Monday, September 29, 2008

Stepping on Teacher´s Toes

I´ve had this "situation" (let´s just call it) for quite some time now, which I have been trying to avoid writing about, but I think it´s time. (Drum roll please ...) The English teachers in my high school -- and there are five -- don´t seem to like me very much. Now before you get all worked up. I know, I know, the most obvious question (that comes to my mind) is HOW is that possible???!!! I am very likeable, if I do say so myself. But I have slowly come to the realization that I rub the teachers in this school the wrong way, that is, the American way. I was chatting with the host father of Drew, the volunteer who lives in Huasco, a couple weeks ago discussing this "situation," and we came to a very disturbing conclusion... It is quite possible that these Chilean teachers may not like me simply because of my American habits, the ones I always thought were universal (stupid, stupid, stupid!). Before anyone starts wondering about what I´m wearing (I´m dressing quite modestly, I can assure you), my drinking habits or how bossy I am being, let me provide you with some examples:

1) I always arrive on time. Well, that´s a lie, I used to arrive 10 minutes early for every class and then forced myself to curb it to five. So, let´s just say on my schedule it says I have a class at 9:45 a.m., I unlock my classroom and start setting it up at 9:35. I don´t know why I don´t just let myself in at 10 a.m. though, because I rarely receive my students anything but 15-20 minutes after the bell rings. I have discovered (or rather, been told by Chileans nice and not-so-nice) that this is an American "thing," this ... showing up on time thing ... and I have a hunch it may drive some Chileans absolutely mad.
2) I will categorize this example separately, even though it overlaps with the first. I arrive. Period. If someone tells me to meet them at 2 p.m., for a meeting ... I go. It never occurs to me that I should a) meander over to the approximate meeting area 45 minutes to an hour later, or b) simply just not go. For this, again, I am the annoying American. You see, the first month and a half, I still tried really hard. I´d tirelessly search the school grounds for the missing attendee, asking around. Or, the next day, when I finally found them, I´d ask (TRULY curious, thinking, "crap, did IIIII mess up the times...?"), "Did we have a meeting yesterday?" etc. etc. Yeah, so, I´m told that´s "North American" too.
3) I tell people when classes are cancelled, and in return, (now this is REALLY annoying) I expect the same courtesy in return. I cannot tell you how many hours I´ve spent sitting in my computer lab classroom waiting for a class that never comes (for instance, without this suddenly-free hour and a half, I couldn´t have written this blog!). At the beginning I let it slide, but then one morning before class I was in the teachers lounge and I happened to overhear another teacher, wishing Rommy -- the English teacher of my next class -- good luck. Good luck? The only reason Rommy would need luck for the next class (which I was supposed to take), would be if she were being observed by the government for the new assessment which all the teachers were painfully enduring. So I began the following conversation:

Rommy, are you being observed today?
(Rommy doesn´t look up at me) Si.
So ... I don´t have your class today ...?
(Rommy looks up at me in disgust, with a look that says, why am I asking her such a stupid and annoying question?) No.
(Rommy is gone in a swish of skirts and papers.)
Oooooooooook. Thanks for the info ... (I am talking to myself, don´t worry)
After encounters like this, my American brain argues silently, "Why am I here then? Do you people even know I´m here? What, so my time´s not important? Why was she just so rude to me ...?"

Such began the slow and steady lifting of my American denial. My efficient nature is irksome in some circles (primarily, I blame my mother) and to survive here, I attempted (for a while), to change it. I have tried to blend. To leave feathers unruffled. Really, I have. But, on my return from Iquique, the bleak realization of my inability to help a high school that seems, at times, to not want my help, became too much. I´m supposed to work WITH the English teacher´s here, not AGAINST them. I´m not meant to be competition, but reinforcement. I don´t ever pretend to be a certified teacher. But, I do however, insist on being professional. Another thing Drew´s host dad mentioned during our very-serious political/Chilean education system discussion, was that perhaps, the Chilean government had another agenda for the English Opens Doors Program. The governement undertook this program, to a) place fresh-faced, "native English speakers" with virtually NO teaching experience in hundreds of schools throughout the country, and b) to set a tone. I feel like a helpless example. AKA, "Look, I´m the silly gringa trying to organize a meeting with all of you because I´m not comfortable wasting time. Now, everybody try!" Government thinks: "maybe after the gringa is gone, the notion will remain and the teacher´s won´t like to waste time either." However, the government didn´t take into account that essentially, many of us are stepping on some teacher´s toes. It´s kinda dampering the whole cultural exchange, because, like in my case, I´ve found my welcome was half-hearted at best. It was pretty at first, but there has been no cooperation/support to back it up since then. I´m thinking, "Look! I came here to help!" They´re thinking, "We know you think you´re better than us, but you´re not." You follow?

