“We are very racist towards this country”

I’ve spent the past two weeks settling into the rhythm of life here in San Luis. When I arrived in mid-March I spent so much time figuring out what I needed (food, something to cook that food on, things that make my apartment pretty, a safe running route, FRIENDLY HUMAN CONTACT DEAR GOD, etc.) then procuring those things, that there was very little routine to my days. Then I had that whole week of unexpected vacation, and it would have been such a waste not to travel, so I spent that week in Cordoba and then Mendoza. Not complaining! In some ways it was ideal. I set up house, went off and frolicked in two awesome cities with lovely people, and then came back to a place that was familiar but still newish and started work. WORK! I am finally getting to do the things I’m being paid to do here: teach and try not to be this lady. I am certainly working on both – it’s too early to tell how successful I’m being.

I was more than nervous about beginning classes. Like . . . opening night, first kiss, pre kick-off levels of nervous. I find teaching to be this weird combination of acting and directing traffic. You have to get your class interested in the subject (which requires you be knowledgeable enough to both lecture and improvise), hold that interest, and then convince them to interact with one another and produce something with that interest and newly acquired knowledge. In college I always got really ruffled when people would criticize professors without first trying to imagine why they might have conducted their class in a certain way, or why they might have given us a specific assignment. Granted, my parents are teachers so I’m sure there’s some serious Freudian grossness I really don’t want to look into any deeper which inspires that reverence for teachers in me . . . . but still. Whenever I had to do class presentations or lead a discussion I always left thinking, “DEAR LORD THAT WAS HARD/EXHAUSTING/EXHILERATING/LIFE SUCKING.” You see all these expectant (or bored out of their skull) faces waiting for you to tell them all the things, entertain them, say something new, make them think harder, inspire them to approach problems from new angles, and on and on. Thankfully my task here is much simpler than all that. I just have to facilitate a safe space for my students to speak and to listen in English for an hour. But I am new to this, so that is task enough. And here’s the totally self-involved and superficial reason why I was so nervous to get started. I have had the following exchange with almost every single person I have met here:

Other person: Kate, ¿Cuántos años tenés? (How old are you?)
Me: Tengo 23 años. (23 years old)
Other person: Vos pareces MUCHO más joven. (You look MUCH younger)
Me: YOU SHUT YOUR DAMN MOUTH. (Obviously I don’t actually say this.)

I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, right? Well, yes, but it didn’t make me any less nervous to get up in front of a class filled with students, most of them older than me, and convince them that I had something to offer them. I know I do, even if it’s simply that English is my first language. It’s not a skill I had to work for or something I’ve studied at great length (literature, yes, linguistics and grammar, no). It’s not even something I’m trained to teach. My colleagues here at the IFDC, even though they are not native speakers of English, are infinitely more qualified than I am to teach English as a second language (ESL). They learned English as a second language themselves and are well versed in the pedagogy of teaching ESL related courses. But at least I can help my students with their accents, speech patterns, vocabulary, idioms, and with day to day interactions in English. Anyway, I prepped for my first conversation classes as thoroughly as I could and trusted my students to trust that I have something to offer them. . . . and it went really well. As usual, I proved to myself that I waste a lot of energy being anxious about nothing, and now I can stop fretting about looking younger than most of my students and start channeling all my anxiety (and I have so much anxiety to give!) into figuring out how the heck I’m going to tailor these discussion sessions to the very different dynamics present in each of my four classes.

All four of my conversation classes are made up of students in their first year of studying to become certified English teachers. I teach two classes on Wednesdays and two on Fridays, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I help out in the other first year classes. For my first week of classes I had students pair off and interview one another in English for about 15 minutes. Then, each person introduced her or his partner to the class. This worked even better than I thought it would, because it gave me a chance to get to know their names, learn a little bit about each student and assess what levels of English I am working with. Turns out that since there is no proficiency exam for entry into the program, their spoken English is all over the map. Some students are practically fluent and able to switch between a British and an American accent at will, while others can hardly understand a word I’m saying much less say anything in English themselves.

This week we played a homemade version of TABOO I made with some index cards. They’re doing a unit on travelling and tourism in some of their other classes, so I made it country themed TABOO. It was great in that it simulated the feeling of trying to communicate something and not having all the necessary tools at hand. For example, for most of the countries that are islands, island was a TABOO word that they couldn’t say. One student realized she could get around this by saying, “This is a country surrounded by water,” and then some other students saw what she was doing and were able to use that same technique of looking for a second and a third way to say something. It was educational for me too, because all of the TABOO words I put for each country came from my very North American perspective, which this game proved is very different from an Argentine perspective. For example, to describe Bolivia, one students said, “We are very racist towards this country.” EVERYONE except for me knew that she was talking about Bolivia.

