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Sometimes a hug is the wrong thing.

Photo: A National Acrobat

We’re in the middle of our English lesson when a bright white car pulls into the dirt yard and a woman strides across the yard calling out loudly in fluent but heavily accented Spanish. Don Faustino goes out to meet her.

Her hair is an unnatural shade of orangey-red—not unlike the color Doña Ludi obtains for the yarn by mixing cochineal with lime juice—her pants are blinding white, her blouse is translucent neon pink, her earrings are enormous hunks of neon pink plastic. This is obviously not her natural habitat.

Cochineal. Photo: Ibis Alonso

Don Faustino guides her into the front room, and she makes a beeline for the doña. “Hola, tú!” she cries—a greeting for children and close friends—though Doña Ludi greets her, respectfully, as usted.

She grabs Doña Ludi in a bear hug that the hug-ee clearly finds awkward. Her head is pressed against the woman’s neon pink bosom, for one, and for two, this just isn’t done.

I learned last night, when we ran into Don Faustino’s sister and her children, that the correct Zapotec greeting is a graceful two-handed gesture, something like a handshake, but more like the exchange of an invisible, delicate egg. Barring that, Faustino and Ludi are as in love as any couple I’ve ever known, but I’ve never seen them so much as touch hands. But this woman is hugging away, as though Doña Ludi were a favorite doll.

Photo: Meggers

Then I’m introduced. The woman greets me in Spanish but gives me an odd little wink and half-smile that make me feel somehow dirty. Or do I overreact? Perhaps she just means, “sorry for interrupting your lesson, I’ll be quick.” But I feel something else in that look—a just-between-us-white-people kind of something—that I want no part of.

She gives Don Faustino some money—clearly the last in a series of payments—chattering away about some delicious chocolates that someone brought her from the U.S. and how she’s on her way to give one to Ximena because she already gave one to Juan and one to Chayito. Soon Don Faustino is walking her back out to her car.

Doña Ludi murmurs to me, as we sit down, that she guesses there’s no chocolate for her. I grin—is this Doña Ludi being snarky? She tells me that the woman is a tour guide here in Oaxaca, she’s European, she owed them money for a rug but now she’s paid up.

Doña Ludi and I drift back towards our lesson—we’re working on translating their natural dye demonstration into simple English. They use a bean called huizoche to get an intense black out of brownish-black wool. She repeats the new word, “bean”, several times, getting the feel of it.

Huizoche. Photo: Ibis Alonso

I must sound so silly, she says.

But I tell her, no, that’s how we learn. And then, wanting somehow to give her a gift, I add, honestly, that her pronunciation is amazingly good.

You have an advantage because you’re already bilingual, I tell her. Your ears are already trained to listen for many different sounds, and you already know that the same idea can be expressed in very different ways in different languages, so you don’t resist it.

I guess we do learn to listen, she says. When we meet people from other pueblos, their Zapotec is different from ours. They pronounce the words differently than we do, so we have to pay attention if we want to understand.

Out in the yard, the white car pulls away.

Don Faustino comes back in. They exchange a few soft words in Zapotec. I pay attention, but I don’t understand what they’re saying.

Not yet.

Community Connection

Get some advice on how to avoid those awkward intercultural moments here.

What’s the most embarrassingly, obviously culturally inappropriate act you’ve witnessed (or committed) on the road? Share your experiences in the comments.



About The Author

Teresa Ponikvar

Teresa Ponikvar is a former Matador editor, a current reluctant English teacher, and a future mini-farmer. She lives in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, with her husband, young son, and assorted animals and arthropods. She blogs here.

  • Carlo

    Beautiful Teresa!

  • Colin Wright

    Yeesh, I’m terrified I’ll commit a faux pas like this when I leave for Argentina in September. I guess you live and you learn, but I’d really like to avoid offending people (but at the same time don’t want to come across as too reserved or unfriendly). Aside from using the correct form of ‘you,’ any other quick tips on how to do this?

    • Teresa

      @Colin–I think Tim and Julie are both right on. Approach people respectfully and pay attention to their responses–if they seem uncomfortable, change the subject, stop hugging them, put your shirt on, whatever. And look around you when you’re on the street or in a cafe: how do locals interact with each other? Do they greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, a handshake, a hug? What’s personal space like? And so on.

      But all that said, don’t worry! People will understand that you’re from somewhere else and forgive your good-hearted faux pas.

  • Julie

    @Teresa: One of the reasons why I love your writing is because in every piece I feel as if I’m there, experiencing the awkward or incredible moment you’re telling the reader about.

    @Colin: Colin, I don’t think you need to worry. It’s all about the attitude with which you’re approaching the other person– you seem to be a thoughtful, respectful guy (and not to mention the fact that you don’t have orange hair). I don’t think you’ll offend anyone.

  • Tim Patterson

    Love it. You write so well, Teresa.

    Inappropriate behavior abroad? Probably people asking probing questions about awkward topics in Japan, when the person answering is being politely evasive. You need to know when to back off.

  • Turner

    An air of mystery about this story. I like it.

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