Cultural Liminality: The Comfort of Being Inbetween
I am sitting in the Zócalo on a hot afternoon drinking a michelada and snacking on some salty limey peanuts. At the table to my left sits a group of aging gringos sipping coffee and deciphering maps planning out their next day. To my right sits a table of gossiping Oaxaqueñas talking corruption politics and discussing how handsome the Governor is. I lick my finger and drag it along the rim of my salted glass returning a dab of spiced salt to my lips and tongue. It is at this moment I realize how utterly betwixt these cultures and languages I am. At first it is a dizzying thought, but as it settles in I feel a subtle ease flow over me. I am suddenly comforted by this feeling of inbetweenness. I am an inbetweener and I am content.
Anyone who has ever experienced being an immigrant, I am sure has felt something similar. Perhaps not contentment, but I would like to speak to the advantages of this situation rather than focus on the more obvious disadvantages. Furthermore, I have to admit that my experiences may differ as a rather ethnically ambiguous male living in Mexico. But I am sure there is something for the taking here.
There is something strangely comforting I have found about my situation and it is best described through a series of disconnected anecdotes. One of the most immediate things I noticed in particular about befriending Oaxacan folk is their attention to nationality. They want you to be something always. Even if it is something you are not. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that my Spanish is terrible. I have lived in Mexico for almost two years and I have yet to catch stride with the language for reasons I will discuss later. One of the first things a Oaxacan will notice is that I struggle speaking Spanish, and at this recognition usually follows the question of ethnicity. Often enough they claim that they thought I was Mexican, maybe from D.F. or maybe a Norteño. This is followed by a chorus of confused laughter at which point they guess that I am either from the US or Canada. “I am from Canada” I tell them, “but I live here now.” This is the moment they claim me as Mexican regardless. “Ahora usted es mexicano,” is something I have heard a few times. I am not sure if people say this out of embarrassment, or whether genuinely want me to be included in their culture.
If someone speaks very little English, these conversations usually dissipate quickly into simple banter over drinks. This is my language barrier. Do not get me wrong, some Oaxaqueños I have met have similar problems as their first language is not Spanish either. It is strange, however, that this language barrier is sometimes not a barrier at all. Sometimes it is a point of interest for those I meet, and sometimes it is a card in the pocket. A favorite joke of mine is to pull the “no nintendo” pouty face routine, which usually can loosen up a crowd in a stressful situation where no one seems to know what is going on due to our inability to communicate fully, and it also comes in handy at work. Something is happening to me though, I am starting to understand more and more Spanish. To be honest I don’t practice enough Spanish at all. I am forced to listen to and speak the language at work of course. I have peers and friends who don’t understand a lick of English. These are moments when I am required to practice Spanish. With the loss of this ability to misunderstand has come the loss of some of the mystery of social relations and cultural practices in my new city and country.
Do not get me wrong, I am still an inbetweener, but it is difficult to feel the feeling of being lost now. I am one of those people who thrives off of feeling lost. It gives me direction. In Walden Thoreau says that “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Which is interesting in this case, as I am constantly at a loss for words and language; however, in this loss I have found several other modes of expression, connection and profound relation. The better my language skills have gotten, the increasingly worried I have begun I will lose this feeling and these types of connections which I have grown so fond of.
Of course it is not only the language issue that has thrust me betwixt the cultural sense of belonging and being an outsider. Oaxaca is a tourist town. It is a UNESCO Heritage site and a hot spot for tourists from around the world. When my girlfriend and I first moved here we would frequent a bar called La Santisima. Not many people would speak with us, not tourists and certainly not locals. We were deep into that liminal space of acceptance and nonacceptance. After about three months or so the managers came up to us and said something like “you aren’t leaving are you?” To which we responded “no, we live here.” And to which they replied, “amazing, so good to meet you.” The owners and managers are now lovely friends of ours. Both are foreigners in Oaxaca, one being from the States and the other from Northern Mexico. They’ve since told us that many don’t bother befriending new people they meet in the city, especially foreigners because it is highly likely they will be leaving soon. This is fair I think, as the city is plentiful when it comes to the population of transient tourists.
We are through this liminal space, as people have come to recognize us, and as we become a part of our community. Oaxaca is one of those towns masquerading as a city, and everyone seems to know of each other and of each others business. So once through the first liminal threshold you loose that wonderful feeling of anonymity. Anonymity is a wonderfully protective tool, but once it is gone it is gone.
Cultural differences is another gap to fall into. For me this isn’t much of a problem as I settle in fairly quickly; however, being a foreigner does have its advantages when making a mistake. It is perhaps the between space that provides the greatest amount of comfort, and one that will likely never fully go away. The greatest between space for any immigrant is that they will always be a foreigner. I believe this is something one should quickly come to terms with. I will never be Mexican. I was barely even Canadian, at least I never felt Canadian. I will never have a nation to stand behind, a distinct or distinguishing culture to fall back on. This is extremely liberating for me, and in a way has given me a unique cultural and social capital of my own. Not being Mexican shields me from my many cultural insensitivities and naïvaties, which one really only learns and corrects through mistake and blunder, and; not feeling as if I was ever really Canadian has given me a blank slate. I am able to learn and navigate a new culture while staying within these between spaces/stages until I am ready to come out.
So this cultural liminality has become a powerful tool. Some liminal spaces disappear on their own, while others I have to work myself out of. I will forever be in the foreigner space, but I buy into to it and I am comforted by the idea of being a foreigner. I recognize that I am a foreigner or immigrant with a position of privilege, and this privilege comes to fruition mostly within geographic mobility and perhaps ties into my work and education. However, I’ve enjoyed witnessing this privilege fluctuate and sometimes completely blow up in my face. At the same time, I do what I have always done, and that is simply to exist, love and learn. I will continue to seek the advantages in disadvantage, and I know I will be sad the day I realize that some of these liminal spaces have closed and I have bridged their gap.