Proud to be an "Ugly American"

Driving through the center of town in order to get to the edge of La Cancha can be trying on any day, but when that day is a Saturday… which is a feria / Great Big Stinkin’ Shopping day… driving is an adventure. A very slow adventure.

I went to the edge of La Cancha, 25 de Mayo and Brasil, in order to get small fireworks. I was caught at one intersection in particular for about five minutes, sitting behind a bus. After a bit I heard loud talking to my left, so I looked:

A young woman holding an infant on the sidewalk was being poked and prodded in the shoulder by an older woman wearing indigenous dress. The older woman was clearly trying to help – the girl’s baby-holding-sling was digging deep into her shoulder because her sweater had come out from the edge. The woman was trying to tweak it to fit the problem while the girl kept shrugging her off.

At first I thought that the older woman was a stranger just being very helpful, but then I noticed that the interaction was much more that of mother and daughter. The mother saw a problem and kept trying to Fix Seen Problem while the daughter very much just wanted to be Left Alone, Thank You. The scene was sweet and amusing; some interactions transcend mere culture because they are fundamentally human.

The women were accompanied by a man the approximate age of the mother, and I presume that he was the husband/father. He kept staring at me in my car a few feet away. I wasn’t staring back, but I did look at them repeatedly over the course of the couple minutes it took them to rearrange themselves. I was enjoying the scene, and not much else was in my vicinity except the back of a big, ugly city bus right in front of me. I had my Friendly Face on; it’s the sort of non-committal but genuine face that people use when eye contact is made with strangers in the States. The Friendly Face is very much a cultural face, I think. I don’t see it often here in Bolivia.

The man said something that included “encantada”, or enchanted. His tone was not, however, thrilled. I wasn’t paying much attention. He said it again, and I looked at them. They were all staring at me! He was clearly angry, the daughter was wide-eyed and baffled, and the mother was stern.

“Pardon?” I asked.

He shook his fist at me.

I repeated, “Pardon?”

“Why are you so amused? Why do you smile because she has a problem with her clothes and baby? [insert another couple of very angry, loudly yelled sentences that I didn’t catch in time]”

Naturally, this is just when traffic began to move. Also naturally, I didn’t have a clue how to phrase a response.

I had to move slowly forward with traffic, but I leaned out my window and gestured as my pidgin Spanish came out something like, “I don’t have a problem with you all! I only have happy for you! Only happy!”

Oh yeah. I’m articulate. The Spanish profs should be proud.

The daughter stayed wide-eyed, the mother looked wounded, and he was doing some combination of a grumble-snarl (grarl?). It took them another 30 seconds for them to walk past me again. My mind was working on the double, trying somehow to scrounge up the words:

“Your interactions make me happy!” Right. That sounds like a superior gringa response.

“I just think your family is sweet!” How can I explain that to someone who is snarling at me?

“You’re just like every other family in the world!” Um. That’ll be less offensive to him, sure.

None of this came out, though, when they walked past. They were ignoring me staunchly, although he was still muttering. I desperately tried to come up with some non-offensive, politically correct way of saying,

“Hi! I was people watching! You were two feet away from me! I have much respect for you and other members in your communities here in Cochabamba. Your family is adorable because you’re just like everyone else in the world, not that you should be unlike anyone else, and not that you’re trivialized or belittled in any way by my observation, it’s just humbling to see that everyone is so inherently alike while being so unique, and, and, and…”

It can’t be done. Especially not to someone intent on taking offense at a small, idiotic thing by which no condescension or rudeness was intended. Especially not with my linguistic skills. Especially not in a 15 second snippet with them on foot and me in car.

Minutes later, I realized what more completely I wanted to express.

“Get over it! I took joy in your family’s expression of care, love, and help for one another. You’re in public! Cope! Would you rather that I were as vitriolic and hateful as you? Wouldn’t your life be happier, fundamentally better, if you lived in a community that was accustomed to smiling and enjoying one another instead of assuming that others are mocking?”

Strangely, that much more direct approach could actually be said here. I didn’t, of course, and couldn’t even if I had been willing.

Just one more man convinced that there’s another ugly, mocking gringa in town… and all because that’s what he wanted and expected to see.

I have seen racism in Cochabamba, albeit rarely. I’ve seen it on three sides of the community:

The middle-class Bolivian pushing the indigenous woman aside like trash (a few times).

The gringo missionaries telling racist jokes, using racist language, and/or being generally racist pigs (three families/individuals, although one family has since left country).

The indigenous Bolivian treating gringos or more urban Bolivians with scorn.

Frankly, though, I haven’t seen it often. Cochabamba isn’t like that. Even if that man has experienced the hate of others, he has no excuse to assume that it is the norm.

There are moments when I long to be back in some parts of the States, in an environment which is comfortable. A cultural environment where smiling at others and greeting strangers kindly, or stopping to have a chat or help someone rearrange a heavy, awkward bundle is the norm, not the aberration. I have those moments of homesickness, but then I snap back to the present and am more determined to smile even more openly and to greet strangers more assuredly.

I am an American Gringa. Face it, I will foist my culture upon you:

I will smile and wish you a good morning.

Beware.

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