on Dec 8, 2013 • by Tara Daze

Home » Opinion » Too close for questions

Be it taxi driver, hairdresser, relative-in-law, or friend of a friend at a party, when meeting new people in Colombia there is an awkward moment when they ask the same questions: “Do you like Bogotá?” and then the one that bothers me: “And your parents, what do they say about you being here?”

I can’t work it out. Is this just one of the social niceties a foreigner must learn to navigate in Colombia, or is it a genuine question? What if I didn’t even have parents, or if they have actually disowned me for abandoning them? Wouldn’t that be quite awkward explain within 5 minutes of meeting someone? I am lucky to have supportive parents, but I’m sure I’d hate the question even more if the case were different.

To answer “y tus papas, ¿qué dicen de que estas aquí?” I usually stick with the neutral “they’re happy that I’m happy” but can’t stop myself from adding that I haven’t just been ripped from the warmth and safety of the nest aged 26, and thrust into the big bad city (“welcome to the chaos” the locals often say) and explain that I’ve lived in various different countries over the last eight years, as if I have to justify myself.

When an older friend asks about my family and I tell him my youngest sister has just moved out, he smiles, “ah, is she getting married?” I have to compose myself to explain that it’s not a prerequisite, that she’s been wanting more independence for years. A taxi driver tells me, after asking me the question, “Well, we do overprotect our children here in Latin America. Mind you, I don’t agree with the way you gringos do things, all so detached. That’s not right either.” I don’t disagree.

Perhaps it bothers me because I’m horrified at the thought of being ‘mummied’ and treated like a child. But with Colombian ten-year-olds talking like toddlers around family members, the idea of being ‘consentido’ or spoiled, is what every loved and adored child enjoys here, until well into adulthood.

I spent my first few weeks in Bogotá perplexed by the babies I saw being carried in the streets. On the TransMilenio, I imagine I could easily get offered a priority blue seat at rush hour by wrapping up a bundle of clothes inside a pastel coloured 100 percent polyester blanket. No one would bat an eyelid, because on the streets of Bogotá, a baby’s face is rarely seen.

I asked my friend Toño “why are the babies wrapped in thermal blankets, with their faces covered, even in 18 degree sunshine? Isn’t anyone worried about them suffocating?”

He told me: “it’s basically because of three things. People still believe that Bogotá is a cold city. They’re afraid of the ‘sereno’, an old superstition about cold humid night air at high altitude. People think it will make them ill, especially the children.

“There’s also still a belief that if the wrong person looks at your child in the wrong way, they’re putting bad energies, or a kind of curse on your child.” That wasn’t an answer I was expecting, but it makes a lot of sense. Parents want to protect their children, it’s that simple. “Lastly,” Toño told me, “I still sleep with my face underneath the covers. It’s a way to be completely relaxed.”

A Peruvian friend who stayed with an English family in her teens complained, “you people are so cold.” I wonder whether it works both ways. If I was a foreigner in the UK, would people ask after my family? The question they’re asking me must be because they want to know: “If I travelled to a different continent, leaving behind the world I know and the people that love me, what would they say to me?” I’ve done it, but I’m still asking myself the same question.

Alfredo Molano, a Colombian journalist and sociologist who has dedicated his life to traversing this country’s most remote parts to tell the story of its people, has a point: “The price you pay for independence is loneliness, but independence is a link to your dreams.”

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6 Responses to Too close for questions

  1. It ain't me, babe! says:

    Over the years, I have had an interesting time making up invented life stories for random questioners (taxi drivers, people`s mothers-in-law, nosy secretaries, etc.). It is a perfect antidote to feeling annoyed at answering the same questions over and over. They’re just trying to make conversation, and can’t figure out what else to ask you. I would say it’s NOT age-related. I just turned sixty and have lived here for forty years, and people still ask me what my parents think. (They’re dead.)

  2. kp Attman says:

    Very interesting that all men responded to this. I think the “and your parents?” questions are often directed towards women. Latin American women tend not to leave home or move to other countries, and that’s why Latins are so surprised to see young women on their own in a foreign country.

    I got a lot of that when I moved as a young 20-something to South America. Now that I’m older, the questions have changed a bit. But really, I love those cultural differences, and I learn a lot from seeing such close families here.

    And I’m glad that I was raised in a culture that allows me to be me, wherever that may take me.

  3. Marc says:

    You know, if you are in China, they also ask you the same questions every time you meet new people, so I don’t feel bothered at all if they ask me a couple of similar questions every time I meet somebody new in Colombia. It’s also that Colombia doesn’t have too much immigration yet; look at Argentina, they all come from different cultures, I’m sure they wouldn’t ask you any kind of question… I actually feel great about getting asked questions, that means that the other person is curious.

  4. sam gibson says:

    hmmmm I would put a lot of it down to cultural differences- most Colombians are more family oriented, and many young Colombians of your age live with their families, so a parents opinion is culturally crucial!

    • Tim says:

      I agree. I don’t consider that the article sufficiently highlights that the driver behind many of these questions are cultural differences and specifically the differences in family behavior. I’m also confused about the relevance of the final paragraph to the theme of the article.

  5. James says:

    Whine, whine, whine. Try to be happy, pack up and go, then you dont have to be with us.

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