looking for lost time

Culture Shock

Culture Shock

I thought I knew Spanish.

I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish.


I think now that it was just the shock. The shock of being surrounded by people who only spoke Spanish. The shock of having every word around me being Spanish. I think I expected this. The reality was different than the imagination of how it would be. I was so overwhelmed by the sudden call on me to conjure up all the latent Spanish within the deep recesses of my mind. When the moment arrived, I couldn’t find them. I kept on speaking English to a person that didn’t understand a word of it, and they did the same to me.

One of the things that shocked me so much was the fact that as soon as we crossed the border into Mexico, all the border police spoke ONLY Spanish. The first woman we passed… not a word. I understood, “You have a beautiful dog. Is he a German Shepherd?” I was amazed that I understood, but could barely respond, “sí.”

Guys, we went the wrong way and everyone was yelling at us, but we couldn’t understand what they were saying. They didn’t look like official people, either, so it was a hard call for us. We got right into the lane to return to the U.S. Thankfully, we muddled our way through and were guided, without words (and how did they seem to know what we needed?) over through an employee parking lot (I managed to decipher that) back onto the road we belonged on, so we could get to the immigration offices. There was hardly anyone there, and we didn’t have to wait in lines. I thought for sure, this is where we will find some English speakers. Well, that church group heading to Saltillo were English speakers, but that didn’t help much. I made mistakes when filling out our visa applications, because I didn’t pay enough attention to the details on the date parts of the application. DD/MM/YYYY is the way its supposed to be entered, and I was putting everyone’s in the American way MM/DD/YYYY. Turns out they didn’t care. I accidentally started filling out Naomi’s application (the lower part) with Rebekah’s name. Well, just put a line through it. Ok, sorry Naomi. Your official paperwork is marked up. Those guys spoke enough English for us to get all that stuff sorted out. The words they didn’t know, I knew and what I didn’t know, they knew. We made it this far, so we thought it was safe to go ahead and book our house in Allende, Nuevo León, so we did.

They sent us down to the next spot – insurance. You have to have at least liability insurance for you car while driving in Mexico. OK. However, the girl selling the insurance didn’t speak ANY English whatsoever. I cannot state this strongly enough. How she ever managed to accurately do this job, I don’t know. She marked our car registered in Texas, and Jonathan’s driver’s license issued in Texas as well. I managed to use enough Spanish and pointing to correct the mistake (in case it matters).

On to Copies. This woman, God bless her, spoke no English, either, but caught on that if she could talk to me like a baby, I could understand her. I wish there were more like her. I think, perhaps, my next memorized phrase should be, “hablame como un bebé, por favor.” (Talk to me like a baby, please.) We got through that needing only 1 copy made of the new visa document for Jonathan to get the TIP (Temporary Import Permit), which is not called that at all in Spanish, by-the-way. I bought a map of Mexico as well. The map cost us $6 USD. She looked at me as if she wondered if I was willing to pay that price. I was willing…

Anyway, on to the last place in line – the vehicle import office. There, the girl helping us didn’t speak any English, either. I thought there wouldn’t be much to say, since it was filing documents, etc. All seemed to, indeed, be going well, when we were sent back to the last spot because there was a problem with our vehicle’s weight limit on our Virginia registration. The man in that office did not speak any English either. He had just been dealing with someone else who was still standing nearby. When he talked to us about out how we were not permitted to take our vehicle into Mexico, because it was classified as a commercial vehicle, we didn’t understand him, but the woman standing nearby told us what he was saying. We asked her if she would help translate for us. She did, and we told him that it was a passenger vehicle and that we needed it to carry our large family. He went out into the parking lot to look at the sticker inside the door of our van to see if it was mislabeled, possibly, and then walked back into the building with us. He told us it was against the policy, and that he couldn’t help us. I don’t know what happened, but as we were heading out to our van to tell the kids that we wouldn’t be able to go to Mexico, he waved at us through the window, and spoke rapid Spanish to us with a pleased expression. Jonathan pulled up Google Translate and asked him to speak into it. He spoke happily, then we read, “I got permission for your vehicle permit.” Then it was our turn to smile. We left him with a “Muchas gracias,” and headed back to the registration line. This time, we had a young man who spoke English pretty well. Everything was in order, so there was little need for words, anyway, but it was somewhat of a relief.

The next hurtle was trying to get cell service so we could still use our phone to communicate to our host and be able to use our navigation to get to our home away from home. We tried to go to an Oxxo, at our host’s suggestion, in order to get a SIM card for our phones. We thought they were both unlocked phones, but turns out that StraightTalk locks them up. We didn’t realize this was the issue, at first, and it turns out that Jonathan’s phone was unlocked, but mine wasn’t, and my phone was the guinea pig, so it became useless until we figured all that out. (More on that later.)

We stopped to let everyone use the bathroom and indoor playground at a Church’s Chicken. That was a very positive experience, because two guys who worked there were very interested in practicing their English with us and asking some questions they had, while I was standing outside with our German shepherd. I left that interaction feeling very encouraged. If everyone was like this, we’d learn Spanish in no time, and have so much fun doing it.

While watching the map, I noticed we were 143 miles from our destination. Ever since Jonathan’s and my courting days (back in the days of pagers), 143 has always meant “I love you.” This was the number we would send to the pager, to let the other one know we were thinking about them. This felt like a “page” from God, so I took a screenshot of it. Shortly after that, I happened to accidentally swipe away the navigation that had what we needed to find our way to the rental house which does not have an address, apparently, being in semi-rural Mexico. If I had not taken a snapshot when we were 143 miles away, I would not have had the GPS coordinates so we could find our way there.

Well, we still didn’t exactly find our way there with the map (which we could still use offline). We got near, but then couldn’t call our host, because we still didn’t have cell service. We had only his phone number, so we stopped at the gas station near the same coordinates, and looked for help. We asked the owner of the store there (Jorge) if he spoke english, to which he flatly answered, “Nada.” Oh, my goodness! What now? Somehow, we muddled through with gestures and such and he called our host on his cell phone. All I could gather from listening to their conversation, was that there were some Americans from Virginia out here, looking for his place. This man, and Jonathan stood up at the the road, looking for what I thought was someone coming to greet us there, so we could follow them back to the house. Then, he got in his car, and said to follow him (this much I understood). We followed him until he wasn’t sure of the route, and we turned around. Then we did that again on another street (all dirt), and then stopped a man on a bicycle and talked to him some, then turned around and drove back to the first road we had gone on before coming to him for help, and the first road he took us on, as we followed him, but this time we stuck it out longer, and came to the house we had seen in Airbnb. Ah, our home away from home, at last! We thanked him profusely, and he was off.

The caretaker (Carlos) took over after that. Guess how much English he speaks? Thats right, Nada. Thankfully, our host (Poncho) speaks very good English. I don’t know what we would have done without that. He spoke to Carlos for us (by phone), then we unpacked the minimum and went to bed for the night.

The next day, Poncho came down to help us out, and he took Jonathan to go sort out the cell phone issues, and we activated two phones with an inexpensive plan that covers social media apps with unlimited data, and only 4GB of data for everything else, and calls and texts. This restored our freedom.

The next couple of days were filled with Jonathan and I venturing out to find the things we needed, like a grocery store, a bank to exchange money in and of course, tacos for the family. This is when the real trouble started with me and Spanish. No one we met could speak any English, and Jonathan couldn’t speak any Spanish, and I would clam up completely as soon as anyone deviated from my memorized conversation, which happened pretty immediately. First, in the grocery store, we asked for TWO kilos of some yummy looking meat. The young man behind the counter looked stricken with confusion, so Jonathan repeated himself. Then, finally, we realized the mistake. DOS! “Dos kilos,” not “Tu kilos,” as he was hearing. That would mean “Your kilos.” I understand the confusion of his face. “What could they mean?” I’ll just leave you with that to ponder…

At the checkout… no English. And, guess what? I didn’t hear anyone say, “hola” to greet me. I couldn’t even recognize what was being said, because of my state of shock at not encountering what I had expected.