As predicted, things got politically incorrect REAL fast. For China, Japan and Korea all the students pointed to their eyes until I explained why that made me uncomfortable and then decreed that there was no more gesturing allowed in TABOO. For England everyone mentioned the Malvinas Islands. For the United States EVERYONE said, “there is an obesity problem in this country.” May I just take this moment to say that as charming as Wall-E was, it has not done great things for our public image. Practically everyone I meet asks me about the “obesity problem” in America. However, my favorite moment in the game came when one student described Canada as, “the hat on top of the United States.” I nearly died laughing and then had to explain about Canada jokes and How I Met Your Mother, and I wished Barney Stinson was real (only time in my life I have wished this) so that I could tell him that my Argentine students were making Canada jokes.

Anyway, this week I’m trying for some warm up games that actually lead us into a good 20-30 minute discussion. It’ll be a challenge considering the varying levels of English in the classes. We’ll see.

Outside of teaching, my life has consisted of meeting students for intercambios (exchanges) where we speak in English for 30 minutes and then in Spanish for 30 minutes. I’ve joined a gym where the personal trainer has decided Kate is too hard to pronounce and instead calls me “Louisiana” and makes me do this weird fist bump/handshake thing to say hi when I see him in the mornings. It has become a strange but comforting little ritual. I’ve played charades with some new friends, which was a blast since it was movie charades and that is actually something I know about! It was such a breath of fresh air to feel like an asset on a team and not like a child to be baby-sat. I have also discovered the romance novel genre . . . . . in Spanish! That’s right,  Romance novels. Historical, contemporary, romantic suspense, all of it has been translated into Spanish, and I am partaking! DEAL WITH IT WORLD. Maybe I will even write my own someday. It will be set in Argentina and I will call it The Gentle Gaucho. It will have a cover to rival these. Also, TANGO CLASSES TONIGHT! Details soon to follow.

And wouldn’t you know it – I have another full week of vacation coming up next week. It’s a national holiday until Tuesday, then, later in the week is a holiday to celebrate the patron Saint of San Luis. In typical puntano (puntanos are what people in San Luis call themselves) fashion, the government decided we may as well just take the whole week as a holiday. So, I am off to Rosario, Santa Fe province with at least two other grantees for the first half of the week, and then we’ll see where else.

More later this week, dear readers (Hi Mom!). Besos from San Luis!

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Spin the Gringa

My dear friend from home, codename The Jackal (Like it lady? We can change it if need be.) was introducing me to the glory that is The West Wing right around the time BAMF was becoming an acronym people used to indicate badassery. So when the Bartlett team did something particularly meritworthy, we would audibly congratulate them and one another on their BAMF-itude. It goes without saying that CJ consistently racked up the most BAMF points. My point is, and I’m talking to you jackal lady, I think I may have discovered the BAMF trump card, namley, EVERY YOUNG PERSON IN ARGENTINA. Let me explain . . .  .

I had the entirety of last week off because classes at my school hadn’t started yet and because of the Easter Holidays, so I packed my suitcase and headed to Cordoba with the daughter of the family I rent from (codename A) and 3 of her friends. I will not be able to tell you very much about Cordoba the city in the touristy sense of, “doing the city” where you go to museums, parks, monuments, guided tours, government buildings, etc. I’ll have to go back if I want to experience any of that, but I had absolutely the best time tagging along with A and her friends, and immersing myself in the rhythm of life as a student in Cordoba.

We were staying at the apartment of another of A’s close friends who is studying medicine in Cordoba. I had gotten to know the group a bit on the 7 hour bus ride to the city, and we hit it off really well, my Spanish being good enough to converse with them, but not so far advanced as to be able to banter. Let me just say that trying to follow along while young people start joking with one another is the absolute hardest. It’s like listening to Graceland (or watching MGMT music videos for that matter): It’s everyone’s favorite album and you know it’s all profound and stuff and you like the music, but you just don’t understand the lyrics so you just nod and smile don’t say anything and then someone looks at you expectantly and you’re like, “Ummmmmm.” Only here when I say “Ummmmm” I remember that in Spanish it’s “eeeeeehhhhhhh” and not “ummmmmm” and I feel like even more of a dingbat . . . . . . .  *takes deep calming breaths* So yeah, that’s what it’s like trying to understand banter here. That said, the girls were all kinds of patient with me, treating me like one of the group but explaining things when I was clearly lost.

