In the US, we're taught from a young age that we should avoid talking about politics, religion, or money in polite company. Such protocols are practically nonexistent in Latin America, though, where everything, from presidential elections to the cost of your rent to how much weight you've gained since you arrived, is fair game for conversation.
By virtue of being from the US, you'll find yourself having certain types of discussions on a fairly regular basis about many of the same general topics. You'll get used to it eventually, but some of these conversations can seem weird, off-putting or even crazy at first. And yes, you're granted to run into some garden-variety weirdos and conspiracy theorists over the course of your travels, just like you would in any other part of the world, but plenty of these conversations emerge from genuine curiosity, misconceptions or stereotypes about what it's like to live in the US and what people here are actually like.
Depending on the topic, it can sometimes be hard not to get defensive. I'm a huge critic of lots of things about US culture and politics, but my defenses still went up when people from other countries calmly informed me that my country was racist (as if theirs isn't!), and I was about ready to punch the next person who told me I couldn't possibly be from the US because gringos don't look the way I look.
From the enlightening to the bizarre, here are some of the conversations you can expect to have with locals about your complex, often controversial home country.
One of my other gringa friends abroad says taxi drivers often ask her about "that Obama guy, like we're pals or something." This definitely isn't exclusive to her, either -- many of us abroad find ourselves being asked to explain or justify our home country's political actions (or lack thereof) as if we were all experts on the inner workings of DC, or asked to give our opinion on Obama as if we had weekly brunch with him and Michelle at the White House.
Most of this comes from basic curiosity and a desire to know more -- people are aware that only certain information makes its way to other countries, and they're eager to find out if the reality matches the image they have, or sometimes just to treat you to a 20-minute lecture on exactly what they think about Obama's foreign policy.
This gets especially fun during US election seasons. Because of the long history of US interference in Latin American politics and the regional effects of our immigration and drug policy, as well as the fact that many Latin Americans just like to stay informed about regional and global politics in general, many people have a vested interest in the outcome of US presidential elections. I was abroad during the 2012 presidential race, and just about everyone I knew wanted to talk about who I was voting for, what I thought about the candidates or what outcome I (or they) hoped for.
Two weeks before I moved back to the US, the ever-charming Donald Trump made his infamous comments in which he referred to Mexicans as criminals and “rapists.”
Despite the fact that Mexico isn't even on the same continent as Colombia, it was big news in the Andes – and throughout the entire region. All of my friends (and the taxi drivers, of course) wanted to know what I thought about the comments, and several people anxiously asked me if he had a real chance of winning. We sometimes think that the insanity of our political system is confined to our own borders, but the reality is that our politics affect people across the world, so they care about what happens here too and they want to stay informed.
Good luck ever trying to explain the electoral college to anyone in Spanish, though. Here's a tip: give up now, it's hopeless. Even you probably don't actually understand it.
Race and Diversity
This is an extremely common one, especially in the last year or so, with the series of high-profile police shootings and subsequent protests around the country.
While it's encouraging on the one hand that these stories are getting international coverage to the point that people a whole continent away have some sense of the ongoing injustice here, a lot of the national conversation and nuance around the complex issue of institutional racism in the US gets lost (or never included to begin with) in translation, leaving people with basic summaries like, as one doorman informed me last year, "Police in your country only shoot black people."
Talking about institutional racism is never exactly easy, and it can be especially challenging when you know it's likely that the person you're speaking with doesn't have a full understanding of US history and doesn't know why certain words are especially offensive, or has their own problematic perspectives on racial or ethnic minority groups, either in their own country or in general.
And then there's the fact that we are an incredibly diverse nation of people, in just about every sense. In countries with the vast majority of people belong to one majority ethnic or racial group, it can be hard to visualize what it looks like when people can trace their families back to all different parts of the world -- that you can't just look at a person and know whether she's from here or not. Which brings us to...
A corollary of addressing the racial and ethnic diversity of the US is the ongoing battle you’ll face in trying to explain to people that not every gringo is, in fact, tall, blonde and blue-eyed. This is an especially baffling one, since most of us know very few people that actually fit that description.
Yet for some reason, many outside the US remain convinced that we’re all actually Scandinavian. I can’t even count the number of times Colombians told me I didn’t look like a gringa or insisted I must have Latin American ancestry somewhere in my family, unconvinced by my insistence that no, German Jewish and Latino aren't the same heritage at all.
People have tried to tell me that this misconception comes from movies, but I’m not buying it – seriously, how many US-made movies can you think of in which everyone is tall and blonde with blue eyes? Sorry, Latin America, this one isn't Hollywood's fault for once.
One fun way to throw a wrench into this bizarre stereotype is to just start naming very famous people from the US who don't fit that description at all.
Colombians are inexplicably obsessed with Will Smith, so I'd usually ask them if he had blue eyes. No? Okay, what about the president of the United States? Still no? How about Angelina Jolie? Serena Williams? Once you get through four or five people, the other person will usually get the point and admit that yeah, maybe you're sort of right, not everyone there is secretly Norwegian. You still don't really look like you're from the US, though.
Obesity & Public Health
The US is internationally (in)famous for many things, but this one may take the (literal) cake. Whether it’s that other countries like to point out our staggering obesity statistics to feel comparatively better about their own expanding waistlines, or that many of the folks traveling south from the US do weigh more than our Latin American counterparts, the image of the overweight gringo is alive and well throughout the region.