I can´t change that I´m efficient. You cannot convince me to arrive at my first job in the States 20 minutes later than expected, without consequences. I just don´t live in that world. In my two years at AMDA (theater school), if you were one minute late, every single teacher shut the door and you were absent. In this case, my American way is better, and without stirring up my Chilean melting pot too much, I´ve now decided it´s best for me to keep working at my job here as I naturally would. I have come home sad many days, wondering what I did wrong, how I could offend my fellow teachers so, but I´m trying to cut myself a break. I am only here for two more months and I´m sick of waiting around in my classroom for change to magically come. Now, I go straight to the source, I have requested a meeting with all the teachers to mark calendars and work out dates and I put schedules for theater practice outside my door (they can´t seem to follow the schedule´s we wrote out the first day). I wanted to work with the cheerleaders so I talked with their coach. I might annoy people, but sometimes I feel like I´m the only person around here getting anything done.

On an opposite note, when I brought this issue up with Marcela, she told me some of the teachers complain I don´t greet them enough, and maybe that´s why our relationship has become strained. "I told them you people (North Americans) are different and not as close and friendly as us," she explained to me. I promise you I have never intentionally ignored anyone (except the monkey clan of whistling 15-year-olds), but maybe I haven´t tried hard enough, maybe feeling ignored or spoken to rudely has taken it´s toll on me and I´ve put up walls, I really don´t know. So, I will try again. My goal this week is to walk up to every single English teacher, grab them by the arms, give them a huge smile and a hug and ask them how they are doing. I will FORCE them to like me, damnit.

(Note: there are a couple Canadians, British, Australians and New Zealanders here too, but I´m generalizing.)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

American Holiday

I´ve been on vaca. In the past week I´ve taken a horrendous 16-hour bus ride up north to Iquique -- where seven other volunteers live -- and had official girl-talk with my two loves, Bree and Kate, for the first time in almost two months. I´m saying ... as a girl, you don´t know how much you´re gonna miss girl-talk til you´re living in a tiny city with only two other boys (one an hour away) who sometimes seem to speak another language anyway. The first two days in Iquique I couldn´t stop saying "Wooooowww....this place is soooo big." It´s a city on the beach with a couple hundred thousand and it made me realize how very much I´ve missed the city. I can´t believe it´s taken me this trip to finally admit, I am a city girl through and through. We pàssed a mall while driving and I had to be physically restrained. I walked into the grocery store (which was basically a Chilean Target) and I swear I heard angels singing. I loved it, but mostly because they have the beach and something about sitting by the ocean always seems to make everything ok. Our hostal was one block from Playa Cavanche and all 8 (or so) of us just sat around in bathing suits talking and laughing and sunbathing (except for Bree who, unlike Kate and I, finds "playing catch" with the guys appealing) until the sun set and my first day back with all my friends I kept thinking "this is my perfect moment." It was beautiful, it was fun, as expected I drank and ate way too much but here are some quick highlights:
  • I had a surf lesson. I learned "officially" how to surf and it was FUN! The water was freezing and I soon discovered a very-dormant fear of huge waves, but I am told by my friends -- who are far too nice -- that I "stood up" about three times. Take it as you will...
  • Kate and I cooked (mainly Kate, of course) a big family dinner for seven of us in the hostal, complete with salad, pasta, veggies and wine. And we all sat around the table like one big family (which really, if you think about our situation, we are) and gave our "high´s" and "low´s" of the vaca.
  • We went to a discoteca, snuck onstage only to be escorted directly back off, and danced until 6 in the morning. I can´t remember the last time I crawled into bed as the sun was rising (and remembered the next day why ...)
  • We rented a car and drove two hours into the desert and saw crazy geoglyphs on giant sand dunes in a place called "Cerros Pintados" and then stopped in the tiny desert oasis town of Pica, where the fruit is so fresh and abundant you actually smell the lemons and limes as you drive in.
  • Did I already mention the girl-talk...?
  • I visited Bree´s school and found she works far more hours than I, but that her students are far less "flighte" aka ghetto (which would be the case with mine)
  • And lastly, my last day, after everyone had gone but me, Bree (who lives in Iquique) and I had an "American Tuesday." We went to the movies (I almost dropped dead at the wonderfulness of the option) and saw a heart-breaking film, while munching on popcorn, that left me sobbing. Then we sat on her bed and watched cable in English, while stalking Kevin on facebook. If you have been reading my blogs you should notice that 1) I don´t have cable/English t.v. 2)There is no movie theater in Vallenar (and if there were you can be sure there would be an absence of English films) 3) I have no laptop (it broke promptly as I arrived in country) and 4) There is no internet in my house. I truly felt, for a whole day, like I was back home with everything at my fingertips. Let´s just say it was a welcome change of pace and had it not been for my American Tuesday and Iquique trip in general, I might have had a mental breakdown sometime quite soon.

