The Geography Lesson that Brought Me to Shame

14 Feb

Did I ever tell you how I broke my culture shock? The defining moment when I went from “I hate it here, why don’t they do things my way?” to “Well, this might be ok after all!”

I was in my second year of university here in Cancun. I had a world geography class that totally blew my mind. As I looked up at the world map for several weeks, I thought to myself, “This is wrong. Why is the professor teaching wrongness? Why are my classmates not correcting him? Does nobody care or even notice that the map is wrong?” (Gosh, I’m such a typical American.)

In the US, we’re taught early on that the world has 7 continents: North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and Antarctica.

In Mexico, they’re taught that the world has 5 continents: America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Under this model, what we Americans consider to be North and South America is actually one large continent of America, and Antarctica doesn’t factor in at all!


But wait! It doesn’t stop there! North America is everything north of the Panama Canal, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Get this: Mexicans don’t consider Central America to be part of North America.  Here, the large continent of America is sub-divided into 3 regions: North America (Canada, the US and Mexico), Central America and South America. In this model, Central America is no longer part of North America, it just borders North America.

North America in blue, Central America in yellow, South America in green... 3 regions making up the continent of America

After a few months of fuming to myself, I decided to look it up on Wikipedia to prove that I was right. Instead, what I got was this:

Number of Continents

And that’s when it hit me. My way isn’t the only way.

Even though I was taught something as fact, there still might be millions of other kids in other parts of the world learning it differently.

It was a huge step for me as an expat to realize that I can believe there are 7 continents, and my friends can believe there are 5 continents, and people on the other side of the world can believe there are 6 continents, and we are all correct.

This led me to realize that just because Mexicans don’t do things the way I might want them to, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Sometimes their way is even better than my way! (Except when they put ketchup on their pizza. After 7 years, I still find that unacceptable.)

I spent my first year in Mexico trying to make everyone more like… me. Then I spent the following 6 years trying to become more like them. All thanks to one geography course.

16 Responses to “The Geography Lesson that Brought Me to Shame”

  1. Raymundo February 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Ketchup on pizza? Que loqueras! I am from Jalisco and we don’t do that on this side 😛 We put mustard jaja just kidding

  2. Kathryn February 14, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    I remember the first time I learned about Oceania in college, and I felt like I had just somehow missed something during my years of schooling. I was super confused. It is crazy to think that there isn’t one accepted understanding of the world- you’d think it would have been made standard by now- but it’s cool to learn that people see the world in different ways.

    P.S. Ketchup on pizza?? UGH!

  3. Rach February 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    I had a similar experience in an interpretation class where I was the only gringa. It also blew my mind. Then I saw this video, and it answered absolutely nothing.

  4. Brooke February 14, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    This is great! I love that after you came to that realization, you now try to become more like them! That has definately helped me in my marriage! Accepting the differences, not necessiarily as wrong, but just different! I loved reading this!

  5. Rita Gervais February 14, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

    I have also learned this lesson when I tried to distinguish myself from my Mexican friends who claimed they are American too. It was a friendly discussion, but debated thoroughly. At the time, I thought it was general worldly knowledge that there are 7 continents, Ha! What little I knew. Now I know that my friends from Mexico are Mexicans and Americans. My friend from Honduras is Honduran and American. And I am American and American. I tried to do the North American – Central American distinction, but now with what I learned here, I will have to throw in the towel.

    I hate to admit it when I am wrong. Or I could tell my Honduran friend that he isn’t part of any continent and stir up another debate. The latter sounds like more fun.

  6. Ashlie February 14, 2012 at 8:58 pm #


  7. Margaret@SingleandSane February 15, 2012 at 12:56 am #

    Interesting when we discover that our facts aren’t necessarily facts. And I’m thinking that ketchup on pizza things isn’t totally repulsive…I may ever try it!

  8. Ang February 15, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    Wow! That is a crazy little bit of information. I can’t believe that the way I was taught is not the only way… hmmm… I feel like I need some time to process this!

  9. Marco February 15, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    As a Mexican student in the US, I was surprised when my professor told us about the 7 continents; however, later on he explained that in other countries people are taught differently. Learning economy, politics and history from the “gringo” perspective is just as interesting as putting ketchup to your slice of pizza.

    • Vanessa February 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      well said Marco!!

  10. Me and the Mexican (@MeandtheMexican) February 16, 2012 at 3:50 am #

    OMG! This is explains why my husband and I were laying in bed one night and had like an hour argument over how many continents there were. I kept insisting there were 7 and he kept telling me I was wrong and only counting 5. Now I know…. I’ll have to apologize when he gets home from his work trip. haha! Great post!

  11. laurencancun February 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Hahaha – how many times has this convo came up!! LOL!!

    My Mexican friends use the 5 Olympic rings as their argument, and I use the World Cup needs to be played on a different continent every tournament… !!

    We now agree to disagree!!! Funny, I remember looking it up on wikipedia myself!! Hahaha!!!

  12. Nikki February 21, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    This is totally going to screw me up if I’m ever on Jeopardy

  13. Kelly Fitzgerald February 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Laura, this post gave me chills!!!! SERIOUSLY! I just learned this geography lesson randomly in November chatting with my ex and his friends where they tried to convince me I was wrong and I was telling them they were all crazy etc etc assuming Mexico just didn´t teach the right things in schools, We googled it and I found that both were right and explanations of both. My mind is BLOWN as well! So glad you said what I have been thinking forever (and wasn´t sure if I was the only crazy to be thinking this). I even tried to explain this to my parents who didn´t believe me and told me I, and all Mexicans I know that said this, are crazy. HAHAHA! Thank you!

  14. Ceri February 25, 2012 at 8:29 am #

    Hahaha. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve started doing the ketchup on pizza thing. But, seriously, it’s because the pizza in this country sucks and is soooooooo greasy, it needs a bit of sauce.

    “Mexicans don’t consider Central America to be part of North America” – I guess that explains why Central Americans are looked down upon by so many Mexicans.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: