Plentiful: Awkward Money Situations in Mexico City

Need any fruit? If you sit in a park in Mexico, before too long, one of these guys will wander by.

Need any fruit? If you sit in a park in Mexico, before too long, one of these guys will wander by. However, they are low-pressure salesmen, for the most part.

My friend and fellow Mexico City resident Alice wrote a recent blog post that highlights some of the awkward money situations we ex-pats find ourselves in here. Her doormen asked to borrow money, which is basically impossible to imagine occurring in New York City. This led to rumination about why her two doormen are doing this, and also how different, in general, the exchange of money in Mexico can be. Some of this is due to the fact that there is a lack of formal jobs in Mexico, leading people to sell things on the street, or ask for tips when you least expect it. And some of it is due to what I politely call “cultural differences.”

To name but a few other examples:

The Grocery Bagger…
Awkward: When the grocery bagger looks down to see how many pesos you’re handing him/her as a tip.

Meaning…yes, you must tip the grocery bagger. Even if you (<– *cough* me) bring your own canvas bag and stuff most of the heavy stuff in the bag before the bagger can use plastic bags.

Then, once you hand the tip over, it’s not unusual for them to look at what you gave them, right in front of you. Again, this is not something you can really imagine happening in the U.S. (but it’s hard to fathom in part because we never tip baggers, at least not in the states I’ve lived in.)

The Waiters…
At restaurants here, sometimes the waiter (almost always a male — especially at nice restaurants, and if anyone can fill me on why this is so, I’d love to know) will watch you sign your credit card slip, or hover close by. Depending on the credit card system the restaurant uses, the waiter also may ask you — directly — how much you want to tip, so he can add it onto the bill. You must tell him the answer in percentages (we usually say 15 percent) then he punches it into this little machine he carries with him, and swipes your card in that machine and hands you a slip to sign. Those few seconds are some of the more awkward moments in your life, especially if the service sucked and you’re dying to get out of the restaurant.


The Mailman…
I tip the mailman twice a year — in November for Mailman’s Day (always men, again) and for Christmas. At first, I was taken aback, until friends filled me  — it’s normal. I now smile and wave at Juan every time I pass him outside. We’re amigos.

The Fake Parking Dudes….
There is also an unofficial system of street parking attendants who expect you to tip them, and in return, as my friend Jeremy says, “they won’t break into your car.” They also will wash your car for an extra fee.

On a recent trip to the mercado, Brendan and I decided to drive there in our rental car. I quickly found a parking space outside, we pulled in, got out, went  in, bought our produce,  went back outside, got in the car, and started backing out of our parking space. Simple enough. But up runs one of these parking attendant men, who pretends to help me back out, waving his hands this way and that (it was not a complicated parking situation; his help was not needed). At that point, it’s expected that I’ll roll down the window and hand this man some pesos for his hard work.

I was not feeling generous that day, and didn’t tip him. Of course, I was immediately worried about my karma, that this would come back to haunt me. Then I had to remind myself that if this happened in the U.S…. well, wait a minute, it just wouldn’t happen.

The garbage men arrive every day except Sunday, ringing a loud bell to let you know they've arrived. It's customary to tip at least a peso per trash bag.

The garbage men arrive every day except Sunday, ringing a loud bell to let you know they've arrived. It's customary to tip at least a peso per trash bag.

The Garbage Men…

We tip them, and we tip them especially well around Christmas time. Without question, this is the hardest and most important job in Mexico City. This has not been awkward for me.

The Drain Cleaners…
There are also men who come by, ring your doorbell, and tell you’re they’re going to clean the drains out in the street, and would appreciate a tip. This is not an approved city service, and who knows if the drains even need “cleaning.” I wished I would have warned my friend Lesley about this before they came to her door. When it first happened to us, we panicked and wrote our landlord. She explained there is no need to tip them but they also won’t mind if you do. So, now, I usually ignore them, since they always manage to stop by when I’m in the middle of a work phone call.

Basically, Everyone….

Balloon sellers, like this one in Cholula, are *everywhere* in Mexico.

Balloon sellers, like this one in Cholula, are *everywhere* in Mexico.

And, I realized recently that everyday, no matter what, someone approaches me for money, in some fashion. Whether it be the roving bands of street musicians who play on our block, a woman selling candy (with three or four children in tow), a guy selling plants from a box, a scammer trying to tell you a sad tale hoping you’ll fork over dough, etc. If you’re in a car, it’s the same: A guy who will wash your windows with a dirty bottle of water and a rag, a guy selling windshield wipers, an entire family of clowns doing tricks in front of traffic, men who juggle, men who sell flowers…it goes on and on and on. (The subway is similar, and even popular beaches in Mexico suffer from too many vendors selling trinkets, although it may only be a “problem” to people like me).

Needless to say, as an introvert and as an American, this can be exhausting at times. I’ve thrown a few babyish fits about it, blaming all of Mexico unfairly, for a shitty day.  But, for the most part, as a New Yorker, I am used to being  approached (on the subway)– once I was even forced to smile. So I had some tolerance built up.

So, at other times, I marvel at how alive and fantastic the street culture is in Mexico City — never a dull moment. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I feel very safe here, walking around, going on about my day. As NPR reporter Jason notes, it adds up, making the city a “symphonic cacophony.” People are everywhere. And I’m not the only one being approached, although it still baffles me when someone calls me out specifically as a guera (white woman).

