2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 7,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Culture Shock: the Sliding Bell Curve

This post is aimed at potential long-term travelers, among whom may be language teachers or other illegals, wanderers or adventurers and the point of my thoughts is to illuminate a mysterious and powerful (and potentially plan-killing) phenomenon: culture shock. The affliction hasn’t gone unstudied and there’s no shortage of professional advice to be found on the Internet or at the library. I’d like to add to the heap, though, with a couple tips that have helped me acclimate to a foreign culture.

On the Malaise, Briefly

Culture Shock

What isn’t really explored here is something I was told in my teacher training, which is that culture shock is adaptable: the longer you perceive your stay to be, the more gradual will be the transitions up and down the emotional bell curve (Citation needed! I’m calling myself out for you.) For example: if you’re two weeks in Honduras, your psychological movement through the four stages of the emotional state will hasten to accommodate that period of time. If you’re a year in Russia, your personal parabola will look considerably flatter than that of the former scenario.

I suffered the mal-effects of culture shock only mildly, and sporadically. I’ve seen it emotionally cripple friends of mine and even sent one packing back to her home country. Perhaps I respected it as a force or perhaps I was better-prepared for its eventuality (given a day of training in Denver spent reflecting on this subject), but I think I have some believable strategies that could ease another person’s transition into a foreign culture and I’d like to share them now.

1.) Your identity and its tie to “place”; reflect on this. If you tend to classify yourself as a “city person” or a “country person” or a “New Yorker” or “hillbilly”, you may find that this self-identification could obstruct your integration into a new society. What masochism to take in parts of your past and parts of your local environment and affix them to your self-image! These extraneous baubles may be defined by all of your gentle, defensive adjectives but on the chopping-room floor, you will find that those things which are not inherently part of you can be severed not without pain, but severed surely and handily with concerted effort. Maybe it’s facile to think that once you compartmentalize those parts of your self-image which aren’t of you, they (the modifiers) ought to be tossed out and/or pushed away; not so fast! You can keep them around as remembrances (ex. In X place, I was X. ). Trying to hold on to those things which aren’t structural facets of your character will cause you misery as they slide away from you as your foreign tenure grows by days. Before you step on the plane, sketch out your identity on a piece of notebook paper and try to separate acquired qualities (city person, nationality, political leaning) from those nearer to you (shy, thoughtful, easygoing, etc.).

2. Burn away the shadows of your new territory. In your mind is set a map of your local environment. You know the streets, the way the morning and afternoon shadows fall on the various surfaces, and the likelihood of seeing a certain person or group of people at a certain time of day. Subconsciously, you know enough about your local, familiar environment to keep you out of danger. The aforementioned qualities and more represent gaps in your knowledge of your new environment. Where there is ignorance, there likely is fear and fear, affirms Yoda, leads to the dark side. Some stages of culture shock (notably the second (Negotiation)) will see you tending more and more to keep to your quarters as you reject your new surroundings as inferior or otherwise flawed as compared to your old familiar territory. This tendency is your enemy, and it lives in your head. If there is a time of day, for example, in which you haven’t experienced the clientele of a given cafe, you must strip yourself of any justification you may have for feeling jaded. If you don’t know the route of the postman in a given part of town, you aren’t doing your job. My advice is this: simply go outside.

Walk and make a point of remaining conscious of your immediate environment. The new map you’re illustrating in your mind won’t suffer for becoming finer in detail. The more information you feed into its conception the less you’ll feel a stranger to its intricacies. The story you’re telling yourself won’t have a choice but to change a little. Your old definitions will be modified. The verbal mistakes you make will become part of the day’s lesson, and perhaps you won’t make them again. This information has no price, so collect it as you would gems from a sea wreck.

3. Nourish integral parts of your character. If you normally read books, keep reading books. If you normally grab a drink in the evenings, keep at it. If you sustain a measure of artistic output, keep at it in your new environment. Everyone has some basic emotional needs and there are no two sets of these the world over that match. A useful exercise may be to list these hobbies or needs that you have found yourself to have needed and think of ways to satisfy them in your new environment. This is another excellent opportunity to be honest with yourself about what you like and don’t like.

