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Thursday, 7 August 2008


Culture Shock
Land 'O Lakes, Florida.
By Ron Alonzo
A fly on the wall.

Growing up in another culture, yet still being American, I remember when I was invisible in the action taking place around me.

I grew up in Mexico as an American, which means –- when Americans are in public -- you are guest in Mexico. So, in other words, don't embarrass the US or your father's company. Blend in as best you can. As a boy, I learned quickly if you traveled on public transportation with an American buddy, never speak English. Why? Because a native would always ask, ' Porque no hablan en cristiano, muchachos.' ' Why don't you speak in "Christian," boys?' ('Christian,' of course, meant Spanish).
No argument. We learned their culture and learned to speak as well as the natives, or even better. I was not going to be an 'Ugly American' -– a 'Gringo' -– not a nice word for the neighbour from up north.

I left Mexico in 1957, and a lot has changed since then. But I've been back on business and, with my family, for holidays.

Since I look like an American when I speak Spanish, local people are really stunned that I speak as well as they do and understand the culture.

This leads me to the 'fly on the wall' concept.

Once, I was on a business meeting in Cancun, in a restaurant/bar, when an American lady in her 50's and seemingly on vacation, walked in from the pool or the beach and siddled up to the bar. She asked a lemon for her drink. That was it. A lemon. The barman obliged her with several slices on a plate.

Despite this, the woman became irritated, screaming, ''I do not want limes, and I want lemons!'

Huh? Remember. I was listening in.

The bartender spoke enough English to know she was annoyed, and he insisted that the leomons he gave her were the best he could provide.

The woman really picked up the volume, and shouted, 'What is wrong with you people down here? You don't know the difference between a lime and a lemon.'

She stomped away, in her best 'I-am -a- US- taxpayer-and-I'm-unhappy -with- the -service-here' mode.
I wondered. Should I get involved? What would you explain to her? That ir's a 'limon' in Spanish and, in English, a 'lemon.' Why, them do they look different?

Do you really want to give her a history lesson that when lemons came to Europe from Asia, the yellow lemon ended up for moderate climates and sub-tropical climates and the green lemon went to tropical environments and ended up going with Turkish traders to northern Africa and into Spain. Spain was occupied by the Islamic Arabs from the Seventh Century to 1492.

Maybe Americans miss that in their history lessons, not part of the Anglo-Saxon heritage. I'm sure the yellow lemon was brought to North America by Italians. Yes, we do love our yellow lemon.

When Spain discovered the New World, and after the Treaty of Tordesillas created the New World, the

Conquistadores returned to Spain with the green limon. Hello, Key West limes. Ring a bell?

Ceviche (or seviche), a fresh fish cocktail concoction marinated in lime juice in Latin America. is made of limon. It's not better or worse, you just use what you have.

I 've always wondered if that woman at that poolside bar in Mexico ever learned the truth about her lemons. The bartender, I reckoned, was mostly, if not 100 percent, Maya, and he would have never known that lemons in the United States are yellow.

Fly on the wall.

Sometimes it's just not Americans. I remember a Mexican friend. We were in in Puerto Rico, and he knew the word in Spanish, but he didn't know its several definitions when away from home.

It was first away from Mexico, at a conference in San Juan, and he felt like a stroll to find a breakfast place. In the 1960's along the Condado there were great snack bars along the road. My friend was in the mood for a good breakfast, and ordered two scrambled eggs. He also noticed that the snack bar served tortillas. He ordered three. The wait staff said the tortillas came in three varieties -– chorizo, cheese, and ham. He told his waiter that he'd one of each.

Sure enough, it all came together, and he saw that there were three omelets. He was confused, and then in dawned on him that in Spanish, that is Puerto Rican Spanish, the last bastion of Spain in America, a tortilla is an omelet. In Mexico a tortilla is a corn flour pancake.

In the States, we have 'Venetian blinds.' In Latin America, they are 'persianas.'
In Spain, 'mantequilla' is butter, and in Italy it's 'burro.' You'll get more than you bargained if you order 'burro' in Spain for your toast.

When we make these faux pas, there's a'ways a fly on the wall nearby.