You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone: Weighing Values

Much about Colombia isn’t particularly foreign on the surface. Bogotá, particularly in the north, isn’t too far off from your standard-issue city in the homeland. A lot of the differences between Colombians and Americans are invisible and gradual, things that I’ve noticed over time. I’ve been feeling particularly U.S. AMERICAN lately given the month of July, the Olympics and my school’s English day coming up. It makes me think about things that make me foreign, that I’m not about to change. First example: Young independence.

When I say my age here, most people react with “you’re so young!” which I’m perfectly fine with because it means there’s someone out there not freaking out about my lack of a stable future. Twenty-four is young to them because I’m unmarried, childless and on my own a bajillion miles away from my parents. Twenty-four and married with or without a kid would no longer label me “so young!”

In the states, I’m an adult. Despite coming home for school breaks and summers (and really only because my university was so close to my hometown), you could technically say I moved out when I was eighteen. I was the one making sure I was eating, getting places on time and wearing clean clothes. Colombians don’t value this kind of young independence. They recognize that we have different lifestyles after high school but they don’t exactly understand it.

Young Colombians rarely move out before they get married, except perhaps to work or study in other cities – in which case they’ll probably live with a family member. If there are a handful of young people living in an apartment, it’s likely that they’re cousins, or an aunt or mother lives next door or downstairs. This is common in a lot of Latino cultures. When I try to explain why we move out and shun slightly the phrase “I live with my parents” (obviously less so now that our generation is screwed with jobs and debt)…no one gets it. They get that “it’s different there” in the states, that we do things differently. They don’t get why. “But my parents don’t care if I come home late.” “My friends come over all the time to hang out.” “I have a job, I don’t just sit around all day.” “I don’t have to pay rent and my mom cooks for me!” “My brothers and sisters live at home too.”

Yes, I know. I understand the perks of living at home with the original roomies, from meals to free parking and oil changes, laundry to internet. For a culture that puts less emphasis on independence and privacy, and more on familial ties, it’s hard to explain why we flee our parents’ houses the minute we have the means to pay rent and buy mac and cheese. We just do. We like our space, our independence, our shabby little apartments with empty fridges and mattresses on the floor. We like our roommates and learning how to deal with their quirks. We like to play beer dodge on the dining table, play loud music and let random people sleep on the couch. It lets us figure out how we want to live, what habits we break or let rule and how to fix things (or how to make 3 am calls to the Comcast representative in Wisconsin).

Family here in Colombia is emphatically cohesive in geography. They might not all get along or like one another more than we do in the U.S., but damned if they’re going to be physically distant. A lot of people think it’s strange that I’m here all alone – they ask if my parents are here with me, or I must have Colombian family, right? Uh, no.
It’s frustrating to explain that I don’t need someone constantly helping me, holding my hand, walking me places, making my lunch – I can do it! I have done it! I like doing it! Colombians are ever-eager to help and accommodate, and that’s really great of them, but I swear, I can serve myself breakfast. I really can. And – shockingly – my parents don’t freak out if I don’t call them upon leaving or arriving anywhere I go. International calls are just too expensive.