For the most part, I really enjoy living in Bogota, the somewhat sophisticated, progressive capital city of Colombia. The people are educated, friendly and warm and friends are easy to make.
But being an American, I’m kind of used to doing you’re my own thing and taking care of myself. In fact, independence and self-sufficiency are much admired qualities in the U.S. Not the case here, where mothers, grandmothers, aunts, female neighbors and friends cannot come to terms with the fact that a 25 year-old is perfectly capable of feeding, dressing and taking care of herself. Coming from a home where no one thought you’d starve if left to your own devises, it’s initially shocking the amount of interest everyone takes in knowing what you’re going to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, where you’re going, what route you’re taking, what you’re going to wear, how you plan to do your hair and what Laundromat you plan to take your dirty clothes to. Whatever your answer, there’s always a better way to do things.
A heightened sense of danger and disease is another common characteristic of Colombian women, particularly mothers and grandmothers. Because watching the news is such an integral part of the day (there’s the morning, afternoon and night news, plus radio news) older women hear about every single violent incident that’s happened in the country multiple times a day. This means, for example, that if I want to go to the internet cafe about 100 feet away from my grandmother’s building to print something out after 6pm (when it gets dark), my grandmother gets panicky and says she’ll go with me because otherwise, I’ll get (at the very least) robbed at knifepoint. I know Colombia is dangerous, but her predictions seem a little excessive, especially considering there are about a dozen security guards between her building and the Internet café. Besides, no 25 year-old wants to be chaperoned to the internet cafe by her grandmother.
Then there is the obsession with colds. In the U.S., no one is going to feel too sorry for you if you catch a cold. Everyone catches a cold at least once a year, but it’s no big deal. In Colombia, the word gripa is uttered with great trepidation. The way my grandmother and great aunts fret about me catching a cold, you’d think they were talking about Ebola or some other deadly condition. Even when it’s a sunny 70 degrees, I have to wear a scarf and jacket or else –le va dar gripa, mijita. I’ve tried explaining that in the U.S., the weather gets much chillier than Bogota during the winter months, yet somehow we’ve managed to survive over the years without succumbing to deadly colds. But supposedly, the cold in Bogota is more penetrating and dangerous than in the U.S., and a scarf and sweater are essential.
My grandmother often laments the fact that in the U.S., no one cares about anyone else. She thinks mothers don’t care what their kids eat or don’t eat (major preoccupation with food here) and if your neighbor dies, the only way anyone would notice is because of the smell. I’ve tried to explain to her that the reason there’s a lower level of involvement in the U.S. is because people are raised to take care of themselves. By the time we reach our twenties, getting dressed, feeding ourselves, getting around and dealing with life is something we’re prepared to do; it’s not necessarily that no one cares about anyone else; it’s just that we have faith in other people’s ability to make their own decisions and take care of themselves. But my arguments are to no avail here; what I consider over involvement is considered human warmth here.
I have several theories on overbearing women in Colombia. First and foremost, it’s a cultural thing. Women are raised to think about others and take care of everyone else before themselves. It’s considered impolite not to show intense interest/involvement in the lives of others. Secondly, the generally low-quality of Colombian husbands might mean that as a way to avoid future loneliness, Colombian mothers raise their children to be totally dependent in order to keep them close. For whatever reason, it seems Colombian women of a certain age believe that they know best and no one can do it as well as them. Here, a mother and her friends think it’s wonderful if a 55 year-old son lives with his mother and tends to her every need; in fact, this seems to be a lot of mothers’ ideal situation.
I guess it’s these cultural differences that makes you realize how deeply engrained culture is. I’m just glad my parents took an American approach to raising us. Although I guess if I’d been raised here, I wouldn’t know any different.