30 October 2006


Simple Pleasures and Disappointments

It's 8:42 on Sunday night and there's nothing I want to do more than pour out my ridiculous stories from this weekend! First of all, let me start with the creepy high school English teacher...

A couple of weeks ago, I was introduced to Juan Carlos, an English teacher at the military academy, by a colleague. Supposedly, his grammar is perfect, but his speaking isn't very good. This is the norm here, where listening to and speaking English with a native speaker is almost impossible (just not many of us foreigners around). He told me it would be a conversation class of about 10 of his colleagues. I agreed to it (and the extra $240 I would be making each month) and told him I looked forward to meeting everybody on Thursday. Well, Juan Carlos was the only one who showed up and he said it was because he was still discussing the details with his colleagues. Fine. So we spent 90 minutes walking around the central plaza, talking about work and the difficulty of learning a language. During the session, he kept saying "wow! You are exactly what I've needed all these years! I have you all to myself for 90 minutes, twice a week. wow." For a second I was creeped out, but then I thought he's just happy that he can speak English with a native speaker. No worries there. Well, I got a horribly written text message the next Monday night, saying that "I" wouldn't be coming to class the next day. I figured it was a student from the University, and that s/he had gotten my number from the school. I asked who it was so I wouldn't mark him/her as absent, and he texted "Juan Carlos." The thing is, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach an intermediate level class that has a Juan Carlos in it, who I talk to quite a bit outside of class as well. I figured this Juan Carlos, who I call JC, wasn't going to make it to class. The next day, I went to the meeting place for the conversation class, and waited for about 20 minutes before I realized my mistake. The thing is, tho, I don't understand why none of the other high school English teachers showed up. And that's what makes this all so creepy! So I texted the English-teacher Juan Carlos, apologizing for talking about absences, etc. He replied with an apology for the confusion and added an unacceptable "I love you so much." I about gagged and died. See, Juan Carlos is this dweeby, egotistical complainer who just bitches about working for the government, etc. He apparently gets paid an awful lot, but he still had the audacity to ask me to help out with planning the curriculum of the whole English program at the academy...for free, of course, because, well, I'm a volunteer! I told him there was no way I could do it, and that he would have to contact my program directors to request a volunteer to come and help next year, as a full time job. I don't think he liked the idea that the academy would have to pay. Anyways, I ignored his text message and set about doing other work that needed to get done before my intermediate class that evening. A short while later he wrote, "I feel bad. I really want to see you..." After consulting a friend, I wrote "No problem. I had work to do anyways. However, please remember the professional nature of our interactions and cease with the amorous comments" (I didn't want to use the word "relationship" for fear of misunderstanding). I immediately received 2 blank text messages, and upon telling my host-mother the story, she said that Juan Carlos had probably sent me picture-messages. I don’t want to know what kinds of pictures he sent! So I haven’t heard from him since, which is fine, except I’m a bit bummed about the lack of pocket change.

Friday night I went out for the first time with a couple of students, and Melissa and John. It was really fun and I had a great time chatting with my students. I was quite surprised to learn that Tyrone, one of the more outspoken students, is married and has kid. A few hours (and beers) later, this husband and father was literally rolling on the floor of a club after having broken a plastic chair, laughing about how fat he was to have broken the chair. Luckily, the owner of the club is the husband of Tyrone’s classmate (and my student) so there was no real problem there. It was great to be shown some of the less obvious places to hang out! Saturday morning came and went, despite plans to wake up early and take a day trip to Guayaquil, but instead of being discouraged, Melissa and I got our stuff together and took the 4-hour bus ride to the coastal city. Even though we were just on a bus, it felt absolutely wonderful to be out of Machala! And we definitely got whacked over the head with cultural idiosyncrasies. There’s nothing like sitting next to an obese 55-yr old woman wearing a neon pink halter top, overflowing the top of her elastic jeans (we call this “muffin topping” because, well, next time you look at a muffin you’ll see), with 40 years worth of arm hair blowing in the wind. I experienced a rather odd cultural exchange: Melissa and I bought a bowl of rice, beans, and chicken for $1 on the bus and were happily munching away, until an older woman across the aisle with one yellow tooth on the top row said to me, “Niña, no seas maldita. Dame un poco de pollo por favor” (Girl, be a good girl and give me a little of your chicken please). I was shocked, to say the least, but I had more than enough so I doled a little bit out onto the lid of the bowl and handed it to her. Don’t worry, I was nice and made sure to give her small pieces of chicken so she could chew them!

We got to Guayaquil and immediately hit up the stores with cute (and very inexpensive) shoes and clothing. For some reason, and despite the incredible heat, people here love nylon and polyester clothing. After a short 3 hours there, we turned around and came back to Machala. Even though our stay was really short (though our total trip was relatively long) it felt wonderful to be out of the city. Upon arriving in Machala, we quickly changed and went out to meet another group of my students for a Halloween party at a popular club. Even though it wasn’t exactly my idea of fun, I sure learned a helluva lot about partying in Ecuador!! First of all, nobody ever has his/her own beer. They order a pitcher and a couple of glasses, pour about a shot’s worth of beer, and pass the cup around while everybody takes a sip. This goes on all night long. Next, the music: they’re either playing salsa and reggaeton or “romantic rock” as they like to call it. If it’s salsa or reggaeton, everybody is up and dancing, making the club extremely hot place and making it practically impossible to move on the dance floor. If it’s romantic rock we’re hearing, everybody’s sitting at the tables, singing along. There really was no conversation except for “You wanna dance? Let’s dance!” and “Oh! We’re out of beer. Order another pitcher!” We were about 10 people with 4 glasses and I don’t know how, but a few of the people were drunk. Since neither Melissa nor I knew any of the balladic songs, we just sat there, listening to them sing. It seems that to be truly Ecuadorian, you have to sing off-key and extremely loudly (men included…in fact, the men were louder than the women at the bar!).

