Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Only 10 more days in the good 'ol United States

I need to more thoroughly explain my purpose for going to Chile, because so far I have been guilty of giving short, non-descriptive answers. For that, I apologize!

Sitting in a comfy office chair in the great city of Birmingham, Alabama, I received an email from a program called BridgeTEFL, a company that coordinates study, volunteer, and work abroad programs. It was entitled, "Keep your resolution in 2010!" It was early December, and the New Year was peaking around the corner making one of the most insulting faces I had ever seen. Thanks for the reminder, January. I normally open anything related to travel, and I often find myself spending hours pointlessly planning trips that will never take place. (If you would like to similarly waste your time, I highly recommend subscribing to the NY Times AND Expedia travel package newsletters.) I opened the email from BridgeTEFL with the same mindset, "How can I make this work?"

Initially, I played with the idea of going to South Korea. I had learned a lot about the possibilities offered in Korea through some international friends at Auburn. I was their tutor for something called Conversational English, at which I am an expert! We all became great friends over time, they invited me into their homes for Korean cooking lessons, I invited them to tailgates, and so on. They encouraged me to look into teaching programs in Korea, especially since many of them were returning home in the near future and could show me the ropes. The living conditions for teachers in Korea are fantastic, flights are reimbursed by schools that hire, the food is delicious and who doesn't want to learn Korean? While it sounded ideal, there were some downsides. Koreans invest a lot of money in their English programs, so teachers are asked to work 40 hours a week, at least. No matter the country, my ultimate goal is to see it, learn something about the culture, and hopefully to learn much more about myself. A teaching job in Korea does not offer much freedom to travel and explore. Also, the programs begin every January, which meant that I would have had to return in March for Ben's wedding or wait another year to begin. I put Korea in another column hoping to return to the idea at a later date.

I turned to my other options offered through the same company, BridgeTEFL. After researching the options, I found that I had to make a choice between two ultimate goals: volunteering and traveling, or working tirelessly to make some money. As we all know, I chose the first. Please don't mistake this for a bad work ethic! I am not trying to just ride the wave. At this point in my life, I need more freedom than stability. In fact, I believe that a volunteer experience will challenge me more in the end, and I am still learning how to take care of myself.

Back to my dilemma. I had decided to volunteer, but where? I was choosing among some Eastern European countries, India, and South America. Thanks to the European Union, British English dominates places like Spain, Italy and France. For an American, getting a work visa in Europe is almost impossible, but citizens of the UK can move and work freely within the union. I knew that there was no chance of returning to Madrid unless I pretended to be a student and work illegally, which was NOT happening. South America, on the other hand, welcomes US citizens with open arms. To make life a little easier, I have a minor in the Spanish language and I had studied in Madrid the spring semester of 2008. Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, and Chile made it to the last round. Although not my deciding factor, I know that the Costa Rican rain forest has its fair share of very large snakes, to whom I have developed a small phobia. Snakes and celebreties evoke the same emotional response from me.. I just CANNOT believe I am standing right in front of them, and while I try to act cool it’s just not possible. Peru and Argentina are nice places, but how about that Patagonia!

The United Nations Development Program, the National Volunteer Center of Chile and the Chilean Ministry of Education all work together to coordinate the English Opens Doors Program. I applied. I was accepted. I signed the dotted line.

“Why teaching?” you ask.

I guess because no one is hiring 23 year olds to fly all over the world to “find themselves.” One thing is for sure. I am GREAT at school, and now I just have to learn how to be on the other side. If I can somehow convince someone to give me a report card, as well, things will be golden. And I'm not going to lie, working for the UNDP, though indirectly, has a nice ring to it.

I will be an assistant to an English teacher. I live with a host family, most likely one with a child who attends the same school. I should be within walking distance of the school, and I will work anywhere from 3-5 days a week with plenty of vacation time. I will eat breakfast and dinner with the family, probably hearty helpings of meat and potatoes. 

I promise to share more information about daily life once I am actually living it.

I am told that a typical classroom in Chilean public schools has somewhere between 40 and 50 children. Our strategy will be to divide and conquer! A former volunteer advised me not to get frustrated with the learning style of Chilean students, or I believe she said, "the lack of motivation." I will have to convince the students that learning English is important and useful, especially in a more interdependent world. This should be easy for me. In high school, I didn't take my language classes seriously either. But Spanish has taken me places, literally, and that is my selling point. I am not of the opinion that "English can save the world. English should be the world's official language. English is God." In fact, I can’t identify with that attitude at all. Sometimes I cringe at certain congratulatory messages that make me sound like I am off to evangelize with English as my weapon. In all honesty, this mission is quite selfish.

After studying Anthropology (and its often wacky perception of humanity) for four years, I have trouble justifying almost anything considered a "mission" anyway. Global development is a touchy subject, so I had to first convince myself that this program was not treating Chileans as lesser peoples in desperate need of Americanization. Disaster relief is the only mission I can support unquestionably.

If I had to choose, I would say that my passion is “cultural education.” The end. The more we know, the less the judge. This trip is about my own cultural education just as much as it is about the students’. English as a second language will be a tool for the Chilean students just as Spanish has been a tool for me. These individuals can choose to use their language ability for their own purposes, hopefully traveling, learning, and broadening their own perspective.

As an advocate of anything anthropological, I want people to understand that travel is beautiful. People are beautiful, and putting yourself in situations that foster the love for other cultures is important to anyone's own development.

I hope this explanation helps fill any gaps I left in our conversations over the past few months. Thank you everyone for being so supportive. I will be accepting applications for visitors in the near future. Kidding! Please, anyone let me know if you find yourself needing a vacation to South America or missing the winter weather.

I’ll conclude with this. In November of 2009, I went to the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia. I went to a round table discussion, and this is the most important thing I took home with me:

A brilliant man by the name of Professor John Clarke shared something with us. He said he had been asked by a student the week before, "Why is it so important that I understand other people? Honestly, why should I care?" He boldly responded, "because you need to know how strange you really are. You simply aren't normal."

Thanks for reading :)


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