But ... arriving back home and seeing Dora´s look of surprised glee, when she opened the front door to sweep out some dirt, and found herself standing face-to-face with travel-ridden me (complete with huge backpack and several carry-on´s), it felt good to be home. I consider this my home now. The teaching inner-city school kids thing, still beats the crap outta me, but thank God for my Dorita. After lunch today, as I was drinking my daily mid-day coffee (it´s all instant here, I´ve mentioned that right?), I was chatting with Dora in the kitchen while she dried the dishes and I told her how excited I was for her to meet my Kevin when he comes (Nov. 21) and she said that in a sense, she´ll be sad to meet him because that will mean it´s time for me to leave her. She turned around and she was tearing up and I wanted to wrap my arms around her and scream "I´ll never leave you Dorita!!!" But I told her my hunch, "I think Kevin is coming here to get me for just that reason, because he knows if he doesn´t, I may never leave ..." Couldn´t I just bring her with me?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Practicin´ My Victory Dance

The most amazing thing just happened. Angel and I were discussing schedules, scenery for my theater group, my future work with the cheerleaders here (who apparently "nobody knew existed") and the picture-taking he recruited me to do tommorrow during school practice for the 18th (dances and songs and what-not), and before I turned to leave, Angel put out his hand for me to shake. (He´s so bizarre sometimes, I thought to myself.) And then he said (in Spanish, obv), "I would like to congratulate you, because you´re Spanish is improving each day..." I hooted and threw my arms up and performed what I like to think is the universal dance for VICTORY (which is "vicotoria" in Spanish btw). I am improving! All those hours reading the dictionary and translating magazing articles and Madonna tabloids at the kitchen table are finally paying off. Por fin!!! I soooooooo want to improve my Spanish. I imagine this language like an imaginary wall I am knocking down around me every day that I learn a new word or finally realize the correct phrasing of a sentence I use daily. I am floating I tell you.

I compared myself to Dora´s two-year-old grand-daughter, Josefa, last week. She is in the learning phase, where she repeats everything she hears and absorbs new words like a sponge. I watch the news and find myself speaking to the t.v.. "Ahora tenemos una pausa." "U-na pau-sa," I repeat, entranced, letting the words find their rightful place in my mouth. As if to make them comfortable as they slip off my tongue, I repeat again, "una pausa." A commercial comes on with some (supposedly) famous soccer star holding a glass of milk and sitting beside his mother. I know how the commercial will end, I´ve seen it a million times, but regardless I must say it, "Tomate la leche!" I cry at the end, simultaneously proud of myself and loving the grammatical format of the command I have mastered. (If I ever need to tell someone else to drink their milk in Spanish, there will be no grammatical errors in my delivery.) I look up and Dorita is laughing at me (weird). I realize I have been repeating words that catch my ear for the past 15 minutes. And then it hits me, I am in the same stage as Josefa who says "he-llo" back to me every time I greet her. I am literally like a two-year-old. But it´s WORKING!

