Cultural, linguistic missteps in a mixed marriage
From the print edition
If you live with a Costa Rican, officially married or not, you are “casado” (housed = married). Every married couple can have differences in tastes, values, class, etc. It’s only normal. But what happens when we throw cultural and linguistic differences into the mix? My experience is that it doesn’t cause bigger problems, just different ones. In my case, the problems have been unsubstantial, at times even comical.
Someone once told me that there are two kinds of people: those for whom numbers are real and those for whom they are not. I am the latter kind; my husband is the former. He talks numbers at me, and my eyes glaze over – not just any numbers, numbers that are supposed to have meaning, that is, lottery numbers. Numbers in themselves may not be a culturally relevant issue, but the lottery is.
Costa Ricans spend heaps of time trying to “pegar” (win) and discussing lottery numbers: good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones, as if one number were really different from another. On the street, some numbers even sell for more money than others because they are reputed to be “better.” After the numbers are out, Ticos engage in endless conversations about the results and their near wins, as if missing by one number were any different than missing by 99 numbers.
Ticos do not share the proverb “silence is golden” with us. If I am sitting quietly reading, my husband inevitably comes in and comments,”¡Qué barbaridad! Todo quedadito aquí” (What an outrage! All quiet here.) Costa Ricans like to have the TV on whether they are watching or listening or not.
If the TV is not on, it’s the radio, or, why not? Both at the same time! Often, in our house, he turns on the TV, then goes outside. I turn it off. He comes back in and turns it on again and goes upstairs to do something. I ask him if he’s really listening, and he looks at me like the question doesn’t make sense. And, guess what, it doesn’t because the idea isn’t to turn on the TV to watch or listen. The idea is to turn on the TV, period. Ticos find the background noise comforting, even the commercials. ¡Qué barbaridad! indeed.
In my grandmother’s day, people used to warn each other to stay out of drafts to avoid illness. Nowadays, medical science tells us that it is not the drafts that make us sick, but whatever microbes are flying around in the air. The problem is that medical science has neglected to reach the Costa Ricans, who bundle up their babies in snowsuits and constantly admonish us to stay out of drafts in 75-degree weather.
This is especially true of drafts that may hit our backs. If I am lying down and get up, say, to get a cup of coffee, he scolds me for getting up “toda calurosa” (all warmed up), without putting something on to protect my back. This concern also extends to bare feet. It’s one thing to worry about feet encountering fire ants or scorpions, yes, but bare feet in Costa Rica due to the cold? That’s just silly. It wasn’t so long ago that the majority of Ticos didn’t wear shoes at all.
What more is there to say? Rice and beans every day is boring, well, to us. And minestrone and quiche are too weird for him.
We always ask people what they do; they always ask people about family. They want to know about our“cepa” (stock, origins). This is a cultural difference that is fairly obvious to all. However, it can be problematic in a mixed marriage.
I often find myself in the midst of long conversations about family genealogy – the Castros that go back to Cuba, the Cantillos from Guanacaste – to which I cannot relate, especially since I know practically nothing about my own roots (I have this theory that my father hid Mafia connections from me). On the other hand, my husband’s family has never asked me about my former professional experience.
I’m a West Coast liberal and a doubter to the core. He has the gift of deep faith. I’d love to share it, but I just can’t. He has given up trying to convert me, so we live in peace.
He doesn’t speak English. That’s all right; Spanish is no longer a strain. However, I don’t care how many years I’ve been speaking a second language; there are some things I can only say well enough in my native language. Then there’s what happens when everybody else in the room only speaks English. Translating is tiring!
Periodically, I will say something that I consider completely harmless, trite chatter like, ”We’re going shopping because we’re out of everything,” or “Our dogs sleep in the house at night,” and later, my husband asks me why I would reveal such a thing. Often, what I say, he says, “is just none of their business” or he thinks it may somehow put us in peril. No matter how long I live here, I continue to make these blunders because I cannot figure out the rule that governs them.
I am fortunate. I am married to a Costa Rican who always speaks his mind, and not always to everyone’s liking. In general, however, Costa Ricans do whatever they can to avoid confrontation, including resorting to lies and two-faced behavior. It is especially important that a woman remain diplomatic. Above all, Ticos want to “quedar bien” (look good) to everyone, and they fear they may offend someone with the truth.
I know I haven’t covered it all by a long shot. Please write and let me know about your light-hearted complaints in this enterprise we call mixed marriage, and maybe we can put together another article or so.
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