But, overall, the various street peddlers have changed me. When I first moved here, I would sit with my dog in the park on my lunchbreak, enjoying the sunshine. Then I got tired of people walking up to me and I no longer linger (all the people who insist on walking their dog off the leash is also a huge deterrent).

When I walk down the street, I move quickly, and say a terse “no gracias” (always with a smile) to basically anyone who is trying to sell me something. Thankfully, I now have found that if I walk a few extra blocks to quieter areas of my neighborhood, it’s possible to sit at a cafe and not be approached once. I no longer feel any guilt for not answering my doorbell, I never answer it unless I’m expecting a delivery.

I don’t know if this shift in my behavior is a good or a bad thing, if it’s something locals automatically do, or if they don’t get annoyed by having their personal space invaded, if perhaps, they even find it useful.

I, clearly, don’t.

12 thoughts on “Plentiful: Awkward Money Situations in Mexico City

  1. bebiss says:

    I know , it is very sad that a kid come to you and ask for money, but that an adult person come to you is like “why?, you are strong and you can do anything better that just ask for money, you should win the money”…..But well, not all the people thinks like that.

    Well, welcome to Mexico! Haha. You should visit Monterrey, is very nice =)

  2. Sue says:

    Great post, Joy. So true. Since being Stateside, I almost forgot about all the endless tipping.

    I actually experienced a reverse-awkward money situation in the town of Teotihuacan last fall. My friend and I were hopelessly lost while looking for a specific restaurant. I asked a passerby if I was on the right track, and she had her teenage son lead us there! How nice. But all I could think was, “Should I tip him? How much should I tip? Man, this is awkward.” In the end, I reached out with 20 pesos in my hand. … And he declined it, smiled and walked away. … Then I felt bad for offering him the money! I guess sometimes, you just can’t win.

  3. DKN says:

    That’s awesome that the garbage men get tipped! I agree that they must be worth every peso. That reminded me of the surfer chick we met in PR who said she couldn’t get the garbage men there to pick up her trash unless she provided them with a regular supply of cervesa. Haysus Christos.

  4. Lesley says:

    It’s funny, because even though a lot of people here expect to be tipped (I still feel weird about the waiters hovering over your shoulder), you hardly ever see the tipping jars that are everywhere in the States. Isn’t that odd? I saw one today at a burrito street-food stand, and realized how rare they are. Although I should have given them a tip, because the burritos were AWESOME.

  5. alice says:

    Girl, tell me about the complicated world of tipping. Here is one of my personal tip rules: the older you are, the more tip you get. I refuse to tip parking lot attendants who shoo us out of parking spaces–lame.

  6. chrissie says:

    this is definitely something i have felt the cultural pull, if you will, since living here. i always feel stressed out at the end of the meal trying to figure out the tip while the waiter hovers! one thing i was told though is that the kids that bag the groceries don’t get paid and only work for tips. and while they do usually look at it i don’t think it’s in a judgy way but more just the norm. pero ¿quién sabe?

  7. DKN says:

    You know, the more I think about it, the more I’m not surprised about the tipping culture there. Considering how little money the average person rakes in every week there, regardless of how cheap stuff can be, I can see why tipping for everything is encouraged/expected. So does everyone tip? Like what about the other folks making very little at what they do – are they expected to tip or would they even be able to? I’m curious about that.

  8. Monica says:

    you cannot imagine the tempest in my head when, before easer, we got a nice envelope from the postman. on it, printed in red ink, his name, his best wishes for us and the request that the tip he was sure we would give him(luckily you wrote something on that issue before Easter) should be given DIRECTLY to him, no other people involved. We were new in the building and he hadn’t delivered us anything so we didn’t pay him anything. I believe this tipping culture comes from the colonialist era, like many other things I still cannot understand about Mexico.

  9. Mexico Cooks! says:

    A couple of things:
    –grocery store baggers work ONLY for tips and receive no salary.
    –you’re expected to tip your letter carrier on el Día del Cartero (Mailman’s Day)
    –the garbage man richly deserves a tip! Would you want to do that work, and for his measly salary? Our trash collector comes six days a week; we normally put out trash three days and tip him 30 pesos a week.
    –we have nightly vigilancia in our city neighborhood. For our 10 peso a week tip, the velador roves through our neighborhood streets at night, blowing his pleasant whistle and watching out for unusual activity. The night we needed to call him, he was johnny-on-the-spot checking out our situation.
    –remember that 60% of Mexican workers are part of la economía informal and depend on tips for their survival and that of their families.

    Mexico Cooks!

  10. Joy says:

    Thanks Cristina, although I get the sense you’re missing the point. (No one above has said the garbagemen don’t deserve tips…in fact, the opposite.)

    This post was written to help me elucidate some of the tension I feel in Mexico, and additionally, help other Americans who feel similarly awkward, especially in their first few years living here.

    When you first arrive, for example, no one tells you there is a Mailman’s Day, and suddenly your mailman is asking for money and has a little envelope.

    Before I got to Mexico, if someone had written something like I wrote above, I would have been spared a lot of awkwardness. Juan the mailman and I are friends now, but it was a rocky start.

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