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By Robert Blakslee
I’ve been living in Mexico for quite some time now. Life is good; my city is safe, rent is cheap, I like the food and it’s cheap too. But always and forever, in ways both obvious and subtle, I’m a foreigner, an eternal visitor. The only time I’ve been taken for a Mexican, to my knowledge, I was at a bar. It was very loud, so the girl mustn’t have heard my accent very clearly, and when I mentioned something about being an American (‘gringo’), she said something to the tune of, “Huh, you’re American? I thought you were just super ‘fresa’.” ‘Fresa’ literally means strawberry in Spanish, but in Mexico it means something like preppy, spoiled, and out of touch with reality. At the time I didn’t know this and thought she was saying I was very red.
But to be honest, as a foreigner I do often feel spoiled and out of touch with reality. As a native English speaker finding work is very easy and entering and exiting the country is a breeze, circumstances in stark contrast with those of many Mexicans. Most people are patient and speak slowly to me, which I sometimes hate, but is honestly a huge help. In a word, I often feel that I’m catered to. Which can be nice. But that being the case, there is a whole world that is unavailable to me, a world that hasn’t completely learned to accommodate me, nor I it.
My experience of Mexico has been by and large the experience of a dinner guest. For the dinner guest, you put out the special china, clean the house before he arrives, cook for dinner what rumor has it he likes to eat. You smile at him, laugh at his jokes. Maybe you find it off-putting that he didn’t take his shoes off at the door, but you let it slide, you think that maybe at his house they keep their shoes on, that he didn’t know any better. If you were sure he were coming back another day, you would have told him, but for one dinner it’s not worth the trouble. Not always, but with most moderately polite people, this is my life. Complicated further by the fact that my Spanish is not quite 100%, shall we say.
The idea I want to get across is that things are done differently in Mexico, and that I’m not always privy to, or not always made privy to, the fact of exactly how differently. Looked at from the other side, people sometimes find it hard to see why I don’t do something the right way, as though I were showing off my foreignness when I accidentally do something rude, or silly, or jarring.
In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger’s humble attempt to define ‘Being,’ he stumbles upon a concept that he calls “Being-ahead-of-itself,” which he describes as essential to the human way of ‘Being.’ “‘Being-ahead-of itself,’” writes Heidegger, “does not signify anything like an isolated tendency in a worldless ‘subject’, but characterizes Being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 236). ‘Being-ahead-of-itself’ is a kind of anticipation. Our thoughts and actions anticipate the future. Of course they influence and shape that future, but also they are enacted with a certain vision of the future already in mind. Not in any kind of fortune-telling, premonitory way, but in the sense that our thoughts and actions exist within a certain framework, or network, of possibilities and expectations. We act and react within this framework. What Heidegger means when he tells us that ‘being-ahead-of-itself’ is not an isolated tendency is that, rather, it is a shared tendency, founded on what each of us in a society can reasonably expect in our daily interactions with the world of other people and objects that surrounds us. ‘Being-ahead-of-itself’ is what tells me that I might want to open the door when I hear someone knocking on it. Or, given a different set of circumstances, that I might not want to open it.
To illustrate with a small example. I enter a party in, say, Chicago. I walk in, and there are about thirty people there, already separated into small groups, chatting. I walk up to the host, say hello and ask him where I can put my jacket. I put my jacket where he tells me to, walk to the kitchen, pour myself a drink, find the people I know best and want to spend time with, and start talking with them. This is a routine. I know, and know that I might expect only a small margin of error, that this is how my night will begin. I can expect the host will answer me and take my jacket, I anticipate that there will be drinks in the kitchen, and I know, more or less, where my friends will be. I perform each action without thinking about it, because I know where everything is, how everyone will respond, and what I aim to get out of the evening. It is a well-rehearsed act. Anyone who behaves otherwise, outside of these norms and expectations, will have behaved badly.
Now, I enter a similar situation in Mexico. I go up to the host and ask him where I can put my jacket. “Wherever you want,” he tells me, “this is your house!” But it’s not my house and now I don’t know what to do with my jacket. I say thank you, and carry my jacket on my arm. I walk to the kitchen to get a drink. Luckily, the drinks are there, I pour myself one, and go find my friends. “Did you just walk into the kitchen and get a drink?” my friend asks me. “Yes, why?” I say. “Whose cup did you use?” “Someone gave me one,” I reply. It turns out that a) I should have brought my own cups, and b) I should have known the person’s name who gave me one, because I should have hugged and kissed and introduced myself to all thirty guests upon entering. I’ve behaved badly. I’ve shirked my responsibility as a participant in the cooperative network of expectations that would have allowed this party to run smoothly. My anticipations, my ability to ‘be-ahead-of-myself,’ didn’t match up with those of everyone else in the room.
