Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Week 3: Changing my Game Plan

It definitely feels like a month has passed in Aguascalientes since my last blog post. Time here moves so slooooowly! No problem though, because I'm thoroughly enjoying myself each and every day. I left off last time the night before I was to perform two songs in the UAA auditorium during a mystery event. It turned out to be an Award Recognition Ceremony for outstanding students in the Languages Department, and it was kinda fancy (they didn't warn me about that part, so I had no choice but to reinforce the casual Californian stereotype). No matter, everyone loved my trilingual version of "The Blower's Daughter" and I even got the crowd to sing during my rendition of "Waiting on the World to Change." After the performance, I was congratulated by a lot of budding groupies and took a bunch of pictures with Mexicans who subsequently added me on Facebook.

I'm almost done with my first full week of classes, and they're going splendidly. I like getting to know all the students, fielding their thoughtful questions about me, and surprising them with Mexican slang when they least expect it. I dislike starting class every day at 7am... But I guess that's the price I pay for three-day weekends, right? So far in most of the classes we're continuing with the Q&A set-up to learn about each other, and traveling has come up in a fair number of questions. "Mateo, how do you pay for all these trips? You must be rich, right?" Something I struggled with frequently in Brazil was the need to combat the assumption from peers that because I came from the United States, I automatically came from money. My new Mexican friends are no different in that regard. Because our school systems are vastly different and financial aid to the extent of Harvard's doesn't exist in Latin America, it's hard for them to grasp that students from low-income households can study in such a prestigious institution and travel extensively on its account. When they ask, "Is it true that you've visited thirty countries?" a simple yes is a dangerous answer. If I'm not careful to explain how all that traveling occurred, the students are liable to instinctively place me in a class separate from themselves. "It's cool that Mateo has seen the world, but that will never be me." I strive to explain that despite our distinct backgrounds, there's no categorical difference between them and Harvard students. Mexican students are accepted yearly at Harvard, just like Brazilian students. It comes down to how much they want it, and how many obstacles they're willing to overcome in order to achieve their dream.

Wait a minute. We're not talking about Harvard anymore- now we're talking about 24-year-old Diana's ultimate wish to visit the coast of Jalisco. It's only seven hours away from Aguascalientes, and the round-trip bus fare is 750 pesos (around 57 dollars). I had asked the students a hypothetical question: "If you could go anywhere in the world for free, where would you go?" Diana's answer reflects a philosophy shared by a huge percentage of the population, not just in Mexico but also in the United States and most places around the globe. Indeed, it was my philosophy before I got to Harvard and met amazing people who changed my worldview. It's the "Must Be Nice" philosophy, which I have come to thoroughly despise for the way it holds people back from conquering their dreams. "It must be nice to travel the world, but that will never be me. I don't have the money/time/language/courage/freedom to do it, so I'll live vicariously through you."

I'm a humble 23-year-old who doesn't claim to know much about anything, but allow me to give a quick life lesson to all you readers: DON'T EVER LIVE VICARIOUSLY. You only have one life to live- why on earth would you spend it watching others do things you wished you could be doing yourself?! There aren't enough obstacles on the planet to successfully deter someone with a genuinely resolute desire to reach a personal goal. At this point in my life, it's unthinkable that 57 dollars and an overnight bus could keep me from realizing my ultimate travel goal. But I'm discovering that my students and many of my friends and family members are held back in much the same way, albeit with bigger costs and greater distances. Think about this for a minute: If you save two dollars a day for two years, you can buy a plane ticket to any destination on earth. Most places cost significantly less than that. Lots of people spend that amount (or more) daily on coffee or parking. There are ways to overcome every obstacle keeping you from your dreams, and now I'm not even talking about traveling anymore. Do you want to learn how to play guitar? Have you always wished you knew how to sail? No more excuses- start working towards your goal today! YOU CAN DO IT.