Then, to get tacos. This should be straightforward enough, right? I walked right up to the ordering desk and said confidently, “quiero veinte y cuatro (24) tacos de carne asada.” She answered, first with disbelief that I had said the right number. I tried to assure her that I had. I forgot about this being a thing. My local Taco Bell in Farmville, Virginia had long gotten over this. In fact I can always tell if it’s someone new taking orders because of this. Ugh! Was it going to be like this everywhere we go? Then she asked me how I wanted them. What? Options? I told her “con todo” (with everything). She looked confused. A man came over, and he kept on saying “cuatro.” Jonathan nudged me to tell them that we have 9 children. When I said this, they pulled out a calculator and divided 24 by 11 and it is 2.666666666666. He rounded it up to 3, and told her “Tres.” I told him, “dos para los niños, y tres para nosotros.” He recalculated, and was satisfied when it came to to 24. Man, that was much harder than it seemed like it should’ve been. (So, that’s what they meant when they asked how we want them.) I don’t know how many times I just spoke English to her, because I just couldn’t tap into my Spanish. I really felt like I was in literal shock. It was awful! I went home feeling super discouraged, and wondering again, “what are we doing?” but this time, not so happy. I didn’t want to go out and do that again, but Jonathan kept on asking me to help him. Google Translate worked for us to begin with, but literal translations don’t always give what’s needed to bring understanding. At times it caused irreparable confusion.

So there I was. It was up to me. I remembered the words of my sister, Joya, telling me that this was my moment to take what I had and step into my destiny as the powerful person I was always meant to be. The reality was much tougher than I imagined, though.

After the initial two days of culture shock, I came back to the house and let on that I was feeling like maybe we were in over our heads and couldn’t do it. Abbie looked at me like I had lost it, said she couldn’t believe I was this low in just two days. It was like, “Come on, Mom, pull yourself together!”

The next day, I stayed home while Jonathan took the family out to dinner and internet without me. I really couldn’t handle it that day, my brain hurt, and all I wanted to do was sleep. They, of course made friends with people who could speak English, and were able to do what they needed to do, and I was able to unrattle my brain.

The next morning, we got tacos for breakfast. The woman who ran it didn’t speak English, either, but was so patient and kind, helping us figure what was what in these tacos. I felt like she was willing to help me, that she wanted to help me. After that, I felt like everyone was speaking Spanish more slowly, because I could understand them a lot more. I was less in shock, and was able to speak more Spanish, too. The kids and Jonathan told me that everyone was speaking just as fast as before. I guess I’m just getting more comfortable. The shock is wearing off. I read the road signs, and understand them. I still have a long way to go before I will be fluent, but I think it could actually happen. I still want to hide away in my English-speaking house in between days of Spanish, but I really do want to learn, and I can’t do that without going out into the Spanish-speaking world.

Allende is a nice town, with friendly, helpful people, and even though I feel like we were thrown into the deep end, the water is at least warm. There is kindness around and it’s a quiet, relatively un-busy kind of town (at least compared to the bigger cities, like Monterrey – our heads were spinning just getting through it). We are small town, rural people, and this place is more our speed. So, I am thankful that our landing pad is such a nice place for such a shocking experience.



9 thoughts on “Culture Shock”

  • am i allowed to comment on every past?! I am thoroughly enjoying your adventure from the comfort of my comfy home in my english speaking community!
    this made me remember the way i felt in ukraine! and the unrattling of the brain is a necessity!! that is what i am doing sitting here reading your post!

  • I loved reading this. I had culture shock when we lived in Dubai But it came later. There is more English spoken there. Just always trying to figure out the value of food and the currency was a big one. Eventually I gave up and accepted that some things were less expensive and some more and Don’t worry about it. It all evened out.
    I was blown away by the cost of the road tolls from Laredo to Saltillo. And we are well aware of how much we are spending on gas. It is about the same as we pay in Canada but we have a larger SUV this year to pull a larger trailer.
    I loved meeting your wonderful kids. They will gain so much seeing you struggle but then facing these difficulties. I’m like you, I crash a bit when overloaded but give me a break and I’ll recover. Keep being the wonderful family I saw in such a short time.

  • I love reading this Anna! I knew Jonathan when we were kids in California and now I live near his sister him again since I got married a year-and-a-half ago to a mountain man! I’ve been galavanting around the globe for about 20 years and can totally identify with all your wonderful adventures…. especially in a country where you don’t speak the language or are coming up to speed! You might enjoy reading the blog I kept the year I lived and taught English in Japan. Gingervertican.blogspot.com. I wish I had kept an online journal for all the other places I lived like Kazakhstan and South Korea or Thailand, but they are in books and handhelds journals. For many decades you will look back and read these and be so glad you have it curated online. Thank you for sharing your adventures here for all of us to read! I’ve been giggling and laughing and enjoying all of it. Grace and peace over you guys 💜💛💚💙

  • Hello there Peytons! Just want to point out that it is past time for a post! Love you all! Hope you are learning and growing and having a little fun in the process!

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