critical moments

So it looks like the honeymoon period is officially over. My days of carefree wandering, practically skipping through the streets because everything is interesting and fun and lovely – well, that’s still basically my attitude, but it’s been tempered by recent experiences.

For the most part, the few complaints I’ve had about being here in Guanajuato, Mexico, would inspire eye-rolls if I told you – i.e. “Sometimes, my host mom gives me too much food and I can’t eat it all, which is sad because everything’s delicious” ­­– so I had to think about whether or not to write the following post. It’s in poor taste, I feel, to take to the Internet to vent, so I hope this doesn’t count as complaining. (And if you’d rather skip the reality-check to read more about all of the great things I’ve experienced in Guanajuato, check back next week for an entry about actual FUN THINGS.)

Anyways, last week I had what the folks at the CIEE program call a “Critical Moment.” It felt like more like a snowballing of moments, or a having a dump-truck load of moments fall on my head, maybe…

The day started with the new class I transferred into due to a scheduling conflict (which only became a conflict because the bus can take between five minutes to a half hour to show up, but that’s another story). The whole class, which consisted of me, the professor, and one other student, went to an old archival library here. This library is like something out of a fairy tale. I mean, this library looks like the one in Beauty and the Beast come to life. We’re just going to use it for very quiet, academic research though, so no musical numbers.

The professor left us with the librarians for about an hour, so they could show us the system for finding books and everything. The older librarian who took over helping us was very excited to have visitors and practically ran from shelf to shelf hunting down books he thought would interest us.

At first I thought the librarian very nice, until I noticed that he barely looked at me whenever he talked to us. The librarian did, however, hold eye contact with my classmate – who is Dutch and about seven feet tall, so it was pretty easy to tell that the conversation was literally happening over my head. Probably the first time anyone has indignantly thought, Hey! My eyes are down here!

I hoped I was imagining things, but the librarian’s attitude became clear as his conversation with Dutch Guy progressed. While talking to Dutch Guy, the librarian found out that my classmate speaks about a trillion languages, like most Europeans ever. The librarian listed the languages, repeating them, “Spanish, English, Dutch, and German?!” with an appreciative tone.

Dutch Guy added, “And French.”

For the rest of the hour, I got to hear about “how smart!” my classmate was. Grrr. Let’s just say that got old pretty quick.

The librarian never asked me which languages I speak, but even if he had, my response would not have been to rattle off my whole résumé. “Oh yeah, I speak English and Spanish, and two years ago I took an ASL class, and I know some fun cuss words in Tz’utujil, and my roommate taught me a little Dutch last year so I know the usual phrases, you know, like chocolademelk.”*

The worst part of the whole deal was that I found myself trying to impress this old, dusty librarian. I guess my thought process went something like: Well, I’ll show you who’s smart! I asked lots of questions, demonstrating my profound interest in archives and my impressive Spanish skills, but when we left the library, I still felt like a dork, for no reason at all.

But wait – there’s more!

In the evening I went to salsa dance class. There’s always a rotation of partners, so you never have to dance with the same person for more than a few minutes, but that night there was an older man I dreaded dancing with – maybe it was the tight jeans. Skinny old men should really stay away from those. Anyways, this man was really pushy, being more forceful than necessary to “lead” the dance. He kept getting ahead of the music so we would finish the sequence ahead of the rest of the class. But whatever, right? Two minutes of my life, we’d switch, and it’d be done. But we got through the rotation of partners again, so he was back, and this time he’d figured out the problem – me. He told me I needed to count my steps. Considering that I didn’t have any issues with any of the other guys in the rotation, the problem was not one to be solved by any step-counting on my part. But when Skinny Jeans asked if I understood, I just said, “Sí, sí.”

That pretty much sums up the day: I understood perfectly what everyone was saying, but I had trouble believing it. While I might be self-deprecating about how “bad” my Spanish is, it’s really not. I understand what people are saying. I’m doing great – I know, because taxi drivers here tell me all the time.

So – I’m using these experiences as an opportunity to reflect and relate back to my own country. It would be easy to chalk this stuff up to machismo and go away thinking, Gee, glad this would never happen at home! Obviously, things like this can and do happen at home. I’ve had classes in the U.S. before with male professors who take preference to male students, calling on them more often and showing more appreciation for their participation than the contributions of female students. There are plenty of environments in the U.S. that are buddy-buddy for the guys but make the gals feel like sidekicks. Looking at these situations in retrospect, it’s easy to see that both here and at home I have the ability to say something (hmmm… could that be… AGENCY?), but it’s hard. Seems like I’m always thinking, for days afterwards, of what I could have said or done. That’s really the worst part, knowing that while these things have occupied my mind and my energy, the men in these small situations got to move on with their lives.

Ugh. Really didn’t want to end it on a cheery note like that. Here’s an update, anyways: Dutch Guy let me copy his notes from the classes I missed. Turns out you can be arrogant and have a soul.


*And chocolademelk means chocolate milk. Bet you never would have guessed that one!


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