When I decided to move to México I thought I was very prepared for what it would be like. I speak fluent Spanish and had visited Mexico before and travelled throughout Latin America. But despite having interacted with the culture extensively there were still some things that surprised me.
1. You never need to be prepared
I am a perpetually over-prepared person. I think it stems partly from my mom always being prepared and partly from spending long amounts of time in backcountry settings but anywhere I go I always have a liter of water, some snacks, sunglasses, tissues, gum, chapstick, a brush and any number of other odds and ends. Before road trips I tend to make muffins for to-go snacks but in Mexico there is absolutely no need for any such preparation. ANYWHERE you go there will be someone selling something. Getting off the metro in the morning there are at least five people selling breakfast; at a red light people walk up and down the road selling candy, drinks or, hey, do you need your windshield washed?? there’s someone offering that too. Someone boards every bus leaving the stations offering sandwiches and snacks for the ride but don’t worry, if you don’t buy something from them and are hungry later there are people walking along the lines at tolls selling sandwiches and snacks as well. I’ve literally been in the middle of a forest and found a vendor selling coffee and snacks.
2. There is excessive PDA
Mexican couples have no shame in this regard. I’ve sat next to a couple two feet away from me at a restaurant engaged in the longest kiss I’ve ever seen and yesterday on the metro I was standing next to a couple who were pressed against each other so close you could barely distinguish one from the other. And it’s not just teenagers, middle-aged people engage in excessive pda just the same. Even being in a park surrounded by playing children does not dissuade couples from full out makeout sessions on benches.
3. Ahorita does not mean ahorita
The Mexican word “ahorita” is definitely confusing at first. Ahora means now and Mexicans always like to add the diminutive “ito” or “ita” to almost everything (how do you feel? cansadita, enfermita, etc.). In theory, ahorita should mean right now but in practice it means maybe sometime in the distant future or even never. Mexicans hate to tell people no so ahorita is one of the ways they can feel better about saying yes while really meaning no. So don’t wait around for someone to do something that they said would happen ahorita, you may be waiting forever.
4. It feels like lunchtime will never come
In the U.S. and even in other Latin American countries, breakfast is first thing in the morning, lunch happens around noon, and then dinner is the biggest meal of the day around 6. Mexicans are more similar to the Spanish way of waiting until 2 or 3 to eat lunch which is the biggest meal. You get four courses when you go out: a soup, “dry soup” (pasta or rice), the main course and then dessert. Dinner is a light meal eaten around 9 or 10pm. Of course there are various snack times between all of these meals where you can stop by a street vendor making tacos or quesadillas but in an office setting it is haaard to wait to eat lunch until 3pm.
5. There are (almost) no thrift shops
When I first got here and Germán and I moved into an empty apartment (apartments btw don’t come with fridges and sometimes not even with stoves), I thought we would take a trip to a second-hand store to get some furniture to fill up the place. But alas, Mexico does not really have thrift stores. People here repair their 30-year-old washing machines instead of throwing them out or donating them so by the time things are discarded they have long surpassed their useful life. Luckily, you can find people wheeling around wooden furniture (tables, bed frames, chairs, etc.) on most corners which is cheaper than department stores but new is really your only option.
6. Everyone has a cleaning person
Being from the U.S. I grew up helping my parents clean our house (it was really more like being forced to help). At one point we had a cleaning lady once a month since our house was on the larger side but if I were living in the U.S. now I would never think of hiring someone to come clean my house. In Mexico, labor is quite cheap which means that pretty much every middle-class person hires someone to come clean at least once a week. Families with younger children frequently have live-in help and well-off people who don’t even have children may have someone come daily to clean, cook and wash clothes. American culture is one that prides self-sufficiency so it was really strange for me to accept this, though a lot of people here feel like they are providing a social service by providing jobs which are desperately needed.
7. Chivalry is alive and well
Chivalry is not dead in Mexico. I’ve had to get used to men holding open doors for me or letting me enter first if we walk in somewhere together. And this is not just limited to my boyfriend or people I know, men on the metro will offer open seats to the women nearby before sitting themselves or will step off the sidewalk to let you pass. Due to my feminist mindset and the fact that it definitely has something to do with the machismo culture, I was more annoyed than grateful at first but I’ve come to accept and maybe even like it a teensy tiny bit (but only if men will accept my opening doors for them as well).
8. The streets are noisy
It’s impossible for a day to go by without hearing about 3 different songs from vendors selling tamales, buying your old refrigerators, and selling more tamales. When the trash collectors come they ring a bell, of course the ice cream vendors play music, sweet potato vendors make an eery screech and fruit vendors blast out from loudspeakers what fruit they’re selling off the back of their truck. Literally as I’m writing this there is someone biking by playing the tamale recording.
9. Physical characteristics become your nickname
People tend to refer to each other by their physical characteristics which is definitely a shock coming from a very politically correct place. When walking through a market vendors will yell out “moreno” (dark-skinned guy) to passersby and husbands will affectionately call their wives “gordita” (chubby) as a nickname. I’ve started answering to “güerita” which means light-skinned/haired girl because so many people call me that. People also tend to perceive slight differences in skin tone that I don’t even notice.
10. Everyone is so polite
When you go out to eat here, strangers exiting the restaurant will make it a point to say “provecho” (which means enjoy) to every table they pass. Most people say it back to them to be polite even though they have already enjoyed their meal. The same goes for saying “salud” (bless you) when you sneeze. We say it in the U.S. too but here it is practically a race by everyone around you to say it first. Of course there’s also the abundant use of the formal you (usted) but maybe the most confusing polite saying is that people will literally say “your house” when referring to their house. Mi casa es su casa.