A Touchy Subject...

WARNING!!!! I might step on some toes with this post because it is going to be my strong opinions based on my experiences here in Central America as well as my observations and current outsider's view of the United States. My intention is not to offend, just to sort through my own thoughts and challenge others to engage in these thoughts with me.

Ready? Okay, here goes.

Being a minority is hard. Yes, I am a minority here as I am a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, native English speaker, not to mention North American. I am whistled at, stared at, called names (do they think I don't understand? probably not...), pushed by ladies in the grocery line, etc. Some people tell me I speak Spanish super-bien, others question my abilities to my face. I don't understand all the cultural cues, I offend people unintentionally, I am doing the best I can but in some situations people aren't very gracious with my obvious lack of cultural cue knowledge. I sometimes feel inadequate or clueless about how to act in social situations.

Thus, I have a need for authentic learning. I am in these real life situations every day and I want to learn how I am supposed to act or what I am supposed to say in the daily encounters I have with Costa Rican natives. BUT in order for me to learn, I first have to be willing to ask questions, to admit that I won't get it right the first time, to admit that my college degree in English really does nothing for me in Spanish. AND the people around me that I am engaging with are hopefully in a place where they can answer my questions, give me grace even if I don't get it right the first second third time I try, and encourage me when I do it right.

So I am here, I am learning, I am hoping that someday I will speak well enough to communicate effectively no matter if I am at the grocery store, the bank, or the auto place, no matter what level of conversation I am having (think small talk vs. vocabulary specific vs. a heart-to-heart). And what is my purpose in learning? To become a better teacher, and ultimately, a bilingual teacher.

Okay, are you ready for me to get to the point?

I say all this from my own experience because I sense tension in the United States about minorities. Yes, there are migrants pouring in, legal and illegal. Yes, the government is working to filter out the illegals, but the attitude I generally hear from North Americans is that they are not open to having new migrants (but how our own families even part of the United States.... our grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents migrated!). It is said migrants are ignorant of our ways and do not want to learn English, therefore shouldn't be part of our country(But what did our ancestors speak when they came? Probably not English...). Stereotypes about migrants abound, but I won't go too deeply into that because I don't want to present my thoughts as if they are the only right way to think.

Am I a legal migrant to Costa Rica? Yes.

Am I trying my best to learn the language? Yes.

Am I asking questions of the people around me, observing them to learn their ways? Yes.

Do I have goals for the future after this hard work of learning? Yes. (But I won't be done learning!)

I guess my plea is to examine your thoughts next time you interact with someone who might be a migrant, whether they are Mexican, Polish, Indian, whatever. (I mention those because they are the first growing populations that come to my mind in the Chicago area... but it might be different in your area) Cut them some slack. Ask them if they need help, even if it's something simple like helping count change at the grocery store or teaching a new word. Give grace because trust me, if you were learning a new language and desperately trying to figure out cultural cues, you would need grace too, just like me.

An example of a situation in which a North American was not sensitive to a Costa Rican... I was at the airport in December, in line for my Houston flight. A tico needed to pass through the line, and so he said ''Excuse me, lady'' to the well-dressed woman in front of me. Now, I know that in English, we do not say ''lady'' unless we are saying it with attitude... like a snap-your-fingers, don't-treat-me-like-that kind of way. BUT in Spanish, ''Con permiso, muchacha'' is perfectly acceptable. In fact, it's considered very polite to say it that way. So this tico thought he was being very polite, and the well-dressed woman turns to her well-dressed husband and says ''That was soooo rude. I can't believe he just called me 'lady'.'' Now me having gone through similar experiences has taught me that to be called ''muchacha'' (lady) in Spanish is the very polite form, but this woman didn't.

I have become more conscious of situations when I need to give grace to others, even when I don't understand where they are coming from, and my challenge is that you will examine your own attitudes and actions when you don't understand someone else, namely minorities.

Thanks for reading my jumbled thoughts!


The Medical System... From A Gringa's Viewpoint

When I first came down to CR, I bought traveler´s medical insurance. I went to a private clinic for the couple times I was sick enough to go. I paid for my health care costs, and then the US insurance company reimbursed me for my expenses. It was somewhat costly to invest in this plan, but it had some nice benefits... like if I were in critical condition, the insurance company would reimburse me for a plane ticket back to the States. Or I had 15 days of medical coverage every US visit. Or a small life insurance package.