4. Embrace ignorance.  Unless you have some deep history with the language and customs of your host culture, you will come into it as a baby would: unintelligibly, awkwardly, and resting in a state of constant threat of exposure. The good news is that you are not a baby, and thus won’t be in danger of being eaten by street animals. The hard-to-ingest news is that you must undertake with your crusty old mind the work a supple infant mind excels at: adapting to your environment (a second time). Everything you don’t understand about your host culture represents an opportunity to add to your collective understanding of the world at large. If you don’t know how to speak properly in your second (or third or fourth, etc) tongue, illuminating that ignorant corner of your knowledge-base could potentially multiply the number of people within range of your communications by millions. Try a new dish. Try making a new dish. Do you see where this is going? The opportunity to pursue your native desires lives in foreign places.

 

That’s all for now. There’s a mountain of things that could be added to these advices, but I can’t spend my whole day listing them. If you are having trouble adjusting to a new culture, comment on this post and I’ll respond in a helpful way.

Roof Poopin’

It was a terrace Saturday and maybe we were just basking out there but Savi looked over the kneewall separating us from the neighboring rooftops and there, furtively picking a path between the terra cotta tiles, crept a little orange kitty. Being an experienced kitty rancher on the order of the Bubbles character from Trailer Park Boys, I proved once again the time-honored truth that cats will swallow their fear as long as they can wash it down with delicious, delicious meat.

At first I’d set a strip of jamon serrano on the knee-wall to see a little orange paw flash up and claim it. Maybe I’d dangle a strip of bacon or some chicken skin and let him war with his instincts and lose. Little by little, with constant persuasion-by-protein, the kitty gained the courage to leap onto the terrace. A bowl was set for him and on it the usual meat scraps or else a little white milk puddle for the lapping. Soon his skittishness became persistence and on a fateful day, he stepped through our door.

Last night he wedged himself between us in bed (no doubt the warmest spot in the house). He knows how to open our living room window and worse, the refrigerator door. We once were alerted to his presence by a quiet scratching from inside the fridge; he’d opened the door and under its own weight it’d shut on him, casting him immediately into cold darkness for we don’t know how long. We buy him cat food and give him pens to play with. He disappeared for a week and lately returned sans his male equipment, so he’s got owners several rooftops over who care for him. We’re thinking of buying flea collars in several different colors so as to fuck with his real parents big time. Of course his name is Kitty, the same as all of the cats who’ve leapt in and out of my life. The rooftops are his toilet and hunting ground, and as we’re in an arid climate rather than receive the sort of gifts given by temperate-weather cats (birds, mice, moles, rabbits) we get halves of lizards and bats. The lives of kitties are mysterious and wonderful.

The Language Forge

In terms of the “just go” experiment, I can’t say I’m doing poorly. My most recent survey has revealed that I entertain 31 students over something like 22-25 hours per week. That’s running on almost no plan, coming here fresh and unknown to a 17,000-person town. The phone is still ringing from anonymous numbers, people looking for “huecos” (gaps in my schedule) and by now I’ve passed off several students to other Americans as I can’t possibly field another failing Spanish teenager. In essence I’m making what I did in the US in just over half the man-hours in a country where unemployment for my age range hovers around 40%. The weeks fly by.

My Spanish, which was also rudimentary on my arrival, has since grown and improved steadily. I can hold conversations with anyone about any topic which might come up on an average day, from global/national issues to the day’s weather (an absurdly popular topic here). I have failed to study earnestly, and so am behind my goal of not reading and writing Spanish like a child. Also, I make regular mistakes in conversation but nothing which bars my meaning from coming across. In the interest of keeping it polished I’m thinking of turning to old lucha libre films and/or original literature and SpanishDict.com for support. Maybe South America comes after Thailand for us, so I’d like not to land there green as I was that October day in Madrid.

