Thursday, July 21, 2011

5 Expat Parent Observations: United States vs. Guatemala

When we come back to the States I always notice several things that impact my daughter differently here than in Guatemala. However, this is within a very narrow spectrum, so my experiences do not accurately reflect Guatemala or the States as a whole. Only my experience between a city setting in Guatemala City to a country setting in Texas. Here are some of the things I've noticed, particularly relating to raising children:

1. Larger range of ethnicities:

In Guatemala, most people are the following according to the CIA World Factbook:
Mestizo (mixed Amerindian-Spanish)and European 59.4%,
K'iche 9.1%,
Kaqchikel 8.4%,
Mam 7.9%,
Q'eqchi 6.3%,
other Mayan 8.6%,
indigenous non-Mayan 0.2%,
other 0.1% (2001 census)

In other words, almost everyone is brown-haired, brown-eyed, tan-skinned or else they are obviously foreign. There is a conspicuous lack of people of African descent. When we visited the States, that resulted in the following conversation:

Talia: "Mami, that lady has brown skin!"
Me: "Yes, it's beautiful, isn't it?"
Talia: "But my skin is peach!"
Me: "Yes, everybody is different."

In the U.S. there is a much broader range of ethnic peoples- and that is a good thing when it comes to exposing children to more than one kind of nationality.

2. Free-range child rearing is more possible:

When I say free-range, I mean that children have a yard to play in that allows for minimal supervision, like an adult washing dishes in the house at a window and still checking outside occasionally. In Guatemala, at least in the city, that is a difficult thing to come by. There aren't really "neighborhoods" the same way there are in the States. Children, especially foreign-looking ones, can't just wander off to play if you don't want them to get kidnapped. Outside of the city, this is much less extreme! Talia has enjoyed being able to run around outside (always in the yard, always within sight) and play around trees and foliage that would never fit in a little city "garden." I appreciate the lack of stress of constantly having the thought in the back of my head that someone could run off with her. (Though I am aware that yes, that is still possible here.)

3. The lack of walls and barbed wire is surprising:

If you want any degree of a place like my #2 to play in Guatemala, then walls and barbed wire are necessary. It's nice to actually see houses here in the States. In Guatemala, everything is behind a wall with layers of barbed wire on top. You can't just drive anywhere and see a house, you have to have permission to enter the gate and then you might get to actually see a house. At first the barriers everywhere isn't such a big deal until you go back to the States and feel like you can breathe again... unless you've gotten so accustomed to the walls that you then feel unprotected. I like for my daughter to experience life without walls occasionally.

4. Playing with other kids in English:

In Guatemala, even if the parents speak English, usually the language between playing children is Spanish. I like this. I'm glad Talia is developing her Spanish skills from the playground up. She always speaks English with us at home, and we know that it is developing also. However, her English is more elevated than her age because of this. I don't think it's a bad thing that she doesn't speak with other kids in English very often, but I am glad when she gets the opportunity.
On the flip side, this helps me appreciate the truly bilingual environment we have found in Guatemala. One big reason to move to a Latin American country was to have a bilingual child. I like that during her language's most formative years, she is in a bilingual atmosphere. She amazes me daily with her grasp of both Spanish and English. (She's pretty good at understanding Portuguese too!)

5. Extended family:

One of the most common things an expat must choose to give up is his or her close proximity to extended family when moving to another country. It's nice when we get the chance to visit and Talia can play with and talk to other family members besides those she lives with every day. I grew up very close to my family and it's definitely the thing I miss the most when we are in Guatemala. I'm thankful for technology and the contact that has made possible, but it will never come close to a real life hug or conversation.

Most of these reasons have also contributed to us moving out of Guatemala City and to a less hectic, more country place outside of the capital- more like where I was raised.
I want to be able to grow herbs outside.
I want to be able to walk consistently.
I want Talia to have a good place to play outside with her puppy.
Nature is therapeutic and I want her to find that for herself.

Guatemala has many beautiful things to offer, but, in my opinion, the majority of those things are not found in the city setting, but rather in the majestic natural environment.

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