Monday, November 10, 2008

Cultural Differences

Throughout Central America, it is a familiar sound. “Sssssst” When I hear this, I imagine an angry pet owner about to yell. “Sssssst” will make the dog or cat flinch or take its paws off the table. Where I grew up, people say: “Sssssst” when an animal is misbehaving.

Why do I hear this while walking in the city? This noise doesn’t come from pet owners, it comes from random guys in the streets – often construction workers. What does this sound mean? For anyone who hasn’t been to this part of the world, or to Panama at least, it is well-understood that men and boys say: “Sssssst” when they want your attention – a girl’s attention.

I can’t remember the last time I heard a girl “Sssssst” someone, I think it was in a grocery store and a lady wanted to talk to the cashier…

What are the responses to: “Sssssst”? Well, there are very few options as far as I’m concerned. On bad days, you might yell: “Callete!” on a good day you might not respond at all, on a mediocre day you might grimace without turning around, on a very bad day you might walk faster and throw your finger in the air without looking to see who’s been ssssssing.

There really is no good response if being “whistled” at like this bothers you. For me, depending on the day, the spectrum of response is between: angry or “ho-hum” regarding this Latino phenomenon. So after practicing for a year, trying to adjust and accept this behavior, my rule is “no response, ever.”

On November 5th I was walking to the laundry mat in Davíd city – I was getting ready to pack up and take a bus back to site. I passed the construction area that had now thankfully been cleaned up and finished, this part of town has seen some new buildings sprout up. I was almost to the laundry place and had just passed an auto shop when I suddenly heard: “Sssssst.” It had been a good day so far, so ignoring this was no trouble at all; I kept walking without breaking stride. Then I heard: “Sssssst, Obama campeón.” This stopped me; I stopped and turned and saw 3 guys smiling from the depths of the garage. Suddenly realizing that I had broken my “no response, ever” rule, I smiled back.

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