Friday, August 27, 2010

The Process of "Getting It"

This week has been one of the most terrifying of my life. Minute by minute I am challenged to fit in an environment where I am brand new. As I try to piece together the words to set up a payment plan for my rent I am reminded of how very exhausting this all is. I’m a square peg that is becoming transformed to fit in a round hole and the process is so very difficult. My primary objective this week has been to make friends. I found myself googling things like “conversation starters” and “fashion in Puerto Rico” which made me feel very trivial and lame. I can already notice myself being absorbed into the culture. Interestingly, Puerto Ricans speak much more rapidly than other Spanish speakers and also leave the “s” sound out of language; for example, instead of saying “adios” a Puerto Rican says “adio.” These regional language differences have called me to pull my head out of my Spanish textbooks and make the streets my classroom.

I have made a lot of friends thus far in my classes. My colleagues are so very kind and quick to loan me notes or explain concepts to me after class that I did not understand. Now that we are past the introductory-let’s-read-the-syllabus part of the semester it is easier for me to understand the course material. Today’s lecture in my “Historia de Hispanamerica” regarded geographic features of Hispanamerica. I understood about 90% of the lecture, which was exactly the confidence boost that I needed.

In each of my eight classes I have occasionally taken out my Spanish-English dictionary to look up a word that I do not understand- every single time that this has happened the professor has interrupted his/her lecture to explain the word to me and has told me to ask for clarification when needed. In my experiences in the USA, UK, and Ghana international students were all functionally left to figure things out by themselves; I think that at home it would be kind of audacious and selfish to interrupt the class to ask the professor to explain a word that one doesn’t know. Puerto Rico stands out to me because the learning environment really is a community of people trying to help each other- my professors and my classmates really want to help me to learn Spanish. My colleagues have also been very generous in giving me rides around town.

As my professor was explaining pre-Columbian trade during lecture this morning it hit me how surreal it is that I can be in a classroom of people from a different culture learning together in their native language. The world that is opened to me by being a fluent Spanish speaker- the life changing conversations with non-English speakers, the chance to attend schools in South America, and the opportunity to explore Latino culture- justifies every bit of challenge I am having.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My First Day of Classes

“Bravery is being the only one who knows you're afraid.” –Franklin P. Jones

I have a feeling that I wasn’t the only one who could tell how afraid I was today. I felt like a Kindergarten student getting ready for class- I wore a new dress, hoped that the bullies with water balloons full of bleach didn’t attack me, and tried to put on my biggest smile. As I walked to class I literally stopped traffic as dozens of cars idled in the middle of the road to watch me. As I entered the Humanities building I could feel the watchful stares of the other students. It isn’t easy being white in a Latino world. My first class was scheduled to be “Sociology of Religion in the Caribbean.” I listened intently to a lecture about Buddism, surprised that there was a significant population of Buddhists in Puerto Rico, until I realized that I was in the wrong class. The professor never showed up for the class for which I am scheduled.

My second class was a survey course of Puerto Rican history. The professor spoke so quickly I could barely decipher words. Verbs, nouns, and pronouns ran together as though they were in a high-speed blender. I couldn’t pick out enough syllables that I could look up the words in my dictionary. Friends, this isn’t easy. I wanted to melt in my chair. I could feel my eyes widen in that deer-in-the-headlights way and I considered excusing myself from the class.

But, I’m not giving up. There are so many brave womyn who have tackled things so much bigger than this. As I sat in my chair waiting for the moment when I could return home I thought of all the times Hillary Clinton must be really scared. How does she get through? Rosa Parks must have been terrified when she sat on that bus and watched the scornful eyes of her peers of both races. I think that Clinton and Parks are able to be brave because they both know that they are working toward goals that are bigger than any of us can imagine. Without sounding cliché, I think that Hillary put on her big-girl panties every morning fully aware of the cracks that she was (and is) making in the proverbial glass ceiling. For me, studying in Puerto Rico isn’t just about eating new foods and taking classes- it is about working in the context of a different culture to build a better world. It is about building the fluency in the Spanish language that will be critical for my future work in development in South and Central America. It is about becoming flexible and aware enough that I can be placed in new setting and be fully functional.