Sunday morning at 8:30 I received a phone call from one of my students (not anyone that was out the night before with us!). It was Veronica, a student who had asked me last Wednesday if I could look over her 80-pg thesis during the weekend. I had said fine, but when she didn’t bring it to class on Friday, I figured I was in the clear. So it’s way too early on a Sunday morning to be talking about a thesis, but there I was, trying to figure out why I’d ever agreed to give her my number, mumbling something in Spanish about how I had too much work to do. The worst part was that she wanted me to look her thesis over right then, because it’s due tomorrow (great planning, I know)! In the end, I agree to meet her at 12 and fall fast asleep until 11:45, when I receive yet another phone call (the fourth one this morning from Veronica…I’m hating her at this point) from her making sure I’m on my way. I assure her that I'm in the cab, roll out of bed and fumble around with clothes until I rush out the door and catch a cab. I’m not too worried, because Ecuadorians don’t really have a concept of time…unless, of course, they’re applying rules of punctuality to foreigners…lucky me! An hour and a half later, I’m done with the 20-pg proposal and intro (I avoid asking about the other 60pgs, but have made a mental note to turn my phone off tonight) and have an invitation to go to Vilcabamba (a BEAUTIFUL city where the people live well into their 100s) with her and her friends in 2 weeks! I decide that it was totally worth the morning of aggravation.

I spent this afternoon correcting quizzes I gave my advanced class last Friday. We’d spent 2 weeks reviewing gerunds (they learned them 2 levels ago) so I figured it was time to move on. And besides, this is supposed to be a conversation class and here I am still pounding grammar into their heads (of course, they need it…). I spent close to an hour correcting and I’m thoroughly discouraged. We volunteers learned that quizzes and tests aren’t only assessments of the students, but evaluations of how we are doing as teachers. Well, the average is a 70% so I feel pretty shitty. I spend the day sulking until I get a call from Mom, the veteran teacher who puts everything into perspective and tells me to quit applying the standards I grew up with to other people. It’s not that they have lower standards, it’s that their standards here are different. How we are taught and how we learn is largely dependent on culture. I’d forgotten that I’ve grown up in a culture where getting (and giving) +90% marks is not impossible and almost the norm. In other cultures, students hardly ever get more than 70% correct because it is thought that you shouldn’t allow the student to do well or s/he will think they know everything. And in other cultures still, people want to get about 70% correct because that means they are at about the same level as everybody else in their class. I haven’t figured out what the Ecuadorian culture and view is on education, but I’m sure ready to find out! So now I feel a whole lot better. That, and the fact that languages are incredibly difficult to learn, especially when you’re neither using it nor have exposure to it for more than 6 hours a week.

Before I sign off, however, let me tell you about my experience administering this quiz…remember Drunky, the student who came to class (you guessed it) drunk last Friday? Well, he thought it was a good idea to come to class an hour late and take the quiz drunk. When I saw him come into the classroom at the break, I asked him straight out if he was drunk. He said “yes.” I asked him if he remembered that he was taking a quiz today, and he said “yes, but I have sense” (it’s a direct translation from Spanish, meaning he’s ok). So I thought, well, let’s see what he can do. I wrote a number of rules (eyes on your own paper, raise your hand if you have a question, etc) on the board and began to hand out the quizzes. Of course, Drunky had all of his papers on his desk still and had begun to copy down the rules in his notebook. After telling him to put everything away, I circled the room once more and returned to his desk. Drunky was now concentrating on writing in his notebook, so I decided to just let him be until he realized he didn’t have a quiz and come ask me for one. Forty minutes later, with 5 minutes left to finish the quiz, Drunky comes up to my desk, hands in a scribbled-on piece of paper with the rules and some weird sentences about how he has a few questions about gerunds, but how he wants to study about paper in Chile because it’s important to him (your guess is as good as mine), he asks me for a quiz. He’s seen two students (one of which I kicked out for wandering eyes, though she says she saw nothing) hand in their quizzes and realized that he’s not doing what everyone else is doing. I tell him he doesn’t have time, and that we’ll talk on Monday. He keeps insisting that he’s fine, as one eye droops and almost closes. It’s obvious he can’t focus as he leans my desk, so I invite him out with us after class and tell him we’ll talk on Monday (he disappears after falling into a fit of giggles for about 3 minutes). While I’m going to give the student with the wandering-eyes problem a chance to retake the test tomorrow, I’m definitely giving Drunky a 0. This is the second time he’s shown up drunk and he even wrote me last Monday about how ashamed he was to come to class like that and how he’d never do it again! Aside from kicking him out of class the next time he comes drunk, I’ve got no idea what to do. He’s there on his own accord so there’s no point in talking to my boss. I’ve learned one thing, tho: I’m never giving a test on a Friday!!

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