A European friend recently told me he found Americans to be very superficial, far more than Colombians. Initially, I was offended. While MTV and E! might make it seem like we all sit around in big houses thinking about what we’re going to wear to the club, the vast majority of people I interact with on a daily basis in the U.S are not those kinds of people. Maybe the DC area is not exactly representative of the U.S, but it goes to show that everything is relative. I can’t help wondering if my perceptions of superficial vs. non-superficial or cool vs. uncool are actually “correct,” or they’re just my perceptions.
Take the ultimate DC-er. Let’s say he’s 29. He works for a Non-profit, has a master’s degree in, let’s say, public administration and makes $43,000 a year. Obviously, he does’t make enough to rent his own place (much less buy his own house) so he lives in a run-down but highly desired 60 year-old Arlington house. He rides his bike to work everyday (wearing a suit, sneakers, helmut and backpack), is progressive in his politics, plays ultimate frisbee on Saturday. Maybe he doesn’t even own a car. I’d date this guy in the U.S and would never really think to categorize him as a loser.
In Colombia, this guy would be perceived as doing it all wrong. First of all, a 29 year-old should have his own apartment or should be living at home saving to buy his own apartment because being 29, losing money on rent and living with a bunch of other 29 year-olds is just stupid. He has a master’s, therefore should be making a whole lot more money and should definitely not be so stupid as to work for a non-profit. Also, what kind of professional wants to live in an old house, especially with so many other people? The whole biking to work thing is a joke and he looks ridiculous in his biking attire. This is not a “buen partido” as Colombians would say.
I wonder why leaving home is so important to us. It doesn’t matter that you’re leaving a very comfortable, all-expenses paid home with liberal parents — you’d rather live in a 50 year old rambler in a sketchy part of town with four other twenty-somethings and live pay check to pay check. I guess this means you’ve made it. It might not be much, but you’re on your own and you’re living your life how you want to. I guess independence is much more valued in the U.S than here in Colombia.
I started thinking about all this because yesterday, my boyfriend helped me move out a lot of my clothes form my old apartment to my grandma’s apartment. I knew exactly what he needed to do and how he needed to act to make a good impression on my grandma.
(1) Owning an apartment. This is probably the number one thing a young person in Colombia can do to be impressive. My boyfriend doesn’t own a home so he falls short in this category. However, because he is only 29 (young by Colombian standards and still normal to live at home) he is forgiven.
(2) Owning a car. Next to an apartment, this is the next most impressive factor. My boyfriend just bought a car. A big car. I knew this would be the best factor working in his favor in terms of getting my grandmother’s approval. I guess this makes sense in a country where acquiring expensive material goods is not easy. He asked me if I’m jealous of all the female attention he believes he will get with his new car. I asked him if women would really be impressed by a nearly ten-year old Korean car and he said that a car is a car. So I told him to remember I liked him pre-car.
(3) The way a person is dressed. You don’t go out in sweatpants in Bogota, not even to the grocery store around the corner. I can put my hair up, get dressed (in normal clothes), get ready to leave the apartment and my grandma will tell me I look I look horrible and how can I even think about going out that way, what will people think, et cetera, et cetera. Clothes are really important here. When we were heading out to my grandma’s apartment, my boyfriend through on a blue workshirt. As soon as I saw what he waswearing, I told him that my grandma would like him more in other clothes. So I dressed him up as a rich Bogotano. He put on a violet shirt, black workpants, a mustard colored sports coat and voila — my grandma thinks he’s an amzing dresser and thus, must be a good person.
4.) Paying for stuff (and making sure it’s at a certain level). As soon as I got to my grandma’s apartment, I realized I’d left my computer at my apartment. Sundays are cyclovia days, which makes traveling south almost impossible in the city. Cyclovia doesn’t end until 2pm, so we decided to go to lunch first, then head to my apartment. Of course, this meant inviting grandma, and for my boyfriend, it meant he would be paying. My boyfriend didn’t have much cash on him (I knew my grandma would not take well to me paying any part of the lunch) and suggested a few restaurants that I knew I couldn’t take my grandma too because she would instantly think less of him, because I know that in addition to being generous (by paying for things) it’s important to pay for the right kind of things (right neighborhood, right kind of restaurant, right kind of clintele). So we ended up going to a place by my grandma’s apartment that I knew she’d find acceptable.
You might ask why I would perpetuate these expectations by making my boyfriend wear clothes he usually wouldn’t wear and go to a restaurant he usually wouldn’t go. But the truth is, I like him to much to let him be judged on such minor things. I know that if he had worn his workshirt and taken us to one of the restaurants he likes my grandma would probably have liked him a lot less and in order for her to give him a fair chance, I had to “even the playing field,” so to speak.
So what was the result of all of this? (sorry about the rambling post!) My grandma loved him, told all her friends he has “un don para vestirse,” (a gift for dressing himself), invited us to dinner and drove us around in his big new car and is a wonderful person. And I think she would have missed the wonderful person thing if it hadn’t been for the other things, which makes me kind of sad.