Friday, November 26, 2010

that's a wrap.

This morning we had the English Opens Doors closing ceremony over at the UN building on the far, far, far eastern edge of Santiago. It's down the street from the U.S. Embassy, located in the middle of nowhere because that's where they could find 5-10 acres. There were several speakers; it would have been nice if the Chileans spoke to us as though Spanish were our second language, instead of full-speed Chilean. (The room had about 9 Chileans and 100 native English speakers, so they weren't exactly responding to their audience.) A couple of volunteers spoke, which is totally fine, except that the Ministry of Education was filming the whole thing, "to motivate future volunteers," and the volunteers' stories were...not exactly motivating. The guy's was, more or less, though he also talked about the exhaustion; the girl's was almost harrowing, since she went through 3 host families, one of which included a father who was sending her inappropriate text messages late at night. (It's bound to happen to someone, with dozens of attractive 20-something American girls living with host families in a macho country.)

I understand that she had a rough year and it's possible she couldn't keep herself from talking about it. She was trying to put the best face on it she could, but in fact she was down in Punta Arenas or something, at the end of the Earth, in a failed school system, with bad host families. There's only so much you can do to spin it.

Listening to many of us, it can seem like the frustrations of our time in Chile have outshined the good stuff. I don't know that it has: it's just that it's easier to rant about frustrating things, and those are the things that have taken our energy and left us ready to move on. And let's face it: we want to be interesting and engaging when we talk, and that's a lot easier when talking about the negatives. Positive things are easy: my host family loved me, the people are kind and generous, I learned (more) Spanish! There's not much mystery there.

The negatives, though, are ripe for discussion. They frustrate us, they wear us down. Why don't Chileans listen and respond to the actual words you're saying? Why is the food so bad in a country awash in cheap, high-quality ingredients? Why does your host family yell at you for not wearing shoes, because that's how you get pneumonia? (Alternately, it's the change of temperature, or you haven't been wearing a scarf, even though it's almost summer. The idea that disease is caused by germs rarely comes up, though they'll allow it when pressed.)

These things are interesting because from our point of view, they're absurd and strange and inexplicable. They're implacable obstacles to the smooth functioning of our lives in this culture. Incredulous that this was for real, we probably bashed our head against the wall trying to change it--"No, I really genuinely honestly do not want fried hot dog slices in my rice"--before developing the necessary mix of acceptance and resignation. We never quite like it, though: like a stone in our shoe, eventually it causes some bruising or blisters. Even if we look back and tell the stories with humor and love, that comes from perspective on an unpleasant experience. In addition to making it easier to be funny and interesting--this is why film or theater critics can get carried away writing bad reviews--talking about the negative stuff lets us process it more thoroughly. It's cathartic, and gives us some distance on it. We can start to associate those things with laughter instead of self-control and forced patience.

I'll try to keep the stories balanced as I unwind over the coming months. Just remember, I'm not the sunshine-and-roses type. It was an excellent experience, and it was the thing for me to do and it was amazing. But: I've done a number of very difficult things in my life, and this was the hardest. I think a lot of volunteers would probably say that, so keep it in mind as we rant about the difficult things.

No comments:

Post a Comment