P.S.- The object I desire, more than any other material thing in the world, at this moment in my Chilean life-time, is a Spanish-English dictionary with every word that has ever existed inside. Mine is sufficient for now, but if anyone else is going to send me something, dear God let it be the fattest, most advanced Spanglish dictionary that has ever been realized. Gracias. Ciao.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Run It Off

I was forced to take a collectivo up the hill from my high school (“liceo”) to the Poblacion Carrera, my neighborhood, due to my excessive baggage (not the metaphorical kind, surprisingly enough). The government delivered a sweet new stereo to my liceo that afternoon, and of course, I had overdressed that morning -- one can never be sure whether to brace for Antartica or Hawaii in these parts -- and worn heels. I needed the walk, I was dying for some exercise and some time alone with my million-miles-an-hour thoughts and the calming beauty of the valley between at sunset. But as I resignedly sat stuffed in the window seat beside a stone-faced woman determined to take up two seats, I made up my mind. I would run. I needed to run immediately, before the sun stopped setting and finished its waning magic act of slowly whipping all the colors of the hills up around it til it was gone from the valley and on to other parts (where Becca is perhaps?). I pushed through the front door of Dora´s tiny house, gave her a weak smile and headed straight for my bedroom, almost knocking over a chair on my way through the kitchen with my over-stuffed "Programa Ingles Abre Puertas" messenger bag (another gift from the Gobierno). "Me voy a correr" I huffed, untangling my bag and scarf from the chair. "Before tecito?" Dorita asked sweetly, the way she sometimes asks an innocent question, with a hint of uncontrollable motherly reprimand/surprise; yet without any intent of stopping me. "Absolutamente," I answered.

It had been a bad day. It was Tanya´s birthday and I missed her. I wanted to be the first person to call her that morning, to surprise her with birthday cake and Starbucks, to glue myself to her side at her birthday dinner, surrounded by the easy company of our cousins and friends and showered with love. In general I am not homesick, I am perfectly content each night watching telenovelas in Dora´s company. But, when I called Tanya that morning from my classroom computer and got choked up in between "Happy Birthday," and "dear Tanya," I knew today would be different. I struggled through class with the notorious Primero D students, spending a solid hour going around the room chanting "I am..., I like to/ She is..., She likes to...." and bribing them with a brand new bag of "prize candy" for participation. They are not that bad, but their English is depressing. They leave the room and I collapse in my chair completely drained. I use more energy on that class, remaining positive, entertaining and patient, than with any other class.

The day before, I taught a lesson to a different course on introducing family members. I taped up pictures of my mother, father, Thomas, Tanya and Eddie and introduced each of them, relaying their ages, personalities and personal characteristics. I get the question all the time, every day almost: "How many children in your family?" I still freeze, miss a beat, think carefully about which answer I´m going to give, three or four. 99% of the time I say four. But while I´m standing at the board introducing Thomas I feel like I´m pretending. The girls all think he´s handsome. "How old is he????!" I have to think before I say, uneasily, 20. "Does he have a girlfriend?" Oh God ... can we pleeeeease move on? "No, " I answer definitively. It´s my fantasy, no harm done, I can pretend my brother is still alive because giving them the truth will just confuse them and make them uncomfortable, but I refuse to leave his picture at home and omit him from my lesson. I am the oldest of four, I cannot stop identifying myself in this way. The only problem is, it takes a toll on me. Like settled street dust that is suddenly distrubed after a truck barrels through, my latent grief has been stirred up. And now, today, Tanya´s birthday, the emotions and memories are still swirling around in my head, and I am sad.

I throw on my running gear and lace up my sneakers with an urgency I have not had in weeks. I have not run here in Vallenar because I have not had the courage to face the whistles and whispers and catcalls and stares. Nevermind the abundance of barking, drooling homeless dogs. But this night, I race out into the brisk night air fearless. I head in the direction of the fading sun and as soon as my feet find their rhythm hitting the pavement, my eyes on the bright orange sky, I relax. I am completely unaware of the stares and honestly, come to think of it, I don´t think many people seem to notice. "Follow the sun," I keep thinking and I run, faster than I have in forever, and chase the sun past endless tiny houses connected together haphazardously, without a nod to what is aesthetically pleasing. I run so far that I find myself panting, on the edge of a new neighborhood atop the city in near darkness, my lungs stinging with happiness. I remember hearing that this is a semi-dangerous neighborhood and finally head back, this time my eyes on the twinkling lights of the city below me. I feel strong and realize my heart is not as heavy as it was 30 minutes ago. The dust has settled significantly, enough for now. I love this city with it´s obnoxiously-painted houses and dirt roads and I love my students. And right now, I love my alone time with the night sky and my heart, pumping furiously. I love my life. I miss my sister and I miss my brother and I miss the constant love of everyone in Charleston, but I just feel so strong. I am learning to take care of myself, really take care of myself, without getting mixed up in the needs of those around me. Teaching is different, it´s a job (granted, I don´t get paid), but it´s a job. But here, I am finding a balance I really have never known, and I really really like it. Like Kevin says, I am finding my groove.

