Around a week ago I was watching TV with Angela, waiting for the news to tell us of the results of a free trade referendum (Yes, we really are that nerdy). In any case, the news programs didn’t have the information yet, so we turned the TV to channel 2. We don’t have cable, and there aren’t too many stations anyhow, which makes it even more surprising that channel 2 is dedicated to playing music videos. Even more surprising is that the videos aren’t just Reggaeton bullshit; the station actually play music worth listening to including older, rare music videos that you might not find many other places (for example, videos for groups like The Doors or Creedence, for whom I didn’t even know there were videos). Anyhow, the station was playing a program called “Generation X,” which is a show that is heavy on 80s hair band videos. As we watched a succession of videos from Poison, Cinderella, Twisted Sister, and the like, we began to play a game we called “Man or Woman?” Basically, the hair metal bands in the 80s were, by sight alone, nearly indistinguishable from the 80s girl bands. For example, you could be watching a video from Damn Yankees or Bon Jovi…or maybe it’s the Bangles! The only way you can really tell is if some random member of the band (usually a guitarist) takes off his shirt. Then you know it’s a group of guys, and probably hair metal.
Still, I think that my favorite video for the evening was the one for “Carrie,” a “Monster Ballad” by the group Europe. At one point, the singer belts out his ballad on a darkened set, and behind him we see a picture of a person on a screen. Now, we are probably meant to assume that the person in the picture is the Carrie who inspired this particular piece of schmaltz. But in reality, judging by the fact that the rest of the band had make-up, soft-focus features, and long, curly blond hair, the person in the picture could just as easily have been the band’s male drummer.
All of this got me thinking (you know me: always thinking about shit). My “Ponder O’ The Day”? Gender issues and cultural values. Things like that. I have made many observations about my time here in Costa Rica in this blog, and I thought I’d share a few more interesting ones. Some definitely have to do with gender roles and life in a machismo-fueled society, and others are just things that I’ve noticed about life in Costa Rica. To paraphrase Vince Vega in Pulp Fiction, they got the same shit over here as they do over there, but here it’s just a little different.
CULTURAL OBSERVATION NUMBER 1: The Stay-At-Home-Mom is not extinct; she is alive and thriving in Costa Rica.
In most places in the world that I’ve been to, it’s relatively common for a woman to take time off from work when she has a child, and that time can extend from a period of six months to, well, the rest of her life, I suppose. Here, though, the culture seems to be much more traditional in the sense that many women don’t even begin to study or enter the workforce in the first place. Many merely get married at a young age, have children, and then stay at home to care for those children, clean the house, and cook.
As in many countries, this trend seems to be changing here, but it does seem to be slower to change than in the US, for example. One reason for this change is probably that birth rates are falling. I don’t need any statistics to tell me this, either; I just need to look around and see observe Angela’s family. My mother-in-law is one of 19 siblings, and my father-in-law is one of 15 siblings. Angela, on the other hand, is one of five siblings, and the average number of children in the next generation after hers is two or three per family. I’m not a sociologist, so I guess it’s not really up to me to determine why this is happening, or what it will lead to. I just think it’s an interesting observation.
However, one thing that this does seem to translate to: as families have less children, the mothers tend to work more outside of the home. And this makes sense. But the gender roles here are often still cemented into the places where they were in the past. For example, many people see it as odd or noteworthy at best (and a travesty at worst) that I do much of the cooking for Angela and myself. I do have a theory about this aspect, though: they’re all jealous. The women are be jealous that they don’t have a husband who can cook for them sometimes, and the men are jealous that they don’t know how to cook for themselves, and are therefore stuck eating beans and rice three times a day.
The fact remains, though, that I really enjoy cooking and baking, and although people mention to me that it’s nice that I do so, I know that Angela gets a fair amount of shit from her female coworkers and friends about this issue.
CULTURAL OBSERVATION NUMBER 2: Marketing agencies (especially ones that market booze and weapons) seem to be doing their job quite well, if the conversations I’ve observed are any indication.
From what I’ve seen, women here talk about stereotypical “women stuff,” and men talk about “guy stuff.” Whenever I sit with my female coworkers, they tend to talk about chocolate, food, and food preparation. And sometimes even cleaning or sewing. On the other hand, when I sit with guys, especially my male in-laws, the testosterone sometimes gets so thick you could cut it with a machete. For example, we went to Angela’s parents’ house on Father’s Day (if there ever were a ballsy holiday, this is it). After I greeted the women congregated in the kitchen, I went to the living room to sit with her dad, her brothers, her brothers-in-law, and a scattering of nieces’ boyfriends. As we drank beers and/or whiskey mixed with ginger ale, we (seriously) talked about the following topics, in increasing order of mention:
It was during one of the gun talk tangents that one of my brother-in-laws, who will remain anonymous (to keep you guessing if you ever visit), pulled a miniature pistol about the size of a bottle opener out of his boot. He said it almost caused him a fair amount of trouble when going through the bank metal detector one time, but that he still carried it around out of habit.
Another cool guy fact: In almost every car driven by a male here, you’re bound to find a machete. Seriously. At first I was joking about this around a year ago with Angela, when we were driving in her car and I told her I wanted a machete. I jokingly asked her if she carried one in her car “for protection,” and she said she did, but that it was her dad who had left it there. Sure enough, in the back of the car was a dingy machete in a fancy but worn-out leather holster. I then asked how many machetes her family had, and she had no idea. Later that night I did a random count just walking through her family’s house and found three within sight.
