(Note: This week, I’m writing my one-year-in-service reflections. There’s a more comprehensive post coming, but I was enjoying writing this mini blog tangent, so I figured I’d share it now!)
Here’s a huge–though gradual and ongoing–success: I’m integrated! That is to say, the integration and culture struggles no longer take the bulk of my time or energy. At the beginning, every conversation took extensive effort, and I spent a lot of time getting lost, asking questions, observing people and trying to deduce the idiosyncrasies of this culture.
Now, I already know the quirks and I spend my time figuring out how to get things done within this culture, equipped with the knowledge I already possess about how people will act and talk and react and participate (or not.)
1. Hey baby…I don’t get caught off guard by things like catcalls anymore; instead, I predict them and sometimes can even mitigate the problem (or at least minimize the effect, like saying “buenos dias” before they can say anything about my appearance.) I am also actively advocating against piropos: I’ve talked about respect for women and privacy with students and other teachers, and learned from their own experiences that nobody wants to receive explicit comments just for being a female.
I’ve also rough-drafted my response to the next businessman to catcall me:
1. Call him out
2. Tell him that I expected more from an educated man
3. Pull the “you probably have a wife/daughter/sister/mother who you’d want to have respected” card
(I’m totally open to draft edits on this!)
2. Donde esta…? I can now give directions with ease! I’ve always prided myself on being spatially aware and learning a new city as soon as I arrive–it’s a trait I inherited from my dad. But it’s another thing to have people approach me to ask for directions, which has happened several times. In fact, the other night in Barranquilla, I helped a police officer give directions to some tourists (because he didn’t even know the place they were looking for–which, I might add, was two blocks away.)
I’m the first person to pipe up when somebody in my area needs help with bus routes. I get the strangest looks when I jump in to tell someone exactly the bus to take, what landmarks it will pass, what color it is and approximately how often it passes. I try to throw a lot of costenol phrases into the conversation to look more authentic. I’ve had a few people believing I’m a paisa, from another region in Colombia!
3. The dog ate your homework… It’s been rough being on the teacher end of things, and doing so in a completely foreign education system has been a learning experience, no pun intended. But I’ve learned what to expect from students and teachers, how to adjust assignments to solicit more participation, and most of all, to adjust my concepts of learning and studying. I’m still trying to figure out why students here are so un-motivated and why the education system is the way it is, but I’ve had some positive experiences, too. One of these was the recent English Song Festival (more about that later.) I lowered my expectations in advance, because why would the students who can’t be bothered to write a few sentences in class follow through with their final project booths at the festival? But I was pleasantly BLOWN AWAY by their participation and creativity–they really brought it!
The only funny part is, after the festival, I brought all the portfolios home to grade. That night, the dog got into my room and she destroyed three of my students’ final portfolios. Yes, folks, my dog ate my students’ homework. Try explaining that to your class!
4. Bad Blood. Truly, the best indicator of my obvious integratedness is this: that as I’m writing this blog post, I have been bitten more times than I can count by the omnipresent mosquitoes and I’ve barely even noticed. Oh yes, I’m stinging and scratching on every exposed patch of skin, but it hasn’t interfered with my writing. I’m still writing, just absently slapping (and successfully killing) them as I carry on writing.
This is significant because at other times during the past year, mosquitoes have led me to shouting, throwing things, stripping and jumping into the shower and, on a few occasions, breaking down in tears. (These bloodsuckers are worst at twilight, between 6 and 7 pm, which I think is a sick twist in the plot.) But these little suckers are no longer winning (knock on wood I don’t get dengue now.)
5. Me regalas una vaina esa, porfa? One of the best indicators of integration is obviously the language. Beyond Spanish, knowing the local slang and idioms is key. It helps to know the right words to say at the right time, which phrases to apply to any given situation, and how to get yourself out of trouble. There is so much freedom in being secure enough in a foreign language that you can travel around without even considering the implications of a language barrier; in knowing just the right phrases to explain a concept in the learner’s context; in using little local insider words to build solidarity and lighten the mood (look at our gringa, she talks like a local!) And honestly, the best part is just being able to order what you want without worrying that you’re asking for some shady meat dish (I’m looking at you, mondongo.)
So when it comes down to it, I’m feeling settled and immersed. For all my emotional struggles with hitting the one year mark, it feels really good to realize that I’ve survived a year and am well-equipped with vocabulary, local knowledge and a lot of stories for those future dinner parties.
Now, I’m off for my routine evening: bonding with my fan and falling asleep to the sound of the burro down the street.