Thursday, December 31, 2009

...and a happy new year

“Are you willing to help us out in the case of an emergency?” the chipper flight attendant asked me on my San Diego - Atlanta flight. “Nah. I think I’ll leave it to them” I responded, motioning to the people who were actually sitting in the emergency row. “I’m just kidding” I immediately cowered, afraid she would put me in an even shittier seat. “That’s okay! At least I know that you’re a leader!” she beamed back at me. I am really not sure why half the world talks to me like I am fourteen.

I actually got across the border without a lot of anxiety. I left about an hour later than I anticipated but still had plenty of time. After a taxi to the border, the actual customs and border crossing and trolley ride to San Diego, the most difficult part was getting a taxi in San Diego to the airport. It was a bit of a cluster fuck in the security line at the airport and a few of us were laughing about how we had no idea where to go. “You wouldn’t be in such a good mood if you had crossed the border from Mexico!” a pudgy anglo man to my right boomed. “Oh, I already did that this morning” I laughed, until I realized he was serious. “I had to wait two hours in my car!” he blustered. Might I recommend the trolley?

I remember while returning from Asia I inadvertently found myself spinning around and staring, in U.S. airports, when I heard English. It is not the same this time. When I boarded the plane I was a little disappointed that my exit row seat wasn’t actually an exit row seat. A couple of guys came on after me and indicated that they were in my row and didn’t look so thrilled at the pseudo exit row seats either. I have lived in the South for over twenty-five years but do not consider myself a Southerner. These guys were Southern. One sported a kind of genteel, Billy Bob Thorton accent, the other, a more Deliverance variety and both wore camouflage. For some reason, I identified with these men. “This sucks!” I exclaimed as soon as they sat down “I thought these were exit row seats!” . “So did I” responded one of them, in such a serious fashion that I regretted saying anything. I really didn’t want to help them fire bomb the plane. After the plane took off, BBT pointed “Tia Juana” out to his friend. I nearly knocked them over to see it through the window. BBT casually opened a book titled “Finding Inner Peace” and ordered a "spritzer" from the flight attendant.

I hit the ground running. I found the malls a bit overwhelming, but not as overwhelming as I did when I returned from nearly a year in Asia at Christmas time. The highlight was watching an Indian family run up the down escalator. Normally I find things like that annoying, just ride the stupid thing down and turn around and go back up. It made me laugh this time.

Staying at my mom’s house is like staying in a hotel. Everything is clean and warm, the bed is super comfortable and the cable TV is amazing. It feels like such a comfortable break. I am curious what the next six months will bring. And I am eternally grateful to have this exchange. All I can say is prospero año y felicidad - for me and everyone I know and come across in the second half of the adventure.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Feliz Navidad

My neighborhood makes a tremendous transformation every evening. By day, it is dusty and ramshackle. But by night, the light disappears and Tijuana is blanketed in twinkling lights for as far as the eye can see. I know that Christmas is relatively popular world wide. But for some reason, I didn't expect to see cars whizzing by with Christmas trees tied to the top and little pick ups sporting reindeer horns here in TJ. In the evenings, the run down shops in my neighborhood plug in the Christmas lights that adorn their windows and the town suddenly looks quaint. I feel as though I am in a small, homey village that is not American, not Mexican or even European, but from some other place and time.

I am excited to go home for Christmas. Alec was a little more hesitant. When we did our big Asia trip we both had dreams that for some reason, we had to go home in the middle of the trip and were unable to return. Middlebury discouraged people from going home, even for holidays, while we were studying in Spain. Their prime concern was language development; two weeks spent speaking English only would set people back. A lot of students were just hitting their stride around Christmas and would go home, only to return to Madrid and become horribly homesick again. I feel differently than I did in Asia. I knew I would come back to Spain when I went home during grad school, I had to finish my program. All my stuff was there. I had an apartment. And I know I will return to TJ. I have a job here. People are expecting me.

I went over Profe Hector's house to eat pozole last weekend. I think he is one of my few, real friends here. While others view my cultural blunders as a sign of my innate stupidity, Profe Hector finds them hilarious. We talk about the students that irritate us without fear of being accused of not being a real, child loving teacher. He lets me borrow his Almodovar movies and eat his lunch when I don't have any. When Hector enters the school with a snarl on his face, wearing his crazy, gold rimmed seventies sunglasses, I know he, like many teachers at my school, was simply napping in his car in the parking lot, having arrived a little early from his morning teaching job. He and his roommate, Karen, are curious about Casa del Migrante. "My house was Casa del Migrante when I lived by the border!" Hector exclaimed, explaining that various friends and family members used his place as a way station before crossing the border illegally. "Look, Oil of Olay is on sale!" he pointed out shortly afterwards, as we perused the sale magazines the boy that wore 'pants' now puts in every one's door, after deciding that school wasn't for him.

