If you’ve traveled at all—even from one part of the U.S. to another—you probably have a funny story about a cultural difference or misunderstanding. Moving abroad is no different, though when facing a new language and reconstructing your life from scratch, it’s easy to brush aside the idea that you’ll soon be navigating through a mire of cultural differences as well. Sure, there are books and blog posts about avoiding big blunders, but it’s impossible to prepare for the little day-to-day differences that will catch you off guard.
A few weeks ago I was in a spin class sprinting to an EDM version of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On when I found myself surprised by one of these strange—but common—moments. As we started a 90-second sprint, the instructor dismounted and began weaving through the bikes to check our RPMs and shout out general encouragement to the class. He stopped at my bike—where I was furiously pedaling—and asked my name. He then took my hand and said, “Danielita (little Danielle), my heart, you must return to my class, you work so hard!” Hmm, that was different. The thing that stopped me from running for the hills is that he continued through the ranks of spinners, talking to the other ladies in the same manner. Later that day I was thinking of all the funny little differences with which I’ve been confronted at the gym, and how they trickle over into other parts of everyday life.
For instance, if a man called me sweetie or dear in the U.S. I would immediately bristle. However in Colombia, if someone doesn’t know your name—or even if they do—it is completely normal to substitute it with or add on any of the following: princess, beautiful, dear, queen, my love, my heart, mamí. More terms of endearment than lewd comments, I’ve heard them all from both men and women I’ve met in Bogotá. Though I wouldn’t want to hear one of these in the office, I kind of like it when the woman selling me candy on the corner greets me with, “what can I get you, my love?”
And what about that techno Celine Dion? Music from the 80’s and 90’s is everywhere in Bogotá—it’s as if Top 40 stopped in 1999. Red Red Wine, Toto’s Africa, and 99 Red Balloons are practically on loop in shopping malls. One night Cody and I were at dinner in a romantic restaurant when we realized they were piping a CD of rock ballads through the sound system—I couldn’t concentrate on our conversation because all I wanted was to belt out the Scorpions’ Wind of Change.
Also, your exercise class will never start on time. Even if the spin instructor is there when the class should begin, he’ll walk through the rows of bikes, talking for fifteen minutes before he tells you to start peddling. Greeting people and a bit of chitchat is a normal part of beginnings here and though I’m griping, I like this friendliness and don’t want it to change. Colombians themselves accept and poke fun at their tardiness, so relaxing your ideas about time will only help you in all areas of your expat life. As far as punctuality goes, I’ve adopted two different time philosophies for life in Colombia: foreigners expect other foreigners to be punctual, but if you’re meeting with or going to an event hosted by Colombians, the start time is a bit more fluid. On the positive side, every time you’re late because you were lost or stuck in traffic, no one will think anything of it.
Unwarranted advice was another thing I had to get used to, because the gym staff regularly comments on how much I do (or don’t!) workout—or how I’m looking better or worse since I joined. Ah yes, suggestions. Both in and outside of the gym, be prepared for opinions, recommendations, and comments of all sorts. I mentioned in a previous post that our temporary driver told me how much better my husband spoke Spanish. Other ‘helpful’ advice I’ve received includes the tip that I should make more of an effort to look good for my husband, that I should rearrange our furniture, and that I should wear a helmet when riding my bike. Once, Cody was jogging and a grandma yelled that he needed a sweater. Sometimes harsh but never malicious, I’ve only ever felt that these comments come from a caring place.
Another recommendation: stop being bashful, because the cleaning ladies will burst in on you no matter where you are. I was shocked the first time I saw one of the female cleaning employees walk into the men’s lockers like it was no big deal and leave the door open while dudes were changing! The same thing happened to Cody when he and I had a couples massage for an anniversary and one of the female attendants came into the changing room to collect towels as he was undressing. During massages and spa treatments, don’t be surprised if the attendant doesn’t leave the room while you disrobe or if instead of a sheet, you are given something the size of a hand towel to cover your bits. After the first initial surprises, I’ve learned to just go with it: if it’s not a big deal to them, it shouldn’t be to you either!
Maybe not a cultural lesson, but you should be mindful of what’s nearby when choosing a gym (or for that matter, your home!). If you don’t live in Bogotá, then you have no idea that most buildings don’t have heating or air conditioning—it’s unnecessary because the temperature doesn’t swing too much to any extreme. Instead, you’ll find some kind of permanent opening (such as a grate or open slats) near windows to allow free flowing air. It’s nice because no matter where you are, you’ll most likely feel a breeze; the bad part is when your gym is sandwiched between a Krispy Kreme and several barbecue restaurants…
Lastly, don’t even think about wearing your chili-stained, 2005 Corporate Fun Run t-shirt to the gym. I can tell who is Colombian and who is a foreigner in a split second based on what you’re wearing and I regularly see gals primping before their workouts. In fact, I have left the locker room only to return an hour later to see the same gals fluffing their hair, putting on makeup and taking selfies. Some gals work out in wedge-heeled sneakers! Take note fellow Americans, practically everyone outside of the U.S. dresses in a more formal manner and if I may make a sweeping generalization, Colombians are very conscious of dressing nicely—at all times. That said, moving to Bogotá I definitely had to step up my dressing game: no more yoga pants to run errands and there’s no way I’ll wear my fave super gringo white tennis shoes unless they go with a preppy and polished outfit.
Please share a funny cultural tidbit in the comments below—extra points if it happened while in Colombia.