But now :). Through our school, we are finally part of what is called ''The Caja'', which in short is CR's medical system. Socialist in theory, all persons pay a percentage of their income to the Caja and in turn receive free medical care. ''Free.'' I mean, we are paying for it from our paychecks. I now have my Caja insurance card and my monthly paper saying I still work at the Insitute, and the medical doors are wide open.

Lol. Wide open means that you have to follow the system. The closest Caja clinic near me opens at 7am; however, the line starts forming around 6am. There is a sign on the clinic door that says "Line forms here," and all the people line up down the street, around the corner, as far as necessary. In order to get an appointment, you must stand in this line. You cannot call to schedule an appointment. You also must take your passport (for a US citizen), your insurance card, and your monthly insurance paper.

At about 7:05am (7am tico time), a doctor comes out and hands out numbers. The senior citizens and pregnant women get the first numbers, and then the rest of us get numbers. You are lucky if your number is less than 40. That means you probably will be able to see a doctor that day.

So then wait #2 begins as you wait for your number to be called. This could take anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on the needs of the people before you. When your number is finally called, the receptionist asks what time you would like your appointment. I always say after 3pm because that is when I am out of school, but it is not always available because they close at 4pm. They print another paper saying what time your appointment.

So you come back for your appointment later in the day, bringing all 4 things with you again (passport, insurance card, insurance paper, appointment paper). If any are missing, they may turn you down for the appointment. (This is where I try not to be a nervous worrywart that I forgot something but it doesn't work very often... especially since everything is in my second language!) You do not "check-in" like you do in the States, instead, you simply walk down the hall and place your appointment paper in a box outside the door that says "Enfermeria." (But seriously, how are you supposed to know this?) You shouldn't be scared by the next door that says "Cirugia Menor" (Minor Surgery). LOL. Then you go back down the hall to the waiting area, and sit down until they call your name. My name sounds something like "kot-reen sees-ko" so I have to listen really close because they never quite get it right. So finally, you talk to someone about your current ailment, and they take your temperature, weigh you, measure how tall you are (The last time the girl couldn't reach above my head so I had to measure myself, lol), and take your blood pressure. OH, and (if you are a woman) you might be asked when the last time you had a pap smear was and if you would like to have one today. (awkward) THEN you are sent out into the hallway again to wait outside the doctor's door.

The doctor calls you in (again "kot-reen sees-ko" has to be ready to listen), and you again explain your current ailment. She (or he) checks your ears and throat, listens to your lungs and heart, ask you questions using words like "hinchada" "apretado" "fiebre" (swollen, tight, fever) so you better be having a good Spanish day. Then she sits at her computer and types away, prints yet ANOTHER paper(s) that tell you what drugs you will be prescribed.

Then you are back out in the hallway, walking toward the reception desk again. Wait in line at the prescription counter, and give them your paper(s) again. If you are lucky, they will send you back to the enfermeria room for your injection(s), usually in the tush. When I have asked why the tico system relies so much on shots to the tush, I have been told that it quickens the circulation of the drug throughout your body. Makes sense, I guess. If you are unlucky, they tell you to come back the next day to pick up your medicine.

Yup, you got it right, then the next day you come back with your passport, insurance card, and insurance paper to wait in that same line to be called "kot-reen sees-ko" again, and then to pick up your drugs.

All this for "free." Spanish medical terms practice. Medicine. Pap Smear. The confusion of which line to be in. Experiencing cultural cues first-hand.

"Kot-reen Sees-ko, venga para la Enfermeria." Oh, that's me they're calling! Gotta go!!!


From the Plane Window

When I went home for Christmas, I had a window seat. Thanks, Continental Airlines, for giving me such a great view for taking photos of San José and of volcanoes in Nicaragua. Thought I would share the photos!
super faint thanks to aerial perspective. pacific coast, nicaragua.
san josé disappearing


san josé barrios


More About Daily Life

I just got back from a quick trip to the grocery store, and it reminded me of many more things that I may or may not have told you before. So here's blog #2 for the day :)

1. Everything comes in bags at the grocery store. At first you might not think that strange because in the States flour, sugar, cheese, chips, etc., come in bags. While those items do come in bags, so do items like ketchup, mustard, mayonaisse, refried beans, salsa, cleaning solutions such as bleach, laundry detergent, refill handsoap, meat at the meat counter, sour cream, basically anything liquid or semi-liquid. Cons: putting on my painting clothes before cutting open the bag of bleach. Or the juice from the meat seemingly seeping out of the bag. Yuck. Pros: cut down on garbage. You can squeeze your beans right onto your tortilla, lol.

