Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dance Lessons

Sometimes I think I'm little too gringa for a little place like Huajuapan de León.

And by gringa, I mean American female -- specifically the stubborn-as-hell, raised-to-be-independent-and speak-her-mind, grew-up-playing-in-the-mud-and-building-tree-forts, drinks-tequilla-straight-from-the-bottle, likes-to-outrun-boys-and-laugh-about-it kind of American female that I consider myself to be.

Gals like me are a dime a dozen back in the States. We're sometimes a lot to handle, but we're usually (albeit sometimes begrudgingly) accepted. But it ain't that way in the rest of the world. Gender roles are still a bit more traditional in other places. And here in Mexico, especially here in small-town Mexico, where machismo is alive and well in some aspects of society, most women are raised to be more quiet, reserved, and -- let's face it -- well behaved.

I'm different. I stick out. And it gets me in trouble sometimes.

The kind of things that I wouldn't think twice about doing at home -- for example, going on my morning run in shorts (not short-shorts, mind you, just regular old shorts), dancing a little too close to a good friend at a wedding reception (it was hip-hop, come on people), and speaking my mind (or just forgetting to keep my mouth shut) -- have drawn some rather unwanted attention here in my new digs South of the Border.

Cat calls in the street and some dirty looks. Nothing I can't handle.

But I want to nip this stuff in the proverbial bud. The way I see it, living abroad is a two-way street. You've got to give a little to get a little. That means I've got to respect the local culture and act right, but at the same time, nobody's asking me to compromise so much of myself that I lose my identity. I'm here to learn about my host country and culture -- and to offer whatever I can from my own country and culture. We're different, but we're also more alike that we realize. Blah blah blah.

But lately, I feel like I've been a little too gringa. Maybe it's because, for the most part, I feel pretty comfortable in Mexico. I've lived here before. It's a helluva lot closer to Chicago -- geographically and culturally and linguistically -- than Japan was. I -- despite what my Mexican friends might say to me in jest -- do speak the language. It feels so much like home that sometimes I forget I'm not home.

And that's where the problem begins.

This struggle -- between being my gringa self and trying to fit in a little bit -- came to a head last night at salsa class. A lovely man named Moises has become my regular dance partner, God bless him: He's either a glutton for punishment or extremely charitable. Moises started classes just a week before I did, so we're both technically still beginners. But, being Mexican and, apparently, having the ability to dance pre-programmed into his DNA, Moises has a leg up on me.

(This stereotype goes both ways. A Mexican friend of mine recently remarked on his observation of the Caucasian American's inability to dance, prompting what eventually led to the aforementioned hip hop showdown at the wedding reception, but I digress...)

Moises has threatened to start charging me 10 pesos for every time I step on his toes. At this point, three weeks into the class, I basically owe him my next paycheck. But, overall, he's a good sport. We laugh a lot at what are usually my mistakes. He's patient when I ask him to drill the same three moves over and over because I can't seem to get them right.

But even laid-back Moises draws the line somewhere: I can't try to lead.

No! No! No! No! No! The female lead is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of salsa dancing. If you think about it, dance is kind of a microcosm of the macho aspect of Mexican society: Gender roles are strictly defined here. Black and white. I'm the girl. I'm supposed to smile and look pretty and spin a lot. Moises is the boy. He gets to tell me what to do. Period.

As might be expected, the stubborn, shorts-wearing gringa in me struggles with this concept a bit. And it's not just because I'm a crappy dancer -- I mean, all that spinning makes me dizzy! (Read: Sarcasm.) It got so bad last night that Moises stopped me mid-dip last night to deliver a stern reminder:

Acuérdate. Yo manejo la orquesta. (Remember. I conduct the orchestra.)

Touché. Point taken. I need to loosen up. I need to go with Moises' flow. We'll both dance better.

And I need to go with the flow. Period. No more mouthing off -- in English or in Spanish. No more running in shorts. No more swilling tequilla from the bottle (I'll use a glass!). We'll all get along better. I'll be happier here. And Huajuapan will be happier with me.

I'll let the man drive (or lead or conduct or whatever). No problem. Now, I just need to prove that I'm not so gringa that I can't learn how to salsa...

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