I treat myself to a bottle of wine on the way home and sit down for tecito with Dorita and tell her about my day before we oooh and aaaaah over the horrendous telenovela I can´t live without called "Hijos del Monte." Julieta is pregnant with her (once-fiance) Juan´s baby, but he is falling for his half-sister, Paola – deemed "the blond," –- who is trying to ransack his relationship with the mother of his child. Scintillating. I tell Dora very matter-of-factly that she is my best friend here and then take a sip of my glorious "Gato Negro" $1 box-wine. It´s amazing what a little exercise will do.

Monday, September 8, 2008


Correction, I found it! The newspaper with Madonna´s face (and boobs apparently) front and center and the "Llega Carne Gringa" line. It seems I also forgot a very important ending to the headline: "Cara pero Rica," (Expensive but Delicious). Smarmy? Anyone?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Priceless ...

I´m devastated. I passed a newspaper stand only days ago with a giant picture of Madonna´s face plastered on the front and the headline read, "Por fin. Llega Carne Gringa en Chile." Translation: "Finally. White Meat Arrives in Chile." And the kicker is ... I didn´t take a picture to show the rest of the world, and now it´s gone, forever. (I´ve literally gone to several newsstands and begged for last week´s paper.) I will never get that priceless photo-op back.
I must add that Madonna´s pending December arrival in Chile rivals the publicity I´d expect of a visit from Jesus himself. A bit overkill...

Second official order of business. I´ve been strutting around the teacher´s lounge, Dora´s house and every asado I attend proclaiming, "Soy Chilena!" No, but seriously, I have a CARNET card which is a Chilean identification card, which makes me feel very very badass. It´s official proof that I´m in this country for more than a pleasant visit. I´m blending I tell you.

Third, I received a giant package from Kevin yesterday which basically made my month. It included the essentials: a book, some CD´s, tampons (God love em´ ), a new Old Navy top, some photos and magazines, including my beloved skirt! magazine. I slowly and carefully flipped through the pages of my skirt! magazine like I was holding the original Declaration of Independence. But, onto the newsworthiness of this event ... I showed some teachers and students at school some of my American reading material, and my go-to guy, Angel (very machismo and in charge of everything), took a particular liking to my skirt! magazine. He kept saying it was for mujeres (women), yet painstakingly flipped through every page. I had to take a picture. Chileno relaxing with a skirt!, ha! Gotcha! If you only knew how priceless that is, in theory.

Lastly, Chile´s Dia de Independencia is fast approaching and as I have mentioned once before, their national dance is the Cueca. Every child seems to learn this dance shortly after exiting the womb, so, how unlucky for me that I was born in America, because these people won´t cut me a break. Monday afternoon classes were cancelled to make way for the festival of the "Cien Cuecas," (100 Cuecas). Everyone dressed traditionally and schools around the city arrived in our gymnasium to literally dance, (duh) 100 cuecas. For me, it was just a bowl of photo-op´s and cultural enlightenment, and I mingled among my students for the first time as a real person and not just a teacher. I communicated with them in Spanish and some students gasped, "Profe!!! Has aprendido Espanol en una semana!!!" (Silly children.) I delightedly told them, no, I had not just learned to speak Spanish in one week, I´ve been working on my Spanish for years and after all ... "soy Chilena." One of the teachers, Lorenzo, approached my huddle and took my hand and informed me I was about to dance cueca with him. "Dear God no," I begged and pleaded. Making a fool of myself at an asado of 10 people is one thing, but we were in a gymnasium for Christ sake. Students started chanting, teachers were nudging me forward, a girl stuffed her white embroidered handkerchief into my hand and off I went. I was dancing .... something. The steps to this dance elude me. I have been a dancer all my life and can usually pick up on this sort of stuff quickly, but I swear to you ... there are no steps. There are patterns. "Ocho! Ocho!" my students kept screaming at me (helping my nerves not at all). "Que ocho!!??" I screamed back. I just wasn´t seeing the figure-eight. Anyway, after the flash of about 100 cameras and an announcement on the loudspeaker (just to make SURE every person in the gym was watching the gringa), the dance was over and I was led back into my gaggle of giggling girls (alliteration not intended). People took pictures on my camera, but I also pass students in the hallway now who stop me and inform me they have pictures of me dancing cueca. So ... let´s just stick that up there with my top three most embarrassing moments, ever.