April 7, 2010

Drinking (Starbucks) And Driving

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Social laws are like traffic laws. You obey them or you don’t at your own peril. We learned this lesson firsthand a few weeks ago, when we travelled to Fajardo, Puerto Rico for Spring Break.

In P.R., you see, the roads have no rules. Left hand turns can be made from the left or right lane.  Headlights, taillights and turning signals:  optional. Lanes are fluid concepts. Even the roadkill is different — Puerto Rico trades squirrels for lizards. 

When you enter a new culture, there is a social adaptation period. We soon realized that the Puerto Rican police weren’t really enforcing the traffic laws, so it was up to us what kind of drivers we would be over vacation. Should we abide by what our Mainland driving experience has taught us or follow what others are doing? And when you take away the authority that is enforcing the social rules, do we adapt to the culture that is foreign to us? 

Even though we found it easy to slip into the different driving style, there were certain spaces where it was easy to forget that we had even left the U.S.! At times, we encountered instances of the Mainland being manufactured on the island. 

In our experience, what has distinguished the atmosphere in Mainland U.S. is that everything has to be quick. In the words of Cornell’s own Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz, it is more, “McOndo than Macondo.” (Read the book if you don’t get it, it will be worth your time.)

Fast food is probably the clearest example. When we walked into the Starbuck’s in San Juan, we expected lightning-quick service in English. Walking under the green-colored sign, we had the feeling of being able to leave our Spanish-speaking personas at the door. It was like entering a safe haven. Customers were sipping lattés, checking Facebook and speaking in English. Pastries were not translated into Spanish equivalents as they were everywhere else on the island — the only hint of foreignness was a couple items of local flavor on the menu. 

The El Conquistador Resort of the Waldorf Astoria Collection in Fajardo (read: fancy shmancy six-star hotel masquerading as a five-star) projects the same atmosphere, a place for Mainlanders to experience an edited version of Puerto Rican culture with the same fast pace of service of McOndo.  Sleek, shiny marble floors open onto an expanse of tropical patterned décor, but nothing is really that unique. Birdcages allow for the pleasurable viewing of Puerto Rican wildlife. But like the pastry situation at Starbucks, these cages — with the stereotypical birds at a safe distance — represent the outlook of these places to filter the “foreign” experience so that people from one culture aren’t forced to make the choice whether or not to abandon their own social rules in favor of the local culture. 

As a new driver in Puerto Rico you can choose to ignore the new rules, you have to make the same choice regarding your everyday interactions with the culture. People who go to El Conquistador think they’re experiencing another culture when they’re actually just still in the comfort of their own Main­land construct. In both Starbuck’s and the hotel, a safe stereotype of Latino-ness is packaged and presented for the enjoyment of visitors. 

The greatest example of this phenomenon could be found in the simplest of places (here is the obligatory bathroom humor section of this witty, intelligent and sophisticated column).  When we arrived at our condo, which we were renting from a local, we were surprised to find bidets in every bathroom. What is this, you may ask? Not something that Mainlanders are too familiar with, but we have encountered them in our travels around the world. 

Sure enough, this unfamiliar lavatory addition to our Spring Break brought to mind an SNL skit from a few weeks before: “Executive Suite Bidet” (featuring Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig and Andy Sandberg), which aired March 6.  The humor is in the awkwardness of the bidet — way outside the comfort zone of a quilted roll of toilet paper.

But we wondered if the lavish, tourist-friendly El Conquistador also featured the bidet. Since we lowly college students could not afford to see the inside of one of these suites, one of us called a friendly representative at the hotel and after some persistent questioning (intrepid reporters, aren’t we?) discovered that bidets are not “standard” in the rooms. This is further evidence for our belief that these safe havens are purposefully set apart from the normal Puerto Rican culture.

We, your loyal experimenters here at Outer Limits, took a turn as the test monkeys and stumbled upon a cultural truth: The discomfort of social violations is so great that we build spaces enabling ourselves to experience “the other” through a glass wall. What is different is digestible as long as it is neatly packaged and stored at a safe distance. Food for thought for the next Spring Break adventure.  RLD

Original Author: Allie Perez