2. Kilos. The metric system is a smart idea, United States and Britain, and I don't know why you invented your own system! I have figured out how to convert kilograms into pounds for when I am at the market and to convert kilometers into miles for distance. The customary system is so well engrained in my thinking that it still is difficult for me to understand weight and distance in kilos.

3. Pay your bills at the grocery store. Yes, you read that right. I receive a piece of paper once a month for water, electricity, and phone, and I have to walk to the grocery store, get in the cashier line, show my bill, and pay in cash only. You can also pay bills at the bank or online, but I have yet to figure out the online system. Maybe someday.

4. No personal space. While standing in line at the grocery store, I could hear and feel the lady behind me breathing! She was standing so close to me that I was coaching myself not to be so ''gringo''. lol. I need space! She was actually a very outspoken tica as she nearly pushed me out of the way after I was done paying for my food, but then I still needed to pay my cell phone bill (Oh yeah, I have a cell phone now thanks to Judit!). I lost my voice this week due to a sore throat, so I rasped that I still needed to pay my bill! The cashier bent toward me and was like ''What??'' (this whole conversation in Spanish of course) and so I breathed deeper and rasped louder that I needed to pay my cell phone bill! He asked me for the phone number and I wrote it down so I wouldn't rasp-shout it at him, lol. The lady behind me was still breathing on my shoulder, and she said ''So you can't speak Spanish, huh?'' I looked at her, probably with a not-nice look on my face, and I didn´t respond. Thank goodness I have arrived at a point in my Spanish that I don´t feel like I have to prove myself every chance I get.

5. City life. Lots of traffic. Dodging cars to cross streets. Taking the bus. Palm trees. Pollution. Long lines at the ATMs. Beggars at our door. Homeless people in the streets. Street-smart dogs that look both ways before they cross the road. Three-legged dogs that have experienced a car incident and are still loving life (or limping through life). Spanish, spanish, spanish. Mountains surround the city.

6. Earthquakes. We had another minor tremor this morning. It's a part of life now to go outside as soon as I feel a tremor, no matter where I am. I was currently at home, falling asleep, and so I dosed shortly after because it wasn't a big one. When a tremor happens, I can hear the windows shake, the ground beneath me isn't stable, I have to lean on something to keep me up. If it is strong enough, things might fall off shelves and you might see the table and chairs ''dancing''. The quake today M4.7 (magnitude on the Richter scale), says the Nación newspaper. Not bad at all.

I'll probably think of more later, so stay tuned :)

Daily Life

At the risk of repeating previous blogs, I am inspired to describe daily life again. I think there are so many daily things I have yet to describe to you that I want to try again.

1. January is HOT. Whenever I see the date written on newspapers or newsletters, I think, ''Really? It's January?'' It's more like an Illinois August, without the thunderstorms and humidity. My classroom is like a sauna, or as one of my tica students read in Esperanza Rising the other day and then said about our classroom ''It is like a brick oven that is cooking us!'' I thought that very appropriate. It is so hot in our classroom that I have usual complaints of headaches and nausea. My answer is always ''Drink more water!'' We have been outside on the balcony in the afternoons for our Independent Reading time. I know the kids enjoy the break from the heat and the fun of looking out over the school campus and city streets.

2. January is DRY. It's not quite as dry as an Illinois winter, because I don't have to put lotion on everyday here like I did when I was stateside for Christmas. The grass and trees turns brown. I drink tons of water, and I make my students drink tons as well. (which in turn students have more bathroom emergencies!)

3. Tico summer vacation. Right now is the Costa Rican public schools' vacation, so if you want to go to the pool or the theatre, the lines are long and the facilities are full of super-tanned kids. My own Costa Rican students are a little restless as their neighborhood or church friends are out of school and they still have to go.

