It all started on a sunny afternoon in the lobby of the NH, a fancy hotel in Mexico City. We were about to host our first foreign exchange student. My family was ecstatic, wondering what our new girl would be like. When Sofia first came downstairs with all the other Finnish exchange students that came to Mexico, I remember the dismay written on my mother’s face. My mom, a dark skinned Mexican woman, was worried on how we were going to make this Barbie looking, blonde, blue-eyed girl feel welcome and comfortable. They were both awestruck. My family spoke only English and Spanish at the time, and besides a little English she spoke only her native tongue of Finnish. Despite our language barrier, we were determined to make this girl who looked like a Scandinavian princess ours.
The first hoop we had to jump over when we got home was explaining Mexican greetings. Sofia came from North Karelia, a region known in Finland for its extremely quiet citizens who do not exchange small talk or interact with strangers at all if possible. They rarely even touch each other. She told us herself that the last time that her parents had hugged her or kissed her she was about eight years old. On the complete opposite, we have Mexico. While other countries shake hands, nod, bow or wave to say hi, Mexicans kiss once on the cheek. Sofia was horrified. Not accustomed to this, she honestly felt that every time that someone kissed her to say “hi,” it was sexual harassment. However, after she understood that it was just a greeting, she grew to love it. After a year in Mexico, she would FaceTime us, crying because she missed hugging and kissing. Latin America in general is known for its people being warm, friendly, and very in touch with their feelings and physical contact. For her, it was a huge milestone to integrate into a culture completely opposite from hers.
Another challenge we had with Sofia was understanding the Mexican space-time continuum. The biggest challenge was the magic word ahorita. This was Sofia’s greatest conflict: how on Earth could one word mean “right now,” “in five minutes,” “later” or “never”? With a strong Finnish RR, she asked me: “¿Pero porrrrr qué? Why can’t I just say not right now?”
The simplest explanation is that Mexicans are pros in using our language like a linguistic bubble wrap. We have pleasantries and unspoken rules, a complicated dance invisible to the naked eye, with the sole purpose of making everyone feel comfortable and avoiding harsh edges and truths. Sofia learned quickly that ahorita is like the linguistic snooze button, and ended being quite proficient at avoiding immediate tasks by saying she would do it ahorita. In the eight months that followed, she mastered Mexican pleasantries and time. (She even managed the incomparable Mexican trilled rr).
In spite of everything, we made it. Despite all the faux pas, the confusions and tears, Sofia became a sister to me and she was a Beggel too. She finally got through customs, loaded with Mexican presents and showered with love, hugs and kisses. She walked with tears in her eyes, but her head held high, our ice princess turned Latina. She had done it all, and understood that more than beyond any custom, unconditional love and humor are what it takes to belong to a Mexican family. When Sofia boarded the plane to Finland and turned around to throw us one last kiss, we knew deep down that she was now Mexican and most importantly, part of the family.
Author’s Note: On December 20, 20109, Sofia will be coming home to her Mexican family!