Acclimating, Adjusting and Being Accidentally Groped by Alberto

So I have been a terrible blogger. Forget the months of May and June. I was in stage two culture shock (think Kate as the Hulk, tiny purple shorts and all), so there would have been a lot of whining anyway. What follows is going to be a little bit about what brought me out of my intense frustration with all things Argentine and into what feels like the early stages of the acceptance/acclimation phase. Which is good, because y’all, Argentina is awesome.

As I might have mentioned earlier, I was hoping to find a girls soccer team here. I haven’t played in a while and I thought that would be a great way to meet people. Argentina is crazy for soccer, so it seemed like a fool proof plan . . . except that very few women here play. I haven’t been able to find a team here in San Luis, even though everyone claims to know someone who plays and assures me they will put me in contact with them. So I decided to take this opportunity to learn something new. Because functioning in a second language isn’t frustrating enough. (It is. Oh God, it is). And that’s how I found myself taking Tango, Bachata and Salsa classes.

Anyone thinking, “Hmmmmm, Kate. You’re much more of a contact sport, sweating, looking gross kind of girl. Are you sure you want to put yourself that far out of your comfort zone when you’re already fighting with the language stuff? Also, that whole man leading woman following thing.” Yeah, anyone who thought that, cookie for you, because the only thing I can think to equate learning to dance to (drumroll please) is learning a second language. Learning to move my body in a way that I am not used to/REALLY not comfortable with, learning what specific pressures and marks from the dude mean and what movement I should make in response, all in time with the music. Es mucho. Those first few classes had that “This is new and exciting” shine to them. And then it because clear that I am not a natural dancer. So for most of May and June I was dancing badly five nights a week and struggling daily to not sound like a really pretentious and frustrated five year old (speaking Spanish).

Let’s start with Tango, which I have the unfortunate tendency to pronounce “tengo.” “Tengo” actually means “I have.” This has resulted in my frequently telling people “I am taking I have classes.” But yes, Tango. When I watch my professors dance I can’t help but think that Tango is a truly strange and lovely blend of elegance and violence. Also sex. My professors are a couple, and when I first saw them dance I felt exactly like one of the dudes on Mad Men (I forget who it is) when he sees Joan being saucy and says (slack-jawed)  “She is so much woman.”

I am not so much woman when I dance Tango. I’ve only learned the basic step, ochos, sandwichito, and a couple of nifty turns. At first I felt as graceless dancing Tango as I felt speaking Spanish, and it’s worst when I get paired with Alberto, a 70 something who has less musicality in him than I do, and who has the unfortunate tendency to grope me. I’m pretty sure this is less to do with him being a pervert, and more to do with him having poor eyesight, forgetting to bring his glasses to class and then mistaking my breasts for my shoulders. Frequently. Being accidentally groped by Alberto does NOT make me feel like the Tango goddess I had hoped to become.

And then there’s Salsa and Bachata. We often get split into two groups in the class: The beginners, and the people who know what the hell they’re doing. There is no middle ground. This means I fell in with the beginners, learning the basic steps over and over again for about a month and a half until I finally realized that if I actually wanted to get any better I was just going to have to throw myself in with the more advanced dancers and try not to drown. These classes are both much larger and more chaotic than my Tango class. There’s time for questions and clarifications, but there’s no way to make sure everyone is doing everything exactly right. When I finally made my way into the more advanced group, I discovered that I actually have a really natural sense of rhythm. . . . . which makes letting guys who have NO sense of rhythm lead especially difficult for me, and then I start thinking about dance as a metaphor for all the things that are wrong with patriarchy . . . and then I stop myself and decide my time would be better spent learning to move my hips more like Shakira and less like Elizabeth Proctor. I’m still pretty repressed looking when I dance, but at least it’s rhythmic repression.

And then things shifted. About a week ago almost everyone I know made a point to tell me how much my Spanish has improved. I’m speaking fluidly, if not exactly fluently, and people are finally talking to me like they feel confident I’ll understand what they’re saying. Funny that that should happen around the same time that I start really having fun with the dance classes. These days when I’m Tangoing, Salsaing and Bachataing I’m thinking more about how much fun I’m having than how stupid I might look to others. Last Wednesday I went out dancing with some friends from the Salsa/Bachata class. I met a swarthy Argentine lad (that one’s for you Ms. Trish), and we danced and talked until 6 AM. And it was actual dancing, where he marked certain moves and I could actually follow most of them without falling flat on my face, not to mention actual talking. He pretended not to notice when I mangled verbs and mispronounced the word pronunciación (the irony). It was all the fun.

No profound truths to offer. Mostly I’m just grateful to be vindicated in my prediction that the first few months here would be really hard, and then things would get awesome. Things here are awesome, and there is more talking, Salsaing and Bachating to be had this Saturday. And then of course there is Tango class tonight. I really hope Alberto brings his glasses.

Note: I imagine most people have a sense of what Tango and Salsa look like, but a lot of people have asked me what Bachata is. Here is an extremely humpy example of Bachata. It’s pretty much highly structured raunch. My first class I seriously considered asking the professor if I could just learn the pretty twirly parts of the dance and not the humpy parts. I refrained, mostly because I didn’t know what the verb “to hump” is in Spanish. Anyway, I’m learning it all and it’s seriously fun.

“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!

To Cordoba I go!

Hi there, lovely readers of TheMeerkate. I just want to let you know I’m off to Cordoba until mid-next week, and then to I don’t know where until Easter Sunday. I will not be bringing my computer because if anything happened to it . . . . *shudders* . . . I will take lots of pictures and have some moderately intelligent thoughts to share upon my return.

Besos!