Also, even our friend Juan Manuel, who lives in the middle of the city and whose car probably hasn’t left asphalt in this decade, also carries a machete in his car. When asked why, he responded that he wasn’t sure. My theory? Because he is a man.
CULTURAL OBSERVATION NUMBER 3: Costa Rica has a dental paradox.
If that makes any sense. Let me explain. See, almost every teacher in the school I work at brings a toothbrush and toothpaste to work and brushes after lunch (and it’s not just the Kindergarten teachers setting a good example for the little tykes). Some even floss and then brush their teeth in the teacher’s lounge.
At the same time, there’s probably a good explanation or two for this phenomenon: first of all, many of the common drinks in Costa Rica, including “frescos” (which are mainly a bit of fruit juice with water and a shit-load of sugar) and coffee contain an alarming amount of sugar. The part about the coffee especially surprises me, since this is where coffee comes from, but I’m the only person I’ve come across here who drinks coffee black and straight-up. In any case, if you consider the amount of sugar in the daily diet here, and combine that with the family pictures depicting older relatives with gold- or aluminum-capped teeth, it’s no wonder people are motivated to protect their teeth.
I said there was a dental paradox, though, and it is this: many people don’t even have their own teeth here! I have been realizing this very gradually, like a character in a sci-fi movie who realizes that the people in his hometown are gradually turning into aliens or zombies. I certainly noticed the gold- or aluminum-capped front teeth, as exhibited on my youngest niece and nephew, as well as on many, many other random people I’ve met along the way (especially in Nicaragua!). However, Angela recently revealed to me a shocking truth: In her family of seven, only her and one of her sisters (once again, I’ll leave her identity a secret to keep you guessing in case you ever come visit) still have their real teeth. In the case of both of her parents, her two brothers, and one sister, they all decided that it’d be cheaper, less maintenance, or…well, God know what they decided, to just have the dentist pull out all their teeth and replace them all with some fake ones!
CULTURAL OBSERVATION NUMBER 4: This country seems to get by on a mixture of hypochondria and bravado, both of which are balanced out by faith.
At this point I could probably write some sort of doctorate thesis on this topic, so I’ll try to just give you one or two examples of this. The most prominent example I’ve seen is in the cars, and Angela and I both find this one interesting: Although people here are generally very observant about keeping their cars clean and trying to raise healthy, loving families, almost no one here wears seatbelts, nor do they ask their children to do so. Many cars don’t even have them (although I have no idea how this came to pass). In addition to this, drunk driving seems to be a time-honored tradition, despite the fact that basically everyone knows a friend or family member that either got into an accident with a drunk driver, was driving drunk and got into an accident, got into trouble with the cops for drunk driving, or got into an accident involving a drunk driver where someone died.
We both think this is quite remarkable. This happens when people leave all sorts of parties and social events, and it is basically a given fact that on most nights, there will be numerous drunk drivers. Even at our wedding, many of the male guests were drunk, but they still drove their friends or families home in their cars. This, while the women (who generally had not drunk as much, or in some cases hadn’t drunk at all) sat by in the passenger seat and watched as their drunk husbands, fathers, boyfriends, or friends drove them home. To be fair, though, most of these women probably didn’t even have a driver’s license (which is another observation in and of itself).
There’s an Interesting Twist, though: In a random sample I did in my mind, I noticed that nearly every Costa Rican car I’ve been in has some sort of religious paraphernalia. And I’m not talking about the mere “Jesus Fish” on the back bumper; I’m talking about crosses hanging from rear-view mirrors, Virgin Mary stickers on back windows, magnetic Virgenes de los Angeles on the front dash guiding the way, and even prayers stuck to the front windshield imploring protection from God, Jesus, angels, or assorted virgins. I do not mean to make light of the devotion of the people that have these accouterments, but they do beg the question: Do people put these figures in the car to protect them because the people drive drunk, or do they drive drunk because they have the figures in the car to protect them?
Another example of this phenomenon, which will hopefully end this posting on a slightly more positive note, can be seen in an average Costa Rican’s reaction to the cold or to water. I have been informed that it is definitely unhealthy to do many things involving coldness or wetness, including:
-taking off my shoes and socks and putting my bare feet on the floor
-walking from my car to a building in the rain, without covering my head with something (anything seems to do, even a towel)
-working at the stove, and then working at the sink, without a pause of a few minutes in between the two
-going from hot to cold in general
I’ve been warned that the penalty for doing any of the above things can be small, like catching the flu, to big, like my face will literally warp and become distorted for the rest of my life. Seriously.
The jury is still out on this one. I believe that it’s a bunch of crap, but Angela and I have had to make a deal. If I take off my socks and shoes, I have to either wait 10 minutes to walk in bare feet, of else I have to wear sandals around the house. If I do this, she’ll wear her seatbelt.
So, in the end, these differences, although notable and sometimes humorous, can be bridged, and we can arrive at a common ground. I hope that this posting was at least a little bit interesting, and that you didn’t stop reading when I stopped talking about 80s hair metal. I also hope that you don’t misunderstand me. When talking about the people or customs here, I’m just trying to be humorous, but not to mock the people here. Every place and every family has its weird points and members, and that’s what makes each of them unique and interesting. Also, the majority of the people here are incredibly nice and have treated me incredibly well, and the people who do the things mentioned in this posting are generally the ones I care about most here and who I’m closest to. Still, this is a blog for people in the U.S., so the stuff that seems odd or different is usually what stands out and tends to get reported.
Anyhow, I’ve kept you long enough, so I’ll let you go. Besides, I’ve got to change into my sandals so I can polish my machete.