4. Sunrise 5:59am, Sunset 5:37pm (today). The sun stays out for a more consistent time period here year-round because we are close to the equator. It is nice not to have super short days like in the winter in Illinois.

5. Mosquitoes. I have a broken window pane, and somehow, mosquitoes can smell my skin from miles away. I have had many battles at night with multiple mosquitoes in the past week, and one got the best of my face again. Thankfully, this time was only both my cheeks and my forehead, not my eye! Whenever I hear that zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz sound in my room at night, I wake up super fast, turn on the light, and swing my Spanish/English dictionary in every which direction until all bugs are dead. I'm not messing around anymore thinking the zzzzzzzzzzzzz is just in my dreams.

6. Spanish everywhere. No matter where I go here, I am practicing Spanish. It has become so much easier, and not as much of an internal panic attack as it has been in the past. I have begun tutoring sessions again on Thursday afternoons to tackle the dreaded subjunctive verb tense, but I am excited to finally understand and apply it. I have begun speaking more Spanish with my students too, as now I am very comfortable with it and we easily slip in and out of Spanish and English.

The Not-So-Daily
1. A student broke his right wrist this week in gym class, and since he is right-handed, I have been making many accomodations for him (It's not as hard as it might seem. I have magnetic letters that he manipulates for practicing spelling words, he tells me what to write for answers on quizzes and homework, and we do a lot of partner work where the other student can write for him too). Poor kid, he can't play his beloved soccer at recess, so I got out a Sudoku game that none of the kids had seen and he was excited about that... at least for a day :). Costa Rican doctors don't mess around either! His cast is seriously like a cement block on his arm. LOL it's not literally cement, but a really hard plaster smoothed over the gauze. Yesterday on his way out the door, he thanked me for my help. I think he was nervous about coming to school because he already is discouraged about writing in general... and then to imagine having to write with only his left hand! It will be an interesting next 6 weeks of accomodations, but we will make it through. Another student commented that he gets all my attention now, and I told the whole class that if they felt like I was giving more attention to this boy, then they could go break their wrist too! They all laughed and joked that they wanted a cast too. (It reminded me of my favorite childhood book Madeline!) So after student comments, I have made an effort to give attention to all while also assisting Mr. Cast.

2. A swollen tongue. Not sure how this one happened, but it started out as a sore throat last Sunday and increasingly got worse with drainage and loss of my voice. Today I finally went through the long doctor lines at Ebais to receive a confirmation that yes, my tongue is swollen, no they don't know why, and here's your treatment of two shots to the tush. lol, like I have said before the injections for treatments are a common practice here. ''Oh, and by the way,'' the doctor says as I leave the room, ''the shots will make you very sleepy.'' Thanks for the heads up. I came home and slept 3 hours straight. Now it's naptime again.


Art Birthday Party :)

Many thanks to Trish and Eddie especially for pulling off a great night of pasta, art, and fun! Trish planned and Eddie added his creative ideas to top off the evening. We dressed in primary colors, ate pasta with three kinds of sauce (marinara, alfredo, pesto.. all homemade!), finger painted, played ''The Best Game Ever'' (I'll have to teach you sometime!), and ate a fantastic FunFetti cake in the shape of a painting palette.
Erin took photos of the whole evening!
Painting in action

Andrew, Peggy, Albin, Eddie, Yoji, Trish, Courtney, Erin, Medrano, me!

And the silly faces!
It was a success. Thanks so much Trish for all the thought and time put into it! Sadly, I did not get a photo of the cake on my camera... but believe me, it was beautiful! Thanks guys for helping #24 be a great birthday!


Haiti Earthquake

Photography thanks to the blog mentioned below :)

Since hearing about the earthquake in Haiti three days ago, I have been following this blog of Haiti missionaries working in a medical clinic. The stories and photos are so vivid to me after seeing the earthquake destruction here in Costa Rica only a year ago... thank goodness last year's quake didn't hit San José like it hit Port-Au-Prince.

There was also an earthquake in Venezuela this afternoon. On this map, you can see how close Venezuela, Haiti, and Costa Rica truly are. I am continually fascinated to live here and experience Central American and Caribbean history ...
Pray for Haiti. For uncontaminated water, for survivors, for food, for medical help.