“Yeah, when I was in New York on business…”
“Those 2 weeks I was in the U.S…”
“The food is terrible… all those hamburgers and hot dogs…”
“American culture? What culture?”
“There’s not much history there, is there?”
“Ugh, that American accent… I can’t understand a thing!”
“The thing about Americans is…”
I mold my teeth back into a stiff-lip chiclet smile. Heh, heh. Very amusing. They look so comfortable, self-assuredly snickering at a caricature of a country they love to shit on.
I observe with fascination the smug joy in their eyes, the derisive wheezy laugh. All driven by a glaringly misguided, yet gloriously seductive need to be better than.
Why should I rain on their shit-parade? I wouldn’t dare spoil their moment of naive delight by questioning their pseudo-intellectual, stunningly brash hubris. There are indeed plenty of things to criticize, sure, but they’re pulling at low-hanging rotten fruit. The bland revelation is too simple, too deliciously satisfying to resist.
Is this how they go through life? Satisfied with a facile, self-serving version of reality, with no desire to learn more?
I’m not offended at their (perhaps unintentionally) injurious comments; that would be too easy. No, I’m learning. This is a pernicious trap of logic, a hasty generalization. Such exchanges remind me to work to avoid this pitfall myself.
“Mm-hmm. Whatever you say. On to page 2…”
The house is quiet. Slide the wooden door closed, sit on my tuffet. Turn on my flashlight hanging by a string above, and open up a book. The inside of my closet door is decorated with song lyrics and stickers. This is my space.
Later, I expanded my territory to the basement. Despite the fact that I was on an ever-vigilant watch for the boogieman coming around the corner, it was my quiet hideout. I had a carpet that was older than I was, and the oil tank took up half of the room. One yellow bulb illuminated the space. But it was mine.
I’ve always appreciated solitude.
When I was in school, I dreaded hearing the teacher say the words: “Choose a partner.” I enjoyed working on my own. Team sports made me anxious. I preferred individual sports. Solo activities like reading, drawing, painting, doing crafts, music, sewing, and writing were what made me feel happy and fulfilled.
Later, this would embolden me to satisfy my curiosity and see the world. Why wait around for someone else to join me? I am capable of fulfilling this dream on my own.
Now, I’m 30. I stamp my train ticket, find a seat to plonk myself down in. I watch the world pass me by, and imagine myself flying over the fields, frolicking and dancing around barefoot. I see my reflection in the train window, and I can see those other Mes in a kaleidoscope of brilliant reflections. I nod, they nod, we all nod. This feels right.
I am free to do what I want, travel where I want, and live how I choose.
The question is: Where to go from here?
July is long gone, and now I’m face-to-face with another birthday.
I’m 29. One year before the big 30. On a side note: when I lived in Korea, 30 was the magic number: after 30, a woman’s shelf life supposedly reaches its expiration and you creep into that undesirable “spinster” territory if you’re unmarried. 30 is that round magical number where everything changes, and you’re supposed to have a fire under your ass, to get moving and accomplish those life goals you’ve been putting off until “later.” Well, as a 29-year-old woman, I’m acutely aware that this is the time of my life; I’m in my prime, and there is no magic switch that will be flipped in one year. I’m taking things at my speed, doing what I want to do at my own speed, with no one but myself to answer to. This is the freest and most empowered I’ve ever felt. If this feeling follows me into my 30’s, that’d be one of the greatest privileges I could hope for.
Around the time of the New Year and my birthday, it seems to be the season for reflection. Perfectly spaced, twice a year, the time to take stock.
In the past year, or indeed since I arrived in France a year and a half ago, I’ve learned to speak French, become a freelance English teacher, gotten PACSed (in other words, signed into a legal partnership), found a good job where my coworkers call me on my birthday to sing me Happy Birthday, rekindled my interest in writing and drawing, succeeded (FINALLY) at having an herb garden, and started to delve into cooking more seriously (as a seriously pleasurable hobby, that is).
I’ve also lost friendships, hit my lowest emotional point, rebounded from that point, and evolved more than I ever have before.
But most of all, I’ve learned how and where to educate myself outside of the classroom. I’ve learned that it’s okay not to be a complete island. And I’ve started to research my family history, which is so much richer than I could have imagined, as well as the complex and fascinating history of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Having an intimate knowledge of where my family comes from is both empowering and valuable. For me, learning about the history of colonization, political and even musical and culinary history is a responsibility that I hadn’t fully realized the importance of.
It has simultaneously cemented my heritage: I am, without question, 100% Latina. I come from a mixed lineage of Spanish conquistadors, African slaves, perhaps even French settlers and the Tainos. The first time someone told me I didn’t “belong” with my family was when I was 9 years old, and now twenty years later, I can say with assurance that I do, in fact, have a place. And it’s my job to claim it.
