Same Same, but Different

I hope, Loyal Reader, that you are well, and that if you’re from the U.S., you had a good Thanksgiving. I spent my Turkey Day eating chicken wings and drinking cheap Chinese beer; not very patriotic, I s’pose.

It has been three weeks since I arrived here, and those three weeks combined with countless visits over the past 10 years have given me, I think, good insight into the myriad ways in which Mexico – and Mexico City in particular – is similar to its neighbor to the north, as well as into the many ways in which it differs.

A few random observations, both good and bad….

1A) Mexico has almost all of the same name brands that we have in the U.S. Take soft drinks, for instance. Coca-Cola and Pepsi dominate the soft drink chains, and local competitors (such as Red Cola) can barely make a dent. Making it harder for the Red Colas’ of the region is the fact that Coke and Pepsi often sponsor a corner store with free awnings, coolers, even umbrella stands, which makes the store owner more “inclined” to give their product prime placement. Mountain Dew, however, is nowhere to be found, but that isn’t an anomaly limited solely to Mexico; the only foreign country I’ve found Mountain Dew in was Uganda of all places.

1B) “Big Box” stores exist here, but not on the same level of omnipresence as in the U.S. Most sizeable cities (say, greater than 100,000 people) have one Wal-Mart, and there is a Sam’s Club within walking distance of my neighborhood. There aren’t any Target stores, but since Target recently expanded into Canada I’d betting they’ll be here by 2015. High-end soft-lines retailers Macy’s and Bloomingdales aren’t here, but their U.S. market share is matched store-for-store in Mexico by Liverpool and Sanborns, the latter of which is owned by world’s-richest-man Carlos Slim. Somewhat curiously, Woolworth still exists in Mexico, and Sears is the department store. I walked past a Sears store perhaps two weeks ago and there were 20 people waiting outside the doors, ten minutes before the place opened!

2) Public transportation in Mexico DF is where you’ll find the city’s best people-watching. Nearly every bus and metro (subway) I’ve been on has been seemingly packed to the gills, yet this never detours local touts from getting on board and selling their wares. Once, a crowded local bus in the nearby town of Cuernavaca pulled up to a corner and a quartet of mariachis boarded! We got a wonderful – albeit cramped – serenade, and all they asked for was a coin or two. Another time, two men boarded a metro car, and at first I thought things were going to get ugly. One of them was not wearing a shirt, but his camisa was bundled up in his hand. He unbundled the shirt and laid it on the floor of the car. The shirt was filled with shards of broken glass. He nodded to his buddy then lay on his back, directly on the broken glass. It gets worse. His buddy jumped on the guy’s back, forcing him into the broken glass. Glass Man then rolled over onto his stomach, and his buddy jumped on him again. I would like to say that they made a small fortune that day; however I for one was too mortified to give them any change. Surely there has to be a better way. Surely the sellers of chicles (gum), galletas (cookies), CDs, and tejidos (tissues) have an easier time….

3) The U.S.A.’s oft-insane tipping culture has infiltrated Mexico (as well as many other countries), but it seems harder here to know when to tip and when not to tip. Taxi drivers don’t expect a tip, and often do a double-take when you insist that they “keep the change,” but the grocery baggers at your neighborhood supermarket do expect a tip. I learned this the hard way. For my first grocery shopping, Pamela accompanied me to Soriana, the local boo-hiss, not-quite-Wal-Mart-but-still-evil, everything-under-the-sun supermarket. An old man bagged our groceries, and Pamela asked me for a few small coins to tip him. No problem; it feels good to help the elderly. On a subsequent visit, my grocery baggers were a pair of teenagers. I left without tipping. Please don’t think me cheap – or a “reverse ageist” – I simply forgot to tip them. I am not used to doing so. Sorry guys.

4) Most residences do not have heat. This is seldom a problem in places like the aforementioned Cuernavaca (literally, “the land of eternal spring”), but Mexico City is almost 8,000 feet above sea level, which means it gets cold at night. Cold. I was feeling a bit under the weather last night, and for me that means I get the chills. I bundled up under three wool blankets, simply shivering. I have been to Mexico City in April and May, and the weather that time of year is terrific – hot and sunny during the day and comfortably cool at night. But in late November, winter is less than a month away, and I need to go sweater shopping. This one-time Chicagoan’s blood thinned out from 12 years of SoCal living, and while I absolutely love my new life here in Mexico City, I need to buy a floor heater or something…stat.

5) Mexico is often – but not always – a cheaper place than the U.S. in which to live. Rent is generally less; my two-bedroom apartment here costs half of what my two-bedroom apartment in LA cost, yet the neighborhoods are comparable. A metro ride costs three pesos (about 25 cents), whereas it costs roughly $1.50 in LA and $4.00 or higher in San Francisco! On the other hand, movie concessions are almost as expensive here as in the U.S., and yesterday’s Starbucks visit cost nearly as much as it would to buy the same items in the U.S. The price of a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal? Same as in the states. (And yes, I ate at McDonald’s. Please don’t hate me for loving their fries.) Most electronics – especially name brands from Japan – cost more here than in the states.

I am curious, Loyal Reader, what observations have you made about differences between your native country and other places to which you have traveled or moved?

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

5 thoughts on “Same Same, but Different”

  1. Right now because of the exchange control, travelling is cheaper than living in Venezuela. Nicaragua is really cheep foodwise, and shopping, but the energy its pretty expensive. Europe is really expensive, but the food in Spain is cheap enough.

  2. I kind of miss this feeling you’re having right now. That freshness of being in a new place, noticing all the differences, and really being able to appreciate them. I moved to Moscow from Poland 2.5 months ago looking for new adventures and the most shocking thing of all if the fact that nothing has surprised me, wowed me, or forced me into a double-take. Maybe it’s too similar to Poland. Or maybe when you’re 31 and already living in your 7th country, not a lot can really leave you in awe.

    Truth be told, the only instance when culture shock appears to me these days is when I return to the US. I feel your situation, but in reverse. I can’t believe I come from there. I’m even surprised that I can understand what everyone is saying and that everyone understands English! But the down side is that I in fact do understand and hear everything that is being said around me by most intelligent and downwards. One advantage of not being fluent in the local language is that I can only deeply communicate with the English-speaking, generally educated population. So when I go back to the US and hear so many of my slightly-backwards Ohioan relatives and friends trying to ask me if they have TVs in Poland, if they speak Moscowish in Moscow, or asking me what a Molish Pisa (Polish Visa) is, I truly feel some differences. Much more than I do here in Moscow.

    1. Hi Andy, I knew you’d have something to contribute. 🙂 Your comments about reactions when you return to your blue-collar Ohio town dismay me, but they don’t surprise me. Remember, though, that Poland was once behind the Iron Curtain, and that people fear what they don’t understand (namely, life in a once-Communist country). I’ve had a few reactions from friends and relatives about my own move, but mostly because they worry Mexico’s drug war makes life in the capital a daily struggle, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying Moscow. Thanks for reading.

    2. @Andy, your Poland statement reminds of what I read here a few weeks back:

      The more places you go the less any single one is likely to satisfy you. As with any purely external form of satisfaction, there’s a cruel diminishing returns to it. Yesterday’s exotic is today’s bore. Yesterday’s news is today’s history. It’s the core of any addictive behavior: you need more and more and more, until one day you need less. Or even worse, you die never having known enough.

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