Cultural Liminality: The Comfort of Being Inbetween

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.