Monday, September 10, 2007

Culture Clash of Time & Distance

One of my wife's favorite phrases to describe places in Rio De Janeiro, her hometown, is "It's next to my house." This phrase is the source of a major culture clash for us. When she says this, I am assuming, okay, we can walk there in five minutes or less. What I discovered more than once: we can walk there in forty minutes or less, if I'm lucky!

An example happened the other day. We drove eight minutes, or around 5.5 miles to Cherokee and Lemp to the Mexican district to shop for some items. My wife kept track of the time and proudly declare that now she knew the Mexican Grocery is next to our house. I said: "It's not next to our house! It's a long way from it." She said: "Bryan! Come on! Only eight minutes! So close!" Sure. Did I mention we drove there at 65 miles per hour on Insterstate 44? Still she is determined that it's next to our house.

In Rio, we had this problem all the time. Bianca would describe places as next to her house, but when it came time to actually getting there, it was far enough, we took a cab. To me, any place we can't walk to on our own is not close. And the term "next to my house" indicates something close. Not so to Bianca. But then Rio De Janeiro is a big city. And spread out. So maybe that's why her concept of close is different than mine.

I wonder if this relates to the concept of time. In Ghana, Mexico, and Brazil I have experienced non-white time. What this basically means is that if something begins at eight, you show at nine or after. And it's not rude. The only exception is something like a movie, which starts on time, after the usual bevy of previews and commercials, or church services. Also, if you show up late for a job interview, it makes a bad impression. Otherwise, lateness is fine. Of course, the one your interview is with will let you sit at least an hour before he or she shows up, but you must be there on time. If you are invited to someone's home, showing up on time is considered rude, and often the host's will not be ready yet (still in the shower, still preparing). In such cases, showing up on time inconveniences the hosts. Yes, I am serious.

Patrick Oster, in his book The Mexicans, quotes sociologists who describe this concept as a form of protest. Mexicans live lives so controlled by factors beyond their control (government, crime, etc.) that when they have the chance, by showing up late, they are saying: "I still own my time." And they usually trickle in over the course of an hour after we start any program there. This last time, in fact, some showed up ten minutes before the end of the program. As one who was raised to be punctual, this can drive me batty. (Some would claim batty's so close I could walk or next to my house). But I have learned, with time, to accept this reality when dealing with other cultures.

However, it's funny how different it seems when dealing with my wife. My wife is late for everything. Not by much, thank goodness, but she'll say "let's go" fifty times before she actually heads for the door. It frustrates me so much, I often head to the car and tell her if she's not there when it starts, I'll leave her. I wouldn't do that (would I?) but it usually motivates her to move things along. That's why I tell her we have to go for most things with plenty of time to spare. I allow for an extra thirty minutes. It's the only way I have of ensuring we can leave in proper time to arrive "white time." Even if it's "next to our house."

For what it's worth...