We arrived in Cordoba Friday night at about 10 PM, and got to A’s friend T’s apartment at about 10:30. We unpacked, ordered some pizza (a standard pizza here is a thincrust with tomato sauce, mozzarella, oregano and green olives . . . it turns out I like olives! Who knew?) and chatted. I assumed that bed was soon to follow, but then the girls started to primp . . . and drink . . . and primp. . . . and drink. At about 1:30 AM we headed to a club downtown where a lot of students go. We waited outside for about 30 minutes and finally got into the club, which was packed. Being 5’ 1’’, packed clubs are kind of my nightmare because I am right at armpit/elbow height of most people. Besides the fact that it was bursting at the seams, it was way too loud for me to understand anything anyone was saying in Spanish, so when we finally left at about 5:30 AM I was frankly relieved. We went back to T’s apartment and were joined by a group of guys A and friends had grown up with. We drank mate and chatted until about 7:30 AM, at which point it became clear I could not last much longer and so I kissed everyone on the cheek and said Ciao (still not used to cheek kissing strangers) and slept until 3 PM the next day. When I awoke, there was a text from the girls who had NOT GONE TO SLEEP AT ANY POINT and had instead gone to the mall. I got a cab and met them at the mall where we proceeded to shop for hours. Then we went to the grocery store, made some dinner . . . . and then began to primp . . . and drink . . . and primp. . . and start the process all over again. Seriously. For four days straight. I was always the first one to conk out and the last one to get up. At several moments during the weekend I wanted to be like, “Are you all just beautiful robots or something! Do you not need to sleep???!!!!!” But they were just BAMFS, plain and simple. Shop, party, talk, primp, eat, drink, mate (the beverage not the discovery channel verb), lather rinse repeat.

Now this was a vacation rhythm for A and her friends. During the school year it’s not quite like this (although from what I gathered by listening to them it kind of is), and these girls are childhood friends who don’t get to see each other much so it was really fun and touching to see them aprovechar de (take advantage of) this opportunity to be together. Childhood friendships are at once so sweet and so raw. There’s just something really special about the bond you build with people you have known and who have known you since the beginning (Here’s looking at you Stubman and Jackal lady – I’m sending you hardcore virtual snuggles right now). Anyway, I think my favorite thing we did was go to a Peña, which is essentially a baile folklórico party. A is a ballerina, but also teaches baile folklórico, and so she has been telling me all about the different regional musical stylings and dances there are here in Argentina (post pending). A is a self-described clown off the dance floor. Her facial expressions rival Jim Carry, and she broke like 2 plates and a bottle of beer at T’s apartment, while sober. But when she dances she is all grace. The Peña we went to had 4 different bands from all over the north of the country that played while the audience members who knew how to (like A) danced in the center of the restaurant. I’m still working through the many different kinds of songs and dances that fall under the category of baile folklórico here, so for now I’m posting a video of one of the kinds of dances we saw.

You’re probably laughing at the poofy pants the dude’s wearing. The people I saw were just wearing normal clothes, which I liked. This is a kind of dance a lot of young people here know and do and they don’t need costumes to feel like it’s a significant link to their past. I think it’s really lovely. There’s another kind of dance called a Zamba they do that’s similar only both parties have a handkerchief and there’s this whole seducing without touching think going on. A’s friend M explained to me that it’s all about gauchos seducing innocent peasant maidens. Hmmmmmm.

One of the guys doing the dancing was also one of the musicians. He was from Tucumán, and his dancing (the fancy footwork from the dude you see in the video) was noticeably more exaggerated than that of the other men dancing. M leaned over to me and began to warn me about men from the north of Argentina. This is not he first time I have received this warning, and I’m never quite sure how to handle it. He said that as soon as “the gaucho” as he called him, heard that there was a foreign girl at the party he would try to “conquistar” me. I responded with my most alluring snortlaughter. M was of course joking, but nevertheless I assured him that I was no innocent peasant maiden and that I, the short but inarticulate gringa, was more likely to be conquistado by someone who could explain the pluperfect subjunctive tense to me than by the dashing “gaucho.” I also made a mental note that “conquistar” is an infinitely superior verb to “seduce.”

On our last night we went to another club, but this time there was plenty of room to dance and to talk, and our group was made up of both ladies and gents, so we could actually do some real dancing. . . . which I am pretty bad at but absolutely love to do. Eventually a different group of guys made their way over to us and we started pairing off. My partner was SO TALL, but was actually a really good dancer and was able to work with my passing knowledge of the salsa. . . . and then he got a little ambitious and began a fairly dangerous game of what A and I later decided to call “Spin the Gringa.” If you ever want to play, this game entails finding a gringa and spinning her till she’s extremely dizzy to this extremely popular Brazilian jam.

I was really disoriented by the end, and I think my dance partner flattered himself it was because I was so enamored of him. That was not the case. I was, in fact, just really dizzy, but menos mal if he wants to think he swept the gringa off her feet. It was good fun, and I’m excited to start dance classes soon so that I can stop describing my dance style to people as “casi madera” (half wooden).

So all in all it was an absolutely wonderful first half of my vacation week, mostly because I got the chance to interact with a lot of really interesting and fun people . . . and dance. I’m trying to think of a way to thank A and her friends for including me, so if anyone has suggestions let me know. From Cordoba I made my way back west by bus to Mendoza . . . which was equally wonderful, but very different and thus deserves its own post methinks. Until then, have some music: