“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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6 thoughts on ““We are very racist towards this country”

  1. haha – I will totally read The Gentle Gaucho. Feminist by day, romance novelist by night? Not to imply these two are mutually exclusive (or….um……maybe?), but it has more of a superhero feel this way. I’m impressed your students are able to play Taboo in a second language. Your students sound very advanced! I actually think the fact that you’re not trained in the rules, laws, and ways of ESL is one of your biggest benefits to your students. Very few interactions they have in English will be with people who have studied linguistic pedagogy. Your students will get a much more realistic experience of what it’s like to have a conversation with an (awesome, intelligent, talented rock star of an) English speaker if they have someone to talk to who’s not ESL-trained.

  2. It’s neat that classes have started and to hear about what you’ve been doing with the students and all that you think about when planning lessons. It sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job and keeping school fun :)!! Your mention of Canada and How I Met Your Mother has me humming “Lets Go to the Mall” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFAT8_5hPWA) — and also led me to these clips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ckw2_WP65fw&feature=relmfu and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiXUt6BtGzU

  3. I have never gotten over the first-day terrors, and I’ve been teaching for over 40 years. I still have the same anxiety dream of being in front of a class, but not having read the assignment.

    Poor child, anxiety must be hereditary.

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