Now that I’ve got a clearer idea of who I am and what I want to say, it makes me more open to writing and sharing information with whoever is there to receive it.
Last night, shortly after midnight we saw the International Space Station zooming across the sky over France. A bright speck that moved so quickly from one end of our horizon to the other, that we barely recognized it before it disappeared. And I can only imagine, to the people onboard the ISS, we looked like a dark patch of night; to them, we were less than specks. Makes me think about my whole infinite-universe-gives-us-ultimate-freedom theory.
I suppose I’m a speck that accepts its speck-hood and wants to enjoy its speck-sized glory while it has the chance.
“False beginner” is a term language teachers throw around to describe a learner who has begun from the top in learning a language, but who in fact already has some knowledge. This knowledge may come from (as in my case) environmental exposure, but not necessarily active usage of the language.
It can be difficult to identify their learning needs at first, and the classroom context may not work for them altogether (as in my case). I took Intro to Spanish while I was at UMass, and I didn’t do amazingly. Even if I can read aloud with a very good accent, the classroom setting is not how I have been in contact with the language, and it’s not a skill I associate with books and formal studies. Even if it worked for me with Japanese and French, formal classroom studies aren’t always my bag.
I’m a language parrot. I can imitate the accent, pronunciation, and manner of expression of native speakers, but this means I can also pick up incorrect or lazy speaking habits. I learn from hearing people use a language, and observing how they do so; textbooks and learning materials fill in the cracks and give me some rules to follow, but I don’t need them to make up the backbone of my knowledge of a language.
As for my accent, I have to credit my grandmother, who taught me to read aloud in Spanish and corrected my pronunciation when I was young enough to retain it. (Ah, the wisdom of the Grama… she helped me cement an excellent Spanish pronunciation during the critical period of language acquisition, which means I don’t sound like a complete gringa when I speak Spanish!)
I may not understand the subtilities of Spanish grammar, nor can I conjugate an irregular verb to save my life, but I know I have a relatively sophisticated vocabulary and decent oral and written comprehension. I’m currently working on a research project using primary documents in Spanish, and would like to eventually go to Puerto Rico to do research on the ground.
Funny enough, these are things that are difficult to admit. I never used the Spanish I knew among my peers or my family out of fear of criticism: I knew it was far from fluent, so I didn’t want to bear the embarrassment of being made fun of for my mistakes and having them pointed out without mercy. I already felt out of place enough, considering my appearance isn’t typically Latina (according to many people I’ve interacted and argued with throughout my life), and I was afraid of being labeled as a poser, someone with no right to claim my heritage. (I wrote a creative nonfiction essay about this experience called What’s the Opposite of a Coconut?, which was published in Killing the Angel Issue 2 in 2013.) In fact, the fear of judgement by others pushed me away from expressing a very real part of myself and owning my identity. It has always been easier to stay quiet than to speak up.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that the classroom environment, where everything is either right or wrong, where mistakes lead to a lower grade, where one is constantly evaluated, isn’t my ideal Spanish learning environment.
Being a false beginner in a language puts one at an advantage when they decide to plunge into refining their skills; but meanwhile, the approach needs to be modified and tailored to the students needs, keeping in mind that it can be easy for the learner to lose their bearings and become discouraged. Language classes also tend not to teach grammar and vocabulary in the same order that the false beginner learned what they know; so from the beginning, it’s very easy to alienate the false beginner by immediately pointing out how much they don’t know. Just because someone is familiar with certain concepts of a language doesn’t mean that they have a rock-solid foundation; there are often cracks to fill in, little by little, without pointing out the depth and quantity of those cracks.
This is all true for me, and as a language teacher, it’s even more interesting to pick apart this phenomenon, and examine effective ways to deal with these students with whom I fall into the same category.
One thing I’ve learned during my various language studies is: The better you know yourself, the way your brain works, and the way you learn most effectively, the more success you’ll have in the learning process. And with this in mind, I’m jumping in.
I think there are two groups of people reading this right now: those who read the title and wonder what exactly it is I’m going to nip, and those who are ready to mock me for fucking up the expression.
Come on, be honest: which group are you in?
It’s a mistake easy enough to make; maybe you learned the expression as a kid, just repeated it, but never thought about what that configuration of words actually means. Personally, I imagine getting nipped in the ass by a little dog whenever I hear someone say this. Ouch.
My point is, it’s one of those funny mistakes that even native speakers make. But I don’t want to laugh or point at the “Nip-it-in-the-butt” faction because I have belonged to that type of faction before. The “laughed-at-for-being-wrong” faction.
