Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Little Change

"When paying with cash, be the change you want to see in the world."
 - my brother, Huck

I stood there, holding my few purchases, staring incredulously at the woman behind the counter.
"Really?" I said.
She shrugged. I set my milk and eggs and fruit on the counter and left, unable to buy them not because I didn't have the money. No, it was more like I had too much money, you could say. Or not the right kind. I had been turned away by a woman who didn't have $5.50 in change to give me, when I tried to buy $4.50 worth of food with a ten-dollar bill.

This has happened so many times.

Friends and I joke that, "Here in Ecuador, you can buy more with a few dollar coins than you can with a twenty-dollar bill." Laugh to keep from crying. Pull out a twenty to pay for anything less than $10, and it better come with a near-grovelling apology. The country is practically run on cash, yet no one has any change.

This is so counter-intuitive to me, because in my head I think, "You're the owner of a small family-run corner store, and you're turning away business just because you don't have a few dollars in change?" I suppose to them, it's normal. You didn't get the change so you can't give it. Oh well. No apology even, just a shrug and that's it. For me it doesn't make sense that when this is a reoccurring problem you wouldn't do everything you could to keep stocked with change so as not to turn away sales. It's foreign. For them - I suppose it's just how they were raised. Not foreign at all.

I listened to a podcast recently about the very first McDonald's which was introduced to communist Russia. The people interviewed told about how at the time, every product was in such high demand that customers were treated with disdain because the employees had the ability to look down on anyone wanting to buy anything. He said that it was not uncommon to go into a nearly empty restaurant, be looked up and down and told, "We're full, there's no tables available for you." This of course is absolutely the opposite of the US standard of service, where employees are instructed to bend backwards for the customer, who is 'always right', so as to make the sale. Making money - being successful -  is of bottom line importance in the US. So we are taught to smile, be friendly and complimentary, because the customer wants to feel welcome and valued.
Smiling and acting friendly was something which had to be taught to the Russians.

In the podcast (a series titled "Invisibilia"), the people interviewed talked about how in school they learned about "The American Smile".
"In America, people who are smiling aren't necessarily happy, and they may not be hiding anything either," they were informed. "There, people smile just because. To us it feels very suspicious, but to them it's normal. You don't have to be wary of it."
Because service with a smile is part of McDonald's presentation, Russian servers were taught how to grin, how to greet people with a cheery attitude, instead of the disdainful, control-ridden air of most employees. They said it was contagious. People coming in for a meal would actually smile back, and it became a place people wanted to go and hang around. I know what you may be thinking: of all places ... McDonald's? I guess if they're making the world a more unhealthy place at least they're also trying to bring smiles as well?

The thing is, we all have different points of view. Different perspectives on what is right, what is most important. Whether it's being sure of making the sale or smiling even when we may not feel like it, to just not caring enough about having change to do anything about it, we all have cultural norms. Here, I've gotten used to being squashed on crowded buses by people who aren't partial to personal space, asked all sorts of personal questions by strangers, and turned away by small business owners without change. It's foreign, but I have to accept it. We're all foreign to someone: our traditions, our perspectives, the way we handle things and the choices we make can all be bizarrely different to someone else. So as my brother said, be the change you want to see ... at least when paying with cash. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

All The "Ias"

"You don't know till you want to know
You don't know till you pass the equator"

-The Equator, by Brooke Fraser

Sometimes when I'm walking down the street, I think about all the "ias" I'm passing. By that, I mean, respectively, the following (the 'ia' is pronounced with a strong "EE-ah" sound):

Panaderia (bread store)
Pasteleria (pastry shop)
Peluqueria (hair/nail salon)
Heledaria (ice cream parlor)
Cafeteria (cafe)
Libreria (book store)
Ferretaria (hard ware store)
Papeleria (office supply store)
Floristeria (florist)
Joyeria (jewelry shop)
Perfumeria (perfumery)
Lavanderia (laundry mat)
Zapateria (shoe store)
Pizzeria (pizza place)

and probably more I can't recall at this moment, or that I haven't yet encountered.

I like how there's such a uniform system for so many various shop names. To myself I smile and call them the 'ias', though of course to anyone who grew up here it's just the way it is.

I wonder what kinds of things we take for granted in the States that are curious, kind of cute, to people who didn't grow up with it as second nature. I read a Tumblr exchange recently which said,

"Things that still freak me out: those sinks Americans have in their kitchens that you can destroy stuff with."
"You mean people in other countries don't have garbage disposals?"
"Why can't you just put your stuff in the trash and not a monster drain?"

I laughed. It's true that I have never seen a single garbage disposal here, yet it's a standard feature in most US homes. It's also a bit of a luxury to have a dryer, or "fancy" kitchen appliances like toasters or coffee makers, let alone things like waffle irons or specialty blenders. Dishwashers? I've seen one. I mean, when we're over here lighting our stoves with matches and waving down the trucks which exchange empty gas tanks, those kinds of things just aren't high on the importance scale.

So on my way home, I stop by a favorite panaderia to buy bread and milk, and pass by all the other 'ias' along the street. I've started to take this little uniformity for granted, mostly. Like seeing the neighborhood uni-cyclist*, it still makes me smile.

*Seriously, I think I've mentioned him before: older guy, rail thin, appears to be Caucasian, rides a unicycle up and down my fairly steep neighborhood street, helmeted and well-padded, defying death not just by the hill but by the often maniac drivers who blast their horns while barreling through an intersection so that if they crash they have the defense that it wasn't their fault because they proclaimed their presence by honking. Quite entertaining.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Terrified and Free

"And I'm in love
And I'm terrified
For the first time and the last time
In my only life
And this could be good
It's already better than that
And nothing's worse
Than knowing you're holding back"
 - Terrified, by Katharine McPhee

"If you had to, which would you chose: to be blind or to be deaf?"
I've discussed this question with friends and siblings before. My answer is always the same: "Blind. Because I can't imagine living without music."

It would be painful, of course, to never again see the beauty in the world, yet I also wonder what it'd be like to not see the standards for beauty which are presented in magazines, movies, and runways. Sometimes I know that I put too much stock into appearances. Truth be told, I never really think I'm thin enough or pretty enough. Like I'm reaching for something which is always just beyond my fingers. I know it's crazy. There is no magic "enough", no formula which aligns with some perfect standard. Ads for various products - makeup, fitness, clothing, brands, physical adjustments through surgery - breed discontentment. It can be a daily fight.

Recently I cut my hair, drastically. I wanted a change and thought about dying it, when I decided instead to donate it and get a pixie cut. If I cut off at least 10 inches it would be eligible for Locks Of Love. Within a week I had decided, found photos of styles I liked, and went to a salon to have it cut. In that time I felt excited and extremely nervous. More than once I thought, "I love my hair, I'll just leave it, I don't need to do anything to it." Yet in the end I went through with it for several reasons. One, because donating it would be a lovely thing, and every time I thought of my Grandmother and friend Amy dying of cancer, my resolve solidified. Two, because this year has seen some difficult times, some hard changes, and I needed to create a change within my control. Three, because it fell within my desire to do things which scare me.

The day after I cut my hair, I sobbed and sobbed. I wanted nothing more than for it to grow back as quickly as possible. I looked in the mirror and saw my brothers instead of myself. I had already been feeling somewhat fragile for various reasons, and the loss of my long hair left me feeling vulnerable. I looked at the 12-inch braid which had been lopped off, weighty in my hands, and felt disconnected. Friends who complimented the new look helped, though I still felt strange.

It wasn't until a week later that I started to really be okay with it and like it. I had read interviews with a couple of movie stars who had gotten pixie cuts say how freeing it was to have short hair, so I hoped for that feeling to come to me. That morning I left the house wearing a dress and wedges. I did my makeup a little bolder than usual, trying to highlight my feminine features. As I walked down the street, the wind caught at my dress and ruffled my hair and I felt pretty. I felt confident: a girl who can cut off her hair and can still reach towards elegance. Confidence can be highly attractive, I've always thought. Not arrogance, but simply the air that the way in which you present yourself to the world is worthwhile.

(Of course, maybe this backfired on me, because when I got in a taxi later that morning the driver was especially chatty, asking many questions about where I'm from and the work I do. When he asked if I was single I replied that I had a boyfriend. Not the first time I've invented a significant other to shut down a stranger.)

My hair will grow back. Yet finally, I think I like it how it is right now. I always want to be open to doing things which scare me. Sky diving, learning a new language, moving to another country, getting a tattoo, submitting short stories and enduring the possible rejections, being vulnerable and authentic with people, and getting a completely different haircut. (And besides, aren't these things small and laughably manageable compared to having cancer? Oh my heart.) Someday, I hope that list will include committing to the love of my life, becoming a mom, buying a house, and all those wonderfully normal events which can change one's life permanently, terrifyingly, and beautifully. May we be terrified at times in order to live more fully. May we choose what I cannot see. May we try and hope to be ... enough. May we believe it.