Tell me about the Oaxacan youth.  For me, it was all about making it clear that I knew absolutely nothing, but wanted to know more.

An accidental victory on my part in getting to know some locals was my touristic tendency to get lost.  Perhaps it was the anxiety that I radiated on the bus that brought out the compassion of the Oaxacans.  Or maybe it was my effort to get off in the middle of a busy street that encouraged the bus driver to direct me to a more appropriate departure point.

And when a friend and I got separated from our group without methods of communication, members of the Oaxacan police force and passersby attempted to reunite us, as if the whole city was looking out for our safety.

Going out of my way to find great views was another favorite tourist activity of mine.  I was a fan of rooftop restaurants and taking pictures at the sunset.  Climbing the stairs of Monte Alban and then hiking down into the village through the somewhat aggressive plant community was a tourist activity right up my alley.  Yet, however clichéd my actions were, I tapped into the one thing that everyone in Oaxaca, native or one-time visitor, shares: the beauty of city.

So, Oaxacans, as much as I would love to be a part of your rich culture, as much as I wish Spanish class would give me the answers to find cultural immersion, the best I can do is admire and accept my place as a regular visitor and resident tourist.  No amount of grammar memorization, wardrobe alterations or consumption of Mexican food will change that.

Get ready for my inevitable Spanish mistakes; I’ll embrace your laughter and confusion.  We’ll enjoy remembering these silly moments with chapulines (yes, actual grasshoppers) and mezcal later.  And even though I will never fit into the Oaxacan population, as a tourist, I’ll appreciate your generous hospitality, explanations and directions. All the more, I have a front row seat over the whole city – and it’s not a bad view at all.


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