The Heidegger quote that I cited earlier continues, “To Being-in-the-world, however, belongs the fact that it has been delivered over to itself – that it has in each case already been thrown into a world” (Heidegger, 236). ‘Being-in-the-world,’ of which ‘being-ahead-of-itself’ is a crucial element, is this capacity to behave well, to act and to react is such a way that everyone involved achieves, more or less, what they want to or expect to achieve. I can’t pretend to know precisely what Heidegger means when he says “delivered over to itself,” but I imagine that it has to do with this idea of the fulfillment of expectations, the idea that we live in the world, and in the ways, that we more or less expect to live in.
This isn’t an idea that could be turned into sentiment of the ‘we live the world we dream’ sort. When Heidegger writes, “that it has in each case already been thrown into a world,” he means something like the following. That ‘being-ahead-of-itself’ is not something that an individual, alone, can manage to do. Anticipation of the sort described is something that is societal, something that we are born and raised into. It is something that shapes us as much as we shape it. We are thrown into a world, a way of being, a set of possibilities, that we perpetuate rather than create. Coherent, mutually comprehensible activity exists because of the participation of a large number of people in a network of shared norms. We can act in certain ways because we know the world will react correspondingly, and vice versa.
Although there are some norms that are different here, although expectations vary and I’m not always able to anticipate what comes next and react appropriately, Mexico is not Mars, nor am I a Martian. Although ‘things’ vary between cultures, societies, and countries, in this world, interconnected as it is, these differences do not make these cultures, societies, or countries completely exclusive of one another. We rarely enter a foreign situation entirely uninformed, or completely alien. Before coming to Mexico, I had heard quite a bit about the country. I knew to expect to eat tacos, I knew to expect to hear people speaking Spanish, I knew to avoid involvement with major drug cartels, which exist in Mexico, etc. Likewise, Mexicans know to expect certain things from Americans. Americans are loud, Americans are careless, Americans have money, and Americans think that everything belongs to them. Thus, Mexico had a role in my psyche, as well as I, as an American, had a role in Mexico’s.
My opening example involved being confused for a Mexican, even a super fresa Mexican. What that means is being acted upon, or reacted towards, or expected to behave as though you know what you’re doing, as though you are a competent part of a community. This is as opposed to being treated as a foreigner, in which case the expectation is that you will not understand. In the first case, I’m acknowledged as a responsible person, and whenever I fail to behave properly, in the sense of acting or reacting appropriately, that failure reflects solely on me. In the second case, my failure reflects on me as a representative of a different category of person, as person that might not be completely responsible, that might not know better. Here, the burden is on me to understand that failure, demonstrate that I understand it, and then make the choice to continue to behave out of order, or to try and get in line. This type of understanding will not just come about. Like in my party example, you have to trust someone and they have to trust you enough for you both to put all your cards on the table. You have to say, “I don’t understand, but I want to. I want you to show me what people expect me to do, and explain to me why they expect me to do it.” And even still you won’t always understand, you’ll fumble. But you’ll be headed in the right direction, and you’ll already have loosed yourself from the set of expectations that exists for the careless, never-wrong American.
I described myself as often feeling out of touch with reality here. What I meant was, out of touch with the reality of this place. That is because, to use Heidegger’s phrase, this is not the world that I had already been thrown into. It is different world, not completely unrelated, but different enough to make me lose my footing. I am a person that has already been ‘thrown,’ in Heidegger’s sense of the word, and I don’t think I could be thrown twice. I came to Mexico with fully formed ideas and expectations, as a person capable of ‘being-ahead-of-myself’ according to those ideas and expectations. I don’t think that this means that I can’t understand better the different ideas and expectations that will allow to ‘be-ahead-of-myself” here. I think it means that doing so will require colossal effort, major self-examination, and very patient friends and teachers. It will also mean keeping in mind the kinds of expectations people will have of me as an American, and acting in such a way as to either to reinforce or break down those expectations, according to my considered judgment.