When I started this Mexico blog a few weeks ago, I said that one of my main goals for this year was to get Mexicans pumped about learning English. From now on, I'm putting English grammar and phonetics and listening comprehension on the back burner. They'll learn those skills throughout the semester regardless. Now my focus is to transform their worldviews. And I'm not talking about breaking down stereotypes of rich Ivy League students- I'm talking about drastic outlook expansion. You want to go to Paris someday? Let's break it down and see how we're gonna make that possible in the next two years. You want to learn how to dance salsa? Let's research local dance studios and figure out how to fit the classes in your schedule between school and work. You don't have money to visit Oaxaca? Show me your daily budget and in three months we'll figure out how to pay for the flight without you having to starve yourself or work two jobs. I'm passionate about using my unique background and experience to make my students' dreams realities this year. I've encountered people along my life path that have done that for me, and so I'm looking at this ETA experience as a chance to start paying it forward. LET'S GO!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Week 2: Chilling Out in Hot Waters

Today marks one week that I’ve been living in Aguascalientes, where I’m spending my Fulbright year as an English Teaching Assistant. I’ve met a ton of awesome hidrocálidos (the name for Aguascalientes natives, literally “Hot Water People”), explored most of the city by foot (I’m still too cheap for buses), and found a marvelous semi-permanent place to live (¡gracias a Dios!). This city is home to around a million Mexicans, but it definitely has a small town feel. After spending most of last year fighting for space on the São Paulo metro with 20 million other people, that’s a welcome change. Aguascalientes boasts a lot of gorgeous architecture, including impressive churches and sprawling plazas. I got lucky and found a private room connected to a grandma’s house right on the corner of Jardín de San Marcos, a tranquil garden in the middle of downtown. The kitchen is not much to look at, nor is my humble room, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a faster Internet connection here than at my house in Santa Rosa… and it’s not even stolen from the neighbors!

After arriving to Aguascalientes last Monday evening, my UAA (Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes) tutor took me out to dinner and delivered me to another teacher’s apartment, where I stayed a few nights as I looked for other housing options. On Tuesday I went to the university and met all the teachers in the Foreign Languages department, plus most of the students. I’ll be working with students who are studying to become English teachers, extension school students who are pure beginners, and everyone in between via English conversation clubs at the library. The best parts of the job, besides molding the minds of young scholars and eating tacos daily for lunch, you ask? I’m legally only permitted to work 14 hours per week, and my contract entitles me to three day weekends every single weekend. Oh baby.

Tuesday night I went out to a pizzeria with several of the other university teachers and watched the Rieleros de Aguascalientes pro baseball team play Game 6 of the Mexican championship series against the Rojos del Águila de Veracruz. Our team lost, but it was exciting to support them in their first championship appearance since 1978. The rest of the week I was free to spend my time getting to know the city, which I absolutely did. My favorite things about being back in Mexico largely relate to food: cheap pan dulce from panaderias on every corner, chili-covered lollipops, aguas frescas from street vendors (especially horchata and jamaica), TACOS, chaskafrutas (fresh fruit frozen yogurt covered with chocolate)… I also love hearing banda music everywhere, running into mariachi concerts in the middle of the mall food court, and the daily “¡El gaaaaaaasss!” cry from the dude who refills home gas tanks (haha people who have spent time in Mexico will recognize that call).

Thursday night I went to a Mexihco Babel meeting downtown, which is a biweekly encounter for polyglots. We met in a café and split into small groups to practice speaking whatever foreign language we’re learning. My group played Pictionary in English (ok, in Spanglish) while another group played Uno in French (or Un, I guess). On Friday night I was invited to a welcome party for the first-year English language students. Most of the university language teachers attended as well, and it was at the house of one of the students. I admit that culturally it seems kind of strange/dangerous to have students and teachers partying hard together, but that’s what happens here and who am I to judge? I had a blast meeting lots of my students and surprising everyone with my ability to dance banda (“No manches, I told you I was Mexican, didn’t I?”).

My weekend was very relaxing, in part due to heavy rainfall in the afternoons and evenings. On Saturday night an English assistant from outside London arrived at the house; she’ll be staying in one of the extra rooms until she can find a more permanent place. I’ve enjoyed hanging out with her a bit and introducing her to Mexican street food. This morning we went to the university early so I could start my first day of work on the right foot. I led a two-hour Q&A session with students in a Listening and Speaking class, and it went perfectly. It was a great opportunity for us to get to know each other, and I hope it got them a little more excited about the doors English will open for them down the road.

Tomorrow morning I’m playing and singing two songs in the university auditorium for a school-wide welcome event. Those are the only details I have at the moment, but you’ll hear more about how that goes in the next blog. I’ve been working on becoming a “Yes Man” when it comes to performing my music; agreeing to play at this mystery event was a direct result of that. Cross your fingers for me! Until next week, lovely readers. PEACE.