Culture Shock in Mexico City: A First-Time Visitors Perspective 

Maybe your story starts out a lot like mine, having reached adulthood and realizing that I’d never really traveled or explored anywhere, especially on my own. I was lost in my work, always waiting for the “right time” to vacation, too busy entangled in the vortex of everyone else’s needs around me.

Well, my adventure starts in Mexico. It was my first time out of the US. I was twenty-two years old. After I saw Jim and May’s video about their first Spanish immersion retreat in Guanajuato, it didn’t take much to convince myself. I already had gotten my passport after a failed attempt at planning a family trip to Jamaica, and I had started teaching myself Spanish a few months before, so it seemed like perfect timing. And you couldn’t tell now, but I admit I was a bit hesitant at the thought of solo travel, so the group trip was perfect.

After one week in Mexico, I knew it wasn’t enough. I went back the next month and fell in love all over again. Being outside your own country for the first time opens your eyes. You notice if someone sticks out in your hometown because of their mannerisms. But you’re in for a bigger shock when you realize how you’ve been conditioned to think or act and that not everyone is the same.

The American Cultural Perspective

I feel like the US is so big that most Americans aren’t used to feeling like they are the “different” ones. I’d never lived anywhere but the East coast. The experience was surreal and this is my truth. My perspective of how the two beautiful countries differ.

Attire: Pants All-Day Everyday

Before I even delve into the serious stuff, the first thing that I noticed when arriving in Mexico was the heat. I’m convinced that Mexicans have an extra strong internal heat regulating system or something because everyone in the interior Mexican cities is wearing jeans, shirts, jackets, and boots or tennis shoes. It makes me sweat just remembering it.

I showed up in Mexico City (85 degrees, the sun was not here to play) in shorts and sandals not thinking anything of my usual summer attire, until I paid attention to the masses surrounding me. I was already counting in my head the number of shorts I packed for my two week adventure versus my 2 pairs of pants. It’s definitely easy to spot out my fellow Americans in the city.

Fans and Air Conditioning

Also, ladies and gents, there is no AC. Anywhere. I repeat, do not expect a relief from the heat in the summertime until the night falls. Which honestly I liked (it made me feel like I got more bang for my buck as I wandered - I never even had to think about working out). Of course there are fans, my favorite being the strategically placed water spraying fans found inside of the metro stations, but still a noticeable difference worth mentioning for the average American.

Work-Life Balance

Continuing on to the good stuff, the single biggest difference to me is the work vs family dynamic. In the US, money comes first. We work like crazy, constantly talk about our jobs, and it’s the first thing we ask others about when we meet them. Not that family isn’t important, but the mindset in the US is that, “I need to make more money so that I can have more things.” More things either for ourselves or for our family.

Family Comes First

In Mexico, family comes first. Kids live with their families longer, and many times an extended family lives together. Familial unity is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Now, this is connected with other ideals within the two societies. Mexico is generally more patriarchal, traditional, and conservative, while the US is generally more progressive, capitalistic, and individualistic. Not that one is better, but there are different vibes.

Eye-Contact

While on the subject, it’s worthwhile to mention personality traits that I noticed. Walking the streets of Centro Histórico, everyone looked me in the eye. most metropolitan Americans know what I mean when I say a bunch strangers staring at you on the street, in the metro, or in a store is a little off putting. But I soon realized that it’s super normal.

bellas-artes-centro-historico

Manners, Niceties and Personal Space

Also, the need to be polite and vocal is stronger in the warm culture of Mexico. When you pass by someone in the street, or enter a store, not greeting someone with hola, buenos dias or buenas tardes is almost rude.

We value personal space more in the US. In Mexico, it's common for locals to greet each other with a hug and a kiss. This is so different compared to the US, where a wave and a smile, a handshake, or maybe a hug will do.

Lastly, you'll hear buen provecho (Spanish version of bon appetite) all over the place. Not only by servers setting down food at your table, but also by other customers passing by your table on their way out. It's such a sweet sentiment.

Restaurant Service

Restaurant culture is sort of my speciality, as I have been working in restaurants for almost a decade, but you need no experience to notice the differences here. In the US, speed and impeccable service is expected. It’s great for people on the go. In Mexico, I’ve always gotten great service, but the pace is set by the group. You have to ask for the bill or else, you can sit in peace for hours after eating.

Food Quality

Speaking of food, fresh and handmade food is abundant in Mexico. I rarely saw any fast food places, which you can find on every corner in a US city. And I completely understand. Why have fast food when you can get ten different types of tacos in 2 minutes instead?

mexican-tacos

Disorder

In the US, many places like restaurants, markets, stores, and even the streets are super organized. In Mexico it's more like organized chaos. The mercados and street food stalls are all over the place. But disorder doesn't mean dirty. I saw people taking excellent care of their space in CDMX. It's common to see shop owners sweeping and mopping in front of their store early every morning.

Don’t get me started on the driving though, I wasn’t ready for the risky drivers of Mexico city! It's probably crazy in any major city in the world, but being from an average sized city in the States, I cannot relate. I heard often from my Uber and taxi drivers, “If you can drive in Mexico city, you can drive anywhere.”

Cost of Living

The last big difference I noticed while traveling, is cost. As a very young and broke (budget friendly if you will) traveler, I noticed how everything was generally cheaper in Mexico. Especially public programs. University, metro rides, and even healthcare is much cheaper in Mexico.

Now, I’m not talking about which country has better services, but at 5 pesos (about 25 cents) you can go just about anywhere in Mexico City on the metro. And when I told my Mexican friends that back in the US my college was $40,000 (800,000 pesos) a year, their looks said it all. One of them explained that the costs for the two popular universities in Mexico, UNAM and ITESM, were around 100 pesos ($10 USD) and 2,000 pesos ($100 USD) per semester, respectively. That sounded crazy to me so I had to check Google. Lo and behold, the tuition for UNAM ranged between $0 and $500 USD per semester ($1,000 USD per year). Compare that to my own experience at a university in the US... I was blown away.

What We Have in Common

But after pointing out all these differences, maybe you ask, “what’s similar?” And honestly, people's passion for their country remains the same. Mexicans and Americans share the same intensity for whatever they choose to pursue. There's the same spirit in supporting their country and community.

Experiencing another culture for the first time only makes me want to go explore more, and see what countries all over the world have to offer. Start planning your next trip so can witness these things for yourself, I promise that you won’t regret it!

Images via Rafael Guajardo (Bellas Artes), and Tai's Captures (tacos).