By Art Emig
November 1999 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 3, Number 16

Recently our esteemed El Ojo Editor in Chief Alejandro Grattan penned an editorial contrasting how children are raised in the U.S. versus Mexico. His concluding paragraph read, "The United States has taught its southern neighbor many beneficial lessons. It is time the U.S. now learned a few things from Mexico." The current article, based on personal experience and observation, expands upon Grattan's notion.

Having retired in May 1998 from the University of South Alabama, I spent much of June and July in Ajijic exploring the possibility of living here. I had decided to keep a daily journal during my visit to record the pluses and minuses of prospective lakeside retirement. Ultimately, the journal turned into a study of contrasts between the U.S. and Mexican people, their systems and their cultures, with Mexico consistently emerging as superior. What follows are selected excerpts.

My first entry was just after arrival at the Guadalajara airport. In the U.S., and every place else where I've gone through customs, the decision to open and physically inspect luggage is based on some custom agent's subjective judgment of an individual's appearance. The process has always made me feel a little like I'd been involuntarily thrust into some sort of weird beauty contest. And being "passed through" would leave me with the sensation that my "looks" had "won!" (I dread to think of what paranoia would have resulted had I ever been "detained.") So I was delighted with Mexico's system where each incoming passenger presses a button which randomly chooses a green light (pass right on through) or a red one (stop to have your bags inspected).

I've since been told the customs agents can override the random selection to force a red light if there "appears" to be reason to do so. Fine. I have no problem with that. The main point here is that Mexico's system at least appears to be vastly more civilized–and certainly a lot more humanistic and traveler-friendly–than that in the U.S. (Score: Mexico 1, U.S. 0.)

The next selected entry involves an experience which occurred during my first week in the area. My real estate agent, Ellie, was going to Ocotlan on business, and she invited me along. The two-lane road we followed had paved shoulders on either side, and before long I said to Ellie, "I can't believe it."

"Can't believe what?"
"That drivers in both directions are moving onto the shoulders to let faster drivers pass." "Well," she said, "why shouldn't they?"

Indeed, why shouldn't they? But just before I left the U.S. there had been several media reports about incidents of "road rage" in California and Florida where motorists had been shot and killed by other drivers for such behavior (in the killers' minds at least) as driving too slow in the "fast" lane. The behavior I was observing here–drivers respecting the pace of other drivers–stood out in sudden, sharp contrast to the U.S. road rage phenomenon. (As a postscript, I later discovered that this voluntarily converting a two-lane road into essentially one with a center passing lane is not confined to a particular stretch of highway. While driving from the U.S. to Ajijic last January, I found that, after you wend your way through the "peligras curvas" out of Saltillo, the road from there to Matehuala is configured exactly the same, and the exact same drivers' courtesy is demonstrated.)

I'm sure many people reading this are probably feeling the need to counter my account with some horror story about their own Mexican road experiences. I, too, have witnessed some pretty dumb driving here. I'll make two points in this regard: a) as often as not, the dumb driving I've seen was committed by drivers of U.S. or Canadian-plated vehicles, or Mexican-plated cars with non-Mexican drivers; and b) in 51 years of driving all over the U.S. and some parts of Canada, I've never observed the road courtesy practice I've just described. It may happen in some areas of those countries; I've just never seen it. (By my count, it's Mexico 2, U.S. 0.)

Two journal entries are from the same day. Over several weeks, Ellie and I had surveyed between 25 and 30 houses for sale. Upon emerging from the most recent one I commented, "I haven't seen one square inch of carpeting anywhere." "Of course," Ellie replied. "Almost all floors in this area are either tiled or earthen. We haven't looked at any of the latter. Do you want to?"

"I'll pass," I said. "But in U.S. houses, I'd guess that 90 percent or more are carpeted. That's quite a contrast." "Well," she responded, "don't you think that a broom, soap and water, and a mop will get things a lot cleaner than a vacuum cleaner ever could?" (Mexico 3, U.S. still 0.)

About this house we'd just seen I said, "The second bedroom is a bit small."
"Large enough for a matrimonial bed," she replied.
Another insightful contrast. In the U.S. our various bed sizes include king (or California king), queen, twin and the size we commonly call "double" and which the bedding industry labels "full." But in Mexico, I now discover, this bed is known as "matrimonial."

The U.S. "double" obviously suggests a bed large enough for two people. Which could mean any two people. By contrast, "matrimonial" seems to send a very clear message: if two people are going to climb, crawl or otherwise get into the same bed together, they damned well had better be married! And to each other.

As for the U.S. bedding industry's use of the alternative term "full," what does this suggest? That you can keep piling people into the bed until it's full ?

Now, I am not so naive as to believe that no two people in Mexico who are not married–to each other–ever get in bed together. The point is that as a term for a bed, "matrimonial" seems vastly morally superior to the potentially promiscuous "double" or the outrageously orgiastic "full." (Mexico 4, U.S. zip.)

Some journal entries are simply descriptive observations. For example:
* The sight of smiling siblings of all ages walking down the street hand in hand. One can see this in the U.S., but there it's a rarity. Here it's commonplace.

* There's no self-service at Pemex stations. And the fine young people working there will not even remove the hose nozzle from its pump cradle if a person has left their motor running or is smoking a cigarette. To me, that seems a lot more civilized than having some Bubba in the next fuel lane pumping his own gas with a lit Marlboro dangling from his lips and running the risk of blowing you, himself, and everything within a three-block radius to smithereens.

Several other entries require only a few words each to illustrate the Mexico-U.S. contrasts:
* Village plazas with gazebos.
* Term limits for all elected officials.
* Siestas.
* Fiestas.
* Strict enforcement of gun control laws.

Finally, while walking the village's cobblestone streets, I began orienting my ear to Espanol by listening for predominant phrases. In the mornings I heard, and soon started participating in, many exchanges of "buenos dias." And at all times one hears "gracias" being used constantly.

I then reflected on the predominant phrase one similarly hears in the U.S. Two words leapt to mind:
"I'm sorry."

We (I included) seem to forever be saying it. We say it even when we've done nothing to be sorry for. A grocery clerk points out that the milk carton we've selected is leaky.

"I'm sorry."

Or we inadvertently give the clerk a $10 bill when it should have been a $20.
"I'm sorry."
Or a friend you haven't seen in a month calls and tells you he has a cold.
"I'm sorry." Like how in hell could his having a cold possibly be your fault?
In his 1996 book "Finish Strong," Richard Capen, former U.S. Ambassador to Spain and long-time publisher of the Miami Herald, laments on page 144:
Two of the most compassionate words in the English language are "Thank you," and it drives me crazy when people refuse to use them even for the slightest courtesy: a job well done, a service rendered, a door held open, a good meal, a thoughtful comment. Thank-yous convey compassion, and they inspire it in return.

As Alejandro Grattan said, maybe we in the U.S. should begin learning a few things from Mexico. For instance, if we spent more time and effort saying "Thank You" and "Good Morning" to each other, perhaps there would be far less need for all those "I'm Sorrys."

(Final score: Mexico, a whole bunch; U.S.--I'm sorry--nada.)