International Series: Don’t Drink the Water
This is the first in our International Series here at The Exponent – over the next two weeks, we’ll be showcasing a variety of perspectives and viewpoints about life in the global church. We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.
“Don’t drink the water. Ever.”
That’s the first thing I remember learning after I stepped off the plane in Mexico City, having newly relocated there with my family at the tender age of twelve. I was wide-eyed and terrified – I spoke no Spanish, so I couldn’t read any signs or orient myself to this brand new world. I couldn’t eavesdrop on conversations to figure out where to go or how to get there. I just clutched my suitcases tightly and followed my parents through an endless maze of people, into a car, and eventually to the house that I would call home for the next six years of my life.
“Remember, don’t drink the water. Don’t take any taxis that aren’t approved – you can’t guarantee that unauthorized cabs will take you to where you need to go and that they won’t overcharge you or mug you. If you need directions, ask multiple people – people will tell you directions even if they don’t know what they’re talking about, because it’s rude not to. If you’re in a market, expect that they will quote you double the price of what they’ll actually sell it for. Don’t worry about the guards armed with semi-automatic weapons outside the bank/grocery store/McDonald’s – they have to pay for their own bullets, so it’s unlikely that they’ll shoot them unless it’s a real emergency. And don’t ever, ever, ever trust the police. They’ll make you pay a bribe (at best) or kidnap you (at worst). But don’t worry – you’re gonna love it here!”
Over the next six years, I developed a sixth sense for navigating one of the biggest cities in the world as a blonde, blue-eyed, white girl. I drove a low-profile VolksWagen bug so as to not attract attention from the police or thieves. In the event that I did get pulled over, I knew to only lower my window enough to talk to the policeman and to hold my license up to the window, and to never – under any circumstances – hand it over. If things went poorly, I knew to hold up a business card from a friend’s parent who worked at the US Embassy – that was usually enough to make me more trouble for them than it was worth. I learned Spanish, stopped noticing the armed guards (who never did shoot), and depended on myself (and nobody else) to get me from Point A to Point B. I learned to walk the fine line between being adventurous and being safe – as an American, I knew I had a certain amount of protection, because most violent criminals didn’t want to possibly deal with the blow-back of the US government. But I also knew not to be stupid – just because people weren’t going to shoot me didn’t mean that they weren’t going to rob me or assault me. I developed a strong sense of mistrust in almost everything I did – I knew to expect that any car would cut me off at any time (as they usually did). I expected that anybody giving me advice or directions was either trying to sell me something or lead me into a compromising situation. I expected to gather as much information as possible about any given situation, to review it with a healthy dose of skepticism, and then to make the best decision I could.
This sense of suspicion, combined with a large dose of luck, kept me mostly out of harm’s way during my teenage years in Mexico City. I wasn’t mugged (like many friends were), or kidnapped (like my classmate or family friend), but I did have to pay an occasional bribe and interact with some unsavory members of law enforcement. This mistrust bled into other areas of my life – I began to question the motivations behind everybody’s actions, large and small. Do I trust my American teacher in his telling of the Mexican-American war, where we were tearfully admonished to “Remember the Alamo?” Or do I trust the next year’s Mexican teacher who tells the same story as America’s violent and merciless theft of Texas from a sovereign nation? If a doctor suggests an expensive medical intervention, is he/she doing it with my best interest in mind, or because he/she stands to make a lot of money from it? And when I was living in a country where it was common knowledge that the previous president stole millions of dollars, it wasn’t a huge leap for me to think that Bill Clinton actually did “have sexual relations with that woman.” I found that just because somebody has “power” or “authority,” it doesn’t always make them right.
So when my bishop came into my Young Women class and explained to us that premarital sex is a sin next to murder, I was skeptical, even with his seeming scriptural support. When he said that the atonement won’t save us when we inevitably get AIDS from being promiscuous, I began to doubt his teachings even more. And when he said that even though Christ will forgive us, no returned missionary would want to marry “damaged goods,” I was outright incensed. It definitely helped that when I went home and related the event to my also-generally-resistant-to-authority father, he looked at me and said, point-blank, “Well he’s wrong. You just can’t believe everything you hear at church.”
I don’t doubt that I would’ve had a subversive streak even if I had grown up in the US, but I know that my inherent suspicion of power and authority was extensively nurtured by growing up outside my native country. When I went back to the US for college and couldn’t remember the words to “The Pledge of Allegiance” (and when I questioned the USA’s motivations in starting a war in the Middle East), I was called anti-American. When I attended classes at BYU and scoffed at the conservative political bias of my PoliSci professor to a classmate, I was told that I wasn’t the expert, so I was wrong, and my opinion didn’t matter. But that’s just it – after six years of navigating a foreign country and questioning every little thing in my life, my opinion DID matter – a LOT. I had learned to trust my intuition, to listen to that pit in my gut, and to make my own assessments about life instead of being told what I should or should not believe/think/do. And while I think everybody goes through this stage of questioning authority to some degree or another in life, it felt like my life as an expatriate teenager made me go through it at hyper-speed. I suppose it’s no wonder that you now find me blogging at a feminist Mormon website!
As my time in Mexico City was drawing to a close, and I was packing my bags to head to college, I remember staring at the sink in my bathroom. For six long years, whenever I woke up in the middle of the night, I had to stumble down a long hall, down a flight of stairs, through the dining room and kitchen, and all the way to the water cooler at the far end of the house to get a drink of filtered water. Never once, no matter how tempted, had I broken the cardinal rule of living in Mexico: don’t drink the water. And I debated: do I take the chance? Is it worth the risk? Should I always just listen to what people tell me to do? I picked up a cup, filled it, and held it in my hand.
And then I dumped it down the sink. But it wasn’t out of blind obedience, or without any thought of weighing my options. It was because I knew it was a bad idea – I had heard enough tales of severe gastrointestinal distress to know that it wasn’t a risk worth taking. Even as I ultimately followed the advice of those in authority, I made my own decision. That is what living in Mexico City taught me to do.
I could write volumes on how living internationally shaped me as a person, and especially as an LDS woman. We experience the church through the lenses we’ve been given, and while many of us have been given the American lens, it’s prudent to recognize that while church headquarters is in Salt Lake City, not everybody in the global church sees through that lens. I’m eager to read the international perspectives that we have coming up, and we hope that our readers will gain a better appreciation for the diversity of experience that can be found in the international LDS church.