 

Slippery People

I woke up this morning with “Slippery People” by the Talking Heads in my ears and sure enough, today has begun to take funky turns and shake its booty as if it were as loaded as the backup singers in “Stop Making Sense”. For reference:

On the face of it, no one’s having more fun than those onstage and to be sure, I’d have given anything to up there in some other life. Sometimes when you whip your tail in funky splendor, though, there is shrapnel: we made sounds this morning, the girlfriend and I, which indeed were funky but of the discolored variety which, admittedly, lend relief to the lush sounds we’re capable of. She intends for me a potential disappointment which she’s suffered this year and feels unwilling to suffer next year. It’s about work, about where and what hours, and it’s ugly. Working in a high school and normal hours has jaded her against working again in that capacity in Thailand; rather, she intends to split her time between very tiny children in the late morning and extracurricular work later in the afternoon/early evening, leaving me to work a regular day with 9-11 yr old children at a regular elementary. Maybe not too hard to savor, but for me it is and let me explain why.

Let’s pretend that we’re dancing the night away together at a Talking Heads concert at CBGB’s. Let’s also pretend we’re the same sex, and likewise are attracted to people of a common gender. You turn to shake awhile with someone and after a while, turn back to me a little turned off, with a sour look on your face. You plead with me to dance with that person who, granted, I may have danced with anyway but given your point of view of the situation, knowing that you yourself wouldn’t do it, I’m given to feeling that I’m expected to wear a mantle you would pass up should it appear again before you. You plead with me to dance with that person because if I don’t, you’ll be made to dance with them again.

Thus the funk falls in glops and gloops all over us and jams up our eyes and ears. A good wingman would fall on the grenade, wouldn’t they? What gives me pause is the feeling that I should owe it to her to do it because “it’s my turn”…to do what? To be disappointed? To become jaded? Perhaps had I known we were taking turns being broken on the wheel, I’d feel less suspicious. Perhaps if I could imagine myself asking someone to do something I’d sooner scorn, I’d feel less suspicious.

I sense envy lurking in this argument. I sense it has to do with the cold day, the early rising which runs contrary to her nature, the hostile atmosphere of her teacher’s lounge, the regularity of her dread for the workday…or am I selfish? Do I covet my mornings? Have I become dependent on the schedule I’ve built? Is my mind closed to a new experience? From the bottom to the top, we’re confounded in our towers.

 

The Radio

In an hour I’ll be on my way to Bar Ramirez, a great brown building made of wood, to meet Elena. She’s a ranking teacher at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas next to Suarez Figueroa high school. Each week she does a radio program and this morning, she’s asked me to join her to talk a little bit about the US and Spain, and the whole thing’s going to be given in Spanish. Should they ask me why I’m here, I’ll have to lace some untruths through the facts but of course, to remain undetected is a bit easier as a foreigner who may have (or may not have) misspoke.

I can’t help but marvel a bit at how far my Spanish has come in just over a year. I went from stabbing blindly at vague memories of odd vocabulary words to giving a Spanish radio interview in what feels like very little time. Immersion is the only way to learn a foreign language.

Here in the full swell of winter the clouds have cleared off and the laundry’s drying well on the line. It’s colder in the apartment than it is outside, and the baked potato soup is on the stove.

Orange Warmth in Winter

(Preface: In addition to writing on my own, count this as post one in an endeavor to to talk about the scattered ends of life here, once daily, in digestible bits. These are time capsules for future me.)

They sit outside in the depths of winter which, granted, aren’t deep but keep us in coats and scarves and when it comes to eating out, eating inside. Particularly striking is the new Cafeteria España. The waiters in the morning set the tables outside on the sidewalk, against the building, under little iron arms bolted some eight or nine feet up onto the brick façade. These little arms indeed are heaters, their long twin elements feeding from the restaurant’s power and so much that the smokers below benefit enough to enjoy their morning papers in seeming comfort. All day this warmth rolls out from beneath the café’s great brown awning and at night, the customers sit bathed like metalworkers in an intense orange light.