Anyone interested in real cross-cultural travel or living in another culture has to face culture shock: that “Iloveithateitloveit” experience of dealing with real everyday life. I lived in México for 20 years. These reflections are based primarily in Latin culture, but really apply to any cross-cultural experience. I have seen a lot of North Americans in many different contexts in other cultures. There are three gringos out there I think. Yes, I know gringo itself is a term with mixed meanings and certainly mixed messages; but you know, I am one. That isn’t the issue for me. I accept the term, I am a gringo. The three gringos I speak of come from personal reflection I did after reading Carlos Fuentes book El Gringo Viejo.
I was sad to hear that Fuentes died last year. He was a wonderful author. Gringo Viejo (The Old Gringo) was very popular here in the United States. It tells the story of “the old gringo,” who is always unamed in the book, Harriet Winslow, a school teacher, and Tomás Arroyo, a General in Pancho Villa’s División del Norte. Now this blog is not so much about the book as it is about the two North American characters, Winslow and El Viejo. It is amazing how Fuentes really could capture not just two stereotypical gringos as much as two distinct ways of confronting Latin culture in the two characters. What I think is important is that there is a third gringo, which is another way to encounter culture. Culture shock is a natural reaction shared by everyone, and how it is handled is of great significance. One person might go on to love the culture and feel at home in it, while another will always be a stranger.
Let me add by the way, that it isn’t just North Americans that act like this. It happens everywhere and with many people, Euros and Asians too. That is really what is important to consider. When you do try to experience another culture, other people, places and events, conflict and attraction with one’s own culture is bound to happen.
One reaction to culture shock and a way of encountering culture is how the Gringo Viejo reacts. He says clearly in the book: “He has come to México to die.” If it was only death he was after, I suppose he could have found it in the US. He comes to use the Mexican Revolution as a way of going out in a blaze of glory and wants to just use and take from what is happening. In so doing he exploits, he destroys, and he wastes. He is the antithesis of Winslow. The Gringo Viejo has come to die – and he does. He is shot by Arroyo, then propped up and shot again by a firing squad demanded by Villa himself.
The First Gringo is just that. Whether it is the college student going down to the border or the people at the all-inclusive that are drunk by 11 AM, some people come to Mexico or other foreign destinations to just use it up. It is almost like they think that is what travel is for, take and disregard the consequences. The First Gringo looks at another culture and asks: “What can I get out of it?” This type of gringo ends up just like the gringo Viejo, put up against a wall and shot, literally or figuratively even after they are already dead, dead in a very real sense. The reaction of the culture and the results of their own actions leave them like that. They visit another place, but not another culture. The First Gringo always gets shot. These are the people who after being out all night drinking wonder why they get mugged at 2 AM and then blame “the violent culture of Latin America.” The First Gringo doesn’t get it that the system is not there for his personal gratification.
The character of Harriet Winslow typifies the gringo who comes to “save the little brown children.” She thinks she can change everything with a bit of “right” education and washing. She pictures herself as the great salvation of the culture. If she does turn at the end of the novel, it is only after some harsh circumstances. The Second Gringo is always looking to fix something: Give me three weeks they say and I’ll fix the traffic here, or the banks, or the government or something. This type of gringo (and forgive the expression) “se lleva a la chingada”. That is what happens to Harriet Winslow. Rather than being put up against the wall and shot she gets screwed over literally and figuratively. The Second Gringo doesn’t get it that the system doesn’t need fixing.
There is however, a Third Gringo. This one seeks to live, love and learn from the other culture while participating in it, not just being present in it. While Fuentes never speaks directly of this kind of person in Gringo Viejo I still want the character to be there somehow. I want there to be a gringo that says Ya basta (enough), the Revolution is a revuelta (an overturing and return), the land should go back, the children do need education, but not your pity. I want a gringo who says: don’t come down here to get drunk and pay your mordidas; quit trying to make everything look like Oklahoma or Ohio or Texas.
The Third Gringo learns to live in the culture not use it or fix it. They learn how to understand issues like time, space, and worldview. They honestly try to not fit in or actually be a native, but not to stick out either. They learn not to wear shorts in Mexico City and they learn how to ride the public transportation. They don’t live in fear, but with a healthy caution that avoids dangerous situations. This learning and living is exciting. It deepens perspective, creates a new sense of being and most of all, wakes up the wonder of the other.
But mostly the Third Gringo learns to love the other culture. Now I don’t mean they learn to accept or like everything, but they do learn that the other culture, those millions of people who are the other culture, need a response of at least listening love. Loving the culture and the people means I think reacting to culture shock by saying “Ok, I don’t like this necessarily, but I do want to learn about it.” It may be a way of thinking or a cultural practice that one never learns to enjoy. Being able to react to your own reactions, positive or negative, with a healthy openness and a sense of understanding is what I think cross-cultural experiences are about.
“The illiterate of the 21st century,” Alvin Toffler said, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” For me, Toffler says it in this phrase. In order to deal with culture shock, one needs to learn, unlearn, then learn about the other person and who they are. Overcoming culture-shock happens by being literate in Toffler’s sense about the other culture, its ways of being, doing and seeing things. To live in cross-cultural literacy is to put aside self, stop trying to remake the other culture in your own value system, and learning and unlearning in order to learn again.
There are three gringos. The first two react to culture shock by centering on self or by trying to fix the other. The Third Gringo, the one I really want to be, learns to live, love, learn and laugh even when there is a crash of cultural understanding. It is not always easy to do that, but it does bring great rewards.
Dr. Michael McAleer
If you are interested in cross-cultural training of any kind drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2013 Michael McAleer & Third Gringo Productions