There will always be things for us to point out about other people that will separate us, and give one group the triumph of being “right.” Smart people and dummies. People who use taboo words and those who don’t. Those who argue for protection of free speech and those who argue for protection of marginalized groups from hate speech. People who say “nip it in the butt” rather than “nip it in the bud.” Whatever. People like being better than other people: it’s satisfying. But it’s always good to remember that we all get our turn on the side where the “right” people point fingers and lord that glory over us. I’m more in the camp of “this is a silly game anyway.” Why get caught up in the game when, in the end, we’re all just grasping at straws, and the game is just another way to pass time?
So, I’m learning to recognize my mistakes, my being misinformed on something, my many knowledge gaps, and remember that they don’t define me. It’s just a matter of acknowledging them, giggling at them, and then reminding oneself to pick up a book once in a while.
Hello, again. It’s been a long time.
No, my interest in maintaining this blog hasn’t diminished. Despite my silence, my compulsion to write has continued to scratch at the back of my mind; the scratching gets louder with each day that passes. Writing for writing’s sake hasn’t compelled me into action. I’m trying to find my voice, to figure out what I want to say, and write for a reason. But the bigger reason is that I’m in the midst of a “phase.” What do I mean by “phase”? I mean a period of self-questioning, intense self-introspection, taking care of practical business, and generally working my booty off.
The creative instinct gets dulled when “the real world” is right there to pull you back into the matrix. Creativity gets dulled when there are more pressing worries at hand, like health concerns, immigration status, searching for work, desire to change careers and a general lack of direction. Not to mention navigating the labyrinth of French bureaucracy that mystifies even French people. Combine that with feeling vulnerable on a constant basis and general overwhelming anxiety, and it’s a perfect breeding ground for self-doubt. That ugly self-doubt, it’s a killer instinct.
That said, I feel ready to get back to the keyboard.
I’m ready to slap my self-doubt in the face with a white glove, all proper-like, and say: “You, Sir, are not welcome at this party.”
Even though I’ve still got a lot to learn about (fill in the blank–too many things to list!), I’m turning the corner in my adjustment phase. I’m learning to greet condescension with a smile. I’m learning not to feel ashamed of my level of French (which, after a year and a half of study, is well on its way to fluency–this is easy to forget when in a room full of native French speakers). I’m learning more than ever about what kind of person I am; trial by fire is a sure way to find out what you’re made of. And in those moments where I feel like crying, I’m learning to flip the table over on that emotion, and laugh and dance out the door, even if it still stings.
And one thing I have been convinced of in these last few months is that, if I feel like this, there’s no way I’m alone. And for now, I think that’s a good enough reason to continue writing.
If you know me, you know that my mind is on full-blast all day, every day. I’m always listening to podcasts and stand-up comedy, reading the newspaper–trying to keep my mind on point, depositing information and seeking enjoyment. One part of me is motivated by a fear of intellectual inferiority, but the other part of me is constantly on the hunt. I hesitate to say “hunting for new ideas” because it strikes me as an egotistical, disingenuous attempt to pose as a worldly smart person. No, I’m hunting for ideas so that I can find a direction for myself.
The comfort zone is a dangerous place to be. Complacency is not a mindset that lends itself to self-improvement. I wish I could be a person that was more of a go-getter, instead of sitting back and overthinking things while time passes me by. There are many things I wish I had pursued more earnestly, like art, music, and studying Spanish and Japanese, among others. Instead of putting myself through a guilt trip, though, my rational mind knows that it’s far from too late to start.
Thankfully, I have a vivid dream life to keep me on track. Without the filter of excuses, my dreaming mind shows me my fears and forces me to address the thoughts that I push deep back into a corner of my mind out of fear or lack of confidence.
I’m trying to conquer the non-assertive and introverted Me all the time. Becoming an English teacher was the first major step, but I long for something more substantial, more challenging. I admire journalists like Amber Lyon, Abby Martin, and Shane Smith for putting their necks out, investigating and commenting on issues of great importance. I admire stand-up comedians, who may not seem like the obvious choice for admiration. The best comics are those who are introspective enough to know their own faults better than anyone, and make fun of them; they observe the world and point out the hypocrisy and ridiculousness in our culture; not to mention, they know how to tell a great story. In short, I admire people who embody the qualities I’d like to have.
I know I need to conquer my fear of time passing me by, taking away my agency and motivation to do great things. (Again, take “great things” with a grain of salt–I’m not trying to change the world, but make the most with what I’ve got.) But I know that it’s my job to be assertive and advocate for myself, because if I don’t, no one will do it for me.