People have a vague sense that our portions tend to be absurdly large (although I’d like to counter with the pound of white rice included in every Colombian lunch), and that we drink a lot of soda, but they’re often curious to know why we’re all so fat.
This can often lead to interesting conversations about access to healthy food and nutrition -- I explained the concept of food deserts to quite a few Colombian friends, who were all horrified by the idea of a city that didn’t have convenient places to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
Most Latin American urban centers have a well-distributed network of tiendas selling produce, so the idea of a city neighborhood with nothing fresh is totally alien to many people, and can change their perspective on both US cities and public health.
Because of the historically strong agricultural sector and its importance to many communities, a lot of Latin Americans are also deeply interested in issues of food security, GMOs, and corporate farming, especially in rural regions. A joke about poor nutrition habits in the US can sometimes lead to enlightening discussions about the merits and dangers of genetically modified foods, monoculture, and the politics of what we eat.
Economics & Poverty
Movies might actually be to blame for this one, or wealthy cruise-ship tourists, or maybe we’re just more successful at fooling people abroad about our supposedly lavish lifestyle than we are at convincing people here at home who know we can't even afford dental insurance.
Whatever the root cause(s), many people are under the impression that poverty is a non-issue, or at least a minimal one, in the US. One of the other teachers at my school in Bogotá -- an educated, generally well-informed person – once asked me in all seriousness if there were any poor people in the United States. He’s probably still recovering from how loudly I laughed at him, but it was just so absurd that I didn’t know how to respond.
Absurd, yes, but not uncommon. Because most of the gringos that travel to Latin America are people that have the means to travel (or strategically timed their voyage to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate), it’s understandable that the image many Latin Americans have of US residents, based primarily on their own firsthand interactions and life experience, is that we all have money to spend on silly llama-shaped trinkets and overpriced cocktails.
Because of how invisible much of the poorer sectors of the US have become, especially on the international radar, it’s easy to see how people can get the impression that everyone here lives in a fancy McMansion with a robot butler. It’s also true that what we might think of as middle class in our home communities would be much more like upper class in many Latin American communities, so poverty in the US doesn't always look the same as it does in, say, rural Bolivia. Still, just because it doesn't look the same doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or that the effects aren't equally devastating.
This misreading of economic indicators can sometimes go the other way, too. In countries like Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, even lower middle-class urban families pay for an empleada (essentially a housekeeper) who helps with chores like cleaning, cooking and laundry. This is totally normal in major capitals, where labor is brutally cheap, but it's shocking to many of us who grew up in the US and think of having a maid or housekeeper as a luxury that's exclusive to the wealthy. This doesn't mean that every family in Buenos Aires is rich, any more than the existence of TK means that every household in Los Angeles has its own movie theater.
Honestly, I still haven't figured out how to adequately address this issue with people in other countries, and I think most people from the US, especially those of us on the more leftist end of the scale, tend to struggle with this particular topic.
It's not as common as some of the other topics of conversation, but does tend to come up with about as much regularity as mass shootings occur here (which is to say, much more often than it should). It's ironic in some ways that people in countries where military officers can walk around the streets carrying assault weapons like it ain't no thing, or where thousands of people were forcibly disappeared and likely killed by the government, think of their countries as being less violent -- and the sad thing is, they're probably right.
Family and Independence
As anyone who’s spent a little time living in Latin America knows oh so well, many people live with their parents until (or even after) marriage. This is a major cultural difference between Latin American and US culture, and can lead to all kinds of amusing situations and misinterpretations.
One thing that catches most of us gringos off guard is the fact that many people interpret this practice as evidence that we don’t get along with or don’t even like our families, whereas we tend to see it as an important indicator of adulthood and independence. It goes the opposite way, too -- Latinos see themselves as close with their parents while we might see a 30-year-old man whose mother still cooks his lunch and does his laundry for him.
It’s all relative, of course, but this is one of the areas where I’ve noticed the most resistance to adopting the other culture's way of doing things. Most of us would never dream of moving back in with our parents after college unless it was absolutely necessary -- and indeed, doing so is often depicted as a sign of failure, that you’re not a “real” adult.
In contrast, many Latin American young adults continue to contribute to their household, either financially or in other ways, and living alone in a major city is often prohibitively expensive for them. Plus, there’s the mom issue – when one of my friends decided she wanted to get her own apartment at 25 years old, her mother cried and guilt-tripped her for days, seeing it as a clear indication that their daughter didn’t love them anymore.
Trying to explain to random bank tellers that our choice to live on our own (or, god forbid, with strangers that aren’t even related to us) doesn't always have anything to do with our relationship with our parents is an uphill battle at best, and many people remain unconvinced that we’re capable of loving our families when we live so far away from them. Still, this conversation can be an important reminder for both sides that just because we’re used to one custom doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it, especially if it means someone else will do our laundry.
Don't Shy Away from Hard Conversations
Living in Latin America is a powerful, life-changing experience in many ways. Making friends and even just talking to people across the region will help make you more politically conscious, learn about history they never taught you in school, draw connections to the impact of US foreign (and domestic) policy beyond our own borders and redefine the way you see the world. You may even stop referring to yourself as "American" (see how I didn't do that anywhere in this article?) after the tenth time a friend reminds you that, technically, we're all Americans, since we all live in the Americas.
Just think of it as a test to see if you'd be a good ambassador -- because if you can't even be diplomatic with your friends during a discussion of fast food and nutrition, imagine how much harder it would be to talk politely with your enemies about something like nuclear arms.Feature photo by Natasha Krol.