The months have gone by quickly, though it seems like a long time ago when Alec and I arrived at the Hotel Riviera and wandered around TJ trying to figure it out. I remember my crazy flight from Atlanta to Mexico City and then, to Tijuana. I sat there, watching the people cram their luggage into the overhead bins and search for their seats. I was a little hungover and concerned about my haphazard packing job. Someone caught my eye. A Mexican man, with a tight, cowboy style shirt on, unbuttoned to his waist, showing his chiseled chest and multitude of gold crucifixes. He wore a huge cowboy hat, tight jeans with a belt sporting a tremendous, jewel crusted buckle and obligatory cowboy boots. As he sat down, I noticed "Ranch" carefully embroidered on the back of his shirt. "I wish I was him..." sighed the pasty, overweight businessman to my left. So did I. The rock star ordered an orange juice and promptly went to sleep, his cowboy hat carefully balanced on the toe of his boot.

Monday, December 7, 2009

And America's next top model is...

"Congratulations" I thought, while calculating one of my student's class average, "You are still in the running to become America's Next Top Model". Grading redos is a bitch. For lack of formal guidance as to how to conduct my school's elaborate retesting policy, I decided to come up with my own system. I have been re-teaching and re-testing for two weeks. In an attempt to comply with a system I don't wholly agree with, I have ended up giving second chances to students that most teachers would have refused and given myself un montón de trabajo. "I'm sorry, Jorge. Please pack your bags and leave" I thought, upon grading another failed test. Tapping my foot to the tune of the gas trucks, I continued tearing through the pile of tests.

"You have to sign this" instructed one of the secretaries that presented herself at the door during one of my classes. Oh God, what did I do now? Oh wait, okay, it wasn't bad, I was being sent to visit some university with the other English teachers. I had only taught two classes the day before because most of my students were on a field trip and would only be teaching a couple of classes the following day, because of my pending university visit.

We piled into Profe Enrique's car and immediately began gossiping about all of the things and people we can't talk about in the presence of others as we wheeled out of the school and onto the highway that skirts the desert. The grocery store song hummed in my head. We arrived at an attractive school after a couple of wrong turns, waited for Enrique to put the club on his steering wheel and promptly got lost within the university. "¡Miranos! ¡MIR A NOS! Profe María wailed with embarrassment. Finally, we arrived at the computer lab we that were supposed to visit.

Other teachers and administrators from various campuses of our school were there. I was surprised when a British man introduced himself as the head of languages at the university. He described his lengthy experience in Spain and ended his sentence with a little chuckle by saying "and then I ended up in...Tijuana". It was unfortunate. I don't think he meant it the way it came out but still noted an uncomfortable silence in the room after his faux pas. His description of their program was impressive and I found myself nodding and agreeing with this man while my counter parts watched with skepticism and confusion. It made me feel like an asshole. What's wrong with me? Pass months in a Mexican program and jump ship the minute I am in a room with a white man that speaks English? His program sounded very, well, American, but in the best sense of American academia. It reminded me of some of the universities I have attended, but not of the schools I have taught in. A student doesn't show a mastery of the basic concepts of a class, they fail. Yeah, the kid might be nice and have extenuating circumstances, but did he master the concepts or not?

His presentation was met with some opposition and out right lies, thankfully not by the teachers from my campus. An administrator from another campus expressed interest in the university's textbook, stating that we were considering "adopting" a new one. Profe Maria and I nearly laughed out loud. A new textbook?! How about A textbook, as our students don't have one? When the same administrator questioned our presenter about the stringency of his program, he answered her with a question. "Do you fail students?". "Oh yes, of course!" she answered, "And if they want to continue studying, the have to wait a year until the course is offered again!". Profe Maria visibly shook her head. Sorry, not our reality.