I’ll never forget how kind my colleagues were to me today; the girls next to me even reviewed with me the homework assignment after class to be sure that I had written it down correctly. Unlike Rosa and Hillary who were met by the stares of hatred and disdain, I’m being met by stares of curiosity. All in all, I am in a wonderful position for cultural exchange. I am going to take some deep breaths and prepare for the five classes that I have tomorrow.

Going to Mass

The Spanish saying “vaya con Dios” or “go with God” signifies the Latin American cultural willingness to surrender one’s life to a higher power. The readings that I did prior to my arrival taught me that religion is a central part of Puerto Rican life. The evidence of religion I’ve seen in this city make me think I’m living in a monastery; everyone has a cross-necklace, there are picture of Jesus in every shop, and the only church in town- the Catholic church- is seated high on the town square. My roommate and I spent Saturday night at a Reggaeton (Spanish hip-hop) concert where we saw several famous acts including Jowelley Randy and Franco Yewisin, I also noticed that many of the men were wearing rosary bead as necklaces. I think I remember some scripture condemning the use of Rosary beads as a fashion statement, but I thought I would ask the men what time is the church service. The men, in fact, were not religious but liked the aesthetic qualities of the rosary. I was curious as to whether all of this religious garb was just for show. At what point does religion become kitschy?

I enjoy attending Catholic mass because the services are the same regardless of where you are. I know that, regardless of the political or social beliefs of the Priest, the congregation will together recite the Lord’s Prayer while knowing that millions of Catholics around the world are also reciting that prayer. But this service was different; there was no Holy Water, no kneeling during the service, and no Apostle’s Creed. “Oh…. No… There is no Holy Water, what will we do!?!?!?” I thought to my self. “Just worship,” was the answer I came up with. Church traditions are nice but when we let ourselves get so preoccupied with whether or not the offering is collected the way that we want it to be we lose sight of what the offering is about. In my stay in Puerto Rico I will try to apply this lesson to all aspects of my experience. Life in Puerto Rico may not be exactly what I envisioned but instead of dissecting the particular things that “aren’t right” I’m going to keep in mind the bigger purpose for which I am living here.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bienvenidos a Puerto Rico!

After three days of unpacking, visits to local shops, and figuring out the operations of the University I am so excited to dive into my studies at University of Puerto Rico! I am living in the city of Cayey in the Central part of the island. My roommate, Sylvia, and I share a two-bedroom villa surrounded by palm trees and rain forest shrubbery with a great view of the mountains. I can’t wait to put on my hiking shoes and explore! The University was established in 1967 and it appears that no renovations have taken place since; the walls are verging toward dilapidated and there is no central air conditioning. Consistent with Latin American culture, students commute to school and as classes do not start until next week we have yet to meet many Puerto Ricans.

Yesterday I, along with 10,000 Puerto Rican students, had to get my class schedule from the registration tables in the gymnasium. I noticed that every single female was wearing skinny jeans (despite the 100 degree heat and tropical humidity), had straight hair, and wore either massive heels or gladiator sandals. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Over the summer the University of Puerto Rico went on strikes for 62 days as a result of a tuition battle between students and administration. Many international students scheduled to attend classes at U.P.R. made other arrangements and as a result I will be one of three international students on campus. As the only Caucasian on campus I know that I will be “different”; I don’t know how to dance meringue, I haven’t studied the history of the island, and my Spanish is below a level of native fluency. I am very excited to represent my culture in a way that is positive and I do not take the responsibility lightly.

As of now I am scheduled for the following classes: Economy of Puerto Rico, Society and Culture of Puerto Rico, Salsa Dancing, Sociology of Religion in the Caribbean, Empirical Political Science, History of Puerto Rico, and Hispanic History. I am looking forward to exploring the culture of the island from the views of a variety of disciplines.