Arriving back home from our recent camping trip to Tayrona National Park full of excitement with the news that we are going to get married and with a beautiful ring on display, I was looking forward to letting my nearest and dearest, okay, everyone, know the news.
In the kitchen I asked mi novio if he was going to tell his mum sitting in the rocker in the lounge room, but he said for me to tell her. So I approached her and said “Señora, we have some exciting news. Your son asked me to marry him and I said yes!” while thrusting my left hand towards her so she could see the ring with which he had proposed.
Her response while looking at my ring was “That´s good. It´s pretty, it´s an engagement ring” and then proceeded to tell us that the recently dead Hugo Chavez was going to be embalmed and put in a crystal coffin on display in a museum in Venezuela. Brief? Yes. Lacking in enthusiasm? Absolutely. A pin prick to my bubble of excitement? Most certainly.
Instantly I slumped in the chair, barely able to hide disappointment at such an uninterested reception to incredibly important news by the first person we´d told.
I gulped down my Coca-Cola and made a speedy dash to the bathroom for a shower where I admit to bursting into tears.
In our room mi novio found me on the bed with my head buried in a pillow and asked what was wrong. I told him that here we were with the most exciting news the house has had for the year and his mother hadn´t shown any excitement, let alone congratulated him. What a great way to feel welcomed into the family. I´m pretty sure in my distraught state I said that if that was how excited his mother and family were going to be, then we´d get married in Australia where all of my family, who I was sure would be over the moon by the news, could attend this important event in our lives.
After my outburst, I tidied myself up and then mi novio came into the room again to find me talking to myself in the mirror. He asked what I was doing, and I answered, rather suspiciously, “nothing”. Clearly it wasn´t nothing and when he asked again I said I was practicing what I would say to his mother to let her know how hurt I was feeling by her lack of reaction to our news. He told me to practice on him, and I unwillingly I relented and put forth my little speech. He asked if I was really going to say something and I told him that if I never said anything, I would always feel the stone of hurt and bitterness in my heart over her reaction. He asked if I wanted him to tell her, and I was unsure but eventually decided that it was probably best for him to broach the subject.
We went out to the lounge and sat down on opposite sides of the room. Mi novio then said “Mamá, Camille feels sad because she thinks you are not excited or happy about our news because you didn´t say anything or express your happiness.”
Her response was defensive and actually slightly argumentative, “I looked hard at the ring and it was nice. If I had have thrown a glance at it and then looked away that would have been an offense. It´s not my responsibility to ask or inquire about anything, it´s my children´s responsibility to communicate with me. I´m not going to ask questions. One doesn´t like to make comparisons, but I was thinking about your brothers and sister and how it´s nice that you´ve told me and not run off and hidden things from me.”
She proceeded to stay off the topic of our pending nuptials and instead launched into a lengthy tirade of how she wasn´t happy about how one son got married 5 months after his father died and so she only went to the church not to the reception, how another son got married in the presence of all his wife´s family and without telling any of his family, how her daughter was supposed to get married in 6 months but then suddenly upped and left the house for her fiance´s home town where a wedding was planned for in a week´s time and how she believed after seeing things on Facebook that another son had gotten married on the sly too. An interesting way of showing she was happy for being included in our celebrations and not making comparisons.
Instead of feeling the weight of sharing my feelings leave my chest, I felt berated for being so sensitive and apparently doing things the wrong way for not leaving it up to her son to tell her we were engaged.
So I told mi novio that from that point he had to tell his family. I wasn´t going to say anything because I´d probably just be disappointed by their reactions and it seems that this type of news is best coming from him than me, the foreigner.
I guess I was better prepared for the lack of enthusiasm from the rest of his family after this experience. His older brother just kind of stared at the news and his aunt (who is both his boss and my boss) just smiled dumbly. A cousin didn´t even say anything. Not once was there a felicitaciones (congratulations) said by a member of his family, except for when mi novio said to his son “Aren´t you going to congratulate us?” but I guess it´s okay to put words in a nine-year-old´s mouth.
As far as life events go, Colombians are more excited by babies and birthdays than by weddings. I´m sure that if we´d announced we were having a baby, the reaction would have been far different. In Australia, whilst many people choose never to wed or have children before getting married, there is still a strong tradition for being married before starting a family. In Colombia everyone asks when you´re going to have a baby. They´re not interested in whether you´re going to get married, just when you get pregnant.
Perhaps my views and generalisations are tainted by my experiences living on the coast. The state of Magdalena where we live is one of the four poorest states in Colombia and teen pregnancies are the norm (condoms are priced way out of reach of a huge percentage of people here) and not the same kind of big deal they are back home. As a matter of fact we are going to a baby shower today for a 17-year-old girl. Truth be told, I had expected to find a greater pressure to get married before starting a family in this Catholic country, but it seems all that matters is bringing a baby into the world, regardless of how old the mother is, or whether she is in a stable, loving relationship.
I asked the girlfriend of mi novio´s cousin why she thought I´d been met with such indifference and she said “Everyone gets divorced or separated anyway, so people don´t really think it´s worth celebrating.” I was astounded at the pessimism on a level which I hadn´t yet encountered in Colombia. However mi novio doesn´t agree with this and says it is just that more people to live together without getting married. Even his parents never got married.
Thankfully the reception to our engagement news from my parents, brothers, sister, grandparents, aunts and friends was overwhelming and effusive. Exactly as I expected it to be and like how I am when I hear exciting news of engagements, weddings and babies – with genuine happiness for the people concerned.
So whilst I had the wind knocked out of my sails, this little boat continues to navigate the choppy waters of cultural differences in search of safe harbours, crystalline water and beautiful beaches like the one where mi novio proposed to me.
Have you ever had an unexpected response to a major life event due to cultural differences?