At the end of his presentation, the boss man approached me and we chatted a little about what I was doing there. He casually offered me a job. Flattered, flattered, flattered I was. A university. A university with a strong program. I found myself thinking about it. A few things slowed me down. Do I really want to keep living in Tijuana? Do I want to move to an even worse neighborhood even closer to the actual desert? Exactly how much money could I expect to send Sallie Mae on a teacher's salary in Mexico? And the biggest thing...I don't want new students. I want my students. How could I stay in Tijuana and not teach my ass wild kids?

We left feeling a little deflated, the jovial mood replaced with a little reality. We felt ghetto. His reality was not our reality. Our school is not pretty. We don't have a book. We are forced to have low academic standards and at times, no standards at all. "It's not our fault" the teachers repeated over and over again.

We returned to the school to teach our remaining classes. One group pissed me off so badly that I walked out on them. So much for professional.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Just another day

The rottweilers stared at me, their smiling faces displaying all of their teeth and their ample jaws. The street was completely empty. Instead of facing the escaped dogs, I decided it was a good time to clean the patio. My neighbor pulled up in her minivan. "I'm afraid of the dogs!!" she screamed from her window, as she honked and gunned her engine in an attempt to scare the dogs so that she and her kids could get out of the car and into the house. She ended up opening her garage door and cramming her van into her driveway between clothes lines, plants and kids' toys, so that she could close the garage door and enter the house safely. A tremendous pile of dog shit sat in front of my gate, with a tire track through it. Eventually the dogs returned to their yard through the hole they escaped from and people quickly filled the street again.

I decided to visit a doctor for two reasons. The pinching pain in my chest whenever I laid down and because I had to after calling in sick on Friday. After the dogs went back in their cage, I braved the street to walk to the little clinic next to the pharmacy. I thought these small, 30 peso clinics existed only to satisfy prescription requirements of Americans buying drugs in Mexico, but Profe Hector insisted that they are convenient and thorough. As I walked, I noticed something in the street and dodged it. Two chickens, smashed completely flat. I arrived at the clinic, was immediately seen by a man in a white coat who weighed me, listened to my lungs and took my temperature. I left about fifteen minutes later with a bag of medicine, all for around eighteen dollars.

I really wanted to be well by Sunday. The couple that normally oversees the majority of the cooking on Sundays at Casa del Migrante were going to be out of town. A full time volunteer had asked me to come early so that we could prepare the dinner ourselves. I didn't want to leave her alone to cook for sixty, eighty, one hundred people. I was imagining it as a replacement for my Thanksgiving that wasn't.

Casa had been a little lower key the previous week. I spent most of my time with the older couple that carefully prepares the Sunday dinner. When I am in the kitchen with them I have these Like Water for Chocolate fantasies that I am going to learn to cook Mexican food from an older, knowledgeable Mexican grandmother who will eventually think of me as one of her own. Though it's not really turning out that way, I do like assisting them and listening while la Doña sings all of the songs on San Diego 102.9. They have no idea how many years I spent working in kitchens and seem pleased that I don't mind getting dirty and seem to know what needs to get done. They think it just comes naturally.

Sometimes I think of returning to kitchen work. The only problem is that I like health insurance and labor laws. After dinner, I sat in a little room with my imaginary grandparents and passed razors, soap and towels through a little window to the migrants that passed by. We put tooth paste directly on passing toothbrushes and handed the stick of deodorant through the window to be used by various people. La Doña kept on singing with the little boom box they bring where ever they go.

I ended the evening by making eighty sandwiches and helping a long term volunteer with attendance. Previously, I was intimidated by taking attendance. Something about entering room after room, some inhabited by up to twelve men made me nervous. It was okay. The migrants were ready for us when we came, many already had their ID cards in a little stack, in alphabetical order. One room had the atmosphere of a boys sleep over party. The men giggled and joked in their bunk beds and called out various English words they knew before calling "Good night! Good night!" multiple times as I left.

The weather was not helping me get better. We experienced our first cold, rainy day in Tijuana last Saturday. I spent the day laying on the couch, watching an entire season of America's Next Top Model on my computer. I found myself wondering how, even when I was eighteen, I couldn't maintain a 90 lb. body weight. I hadn't bathed since Thursday and had no intention of taking a cold shower. Alec and I ate some cold leftovers as we still could not cook and I am still suffering from some sort of food poisoning as a result. Sunday finally arrived and I took my filthy, sick self to Casa.

Like most carefully laid plans, my Thanksgiving that wasn't didn't really turn out like I had imagined. But, the sun did come out.