Because Everyone has Biases

imageThree biases:
I will now talk about 3 biases I faced when coming here to Nicaragua. Please understand that the point is NOT to say one of the cultural perspectives from which these biases came is better than the other.
1. Talking about weight almost always has bad connotations.
True, in the U.S. talking about weight is pretty off limits. We are extremely touchy with that subject, and almost every person thinks they need to lose or gain weight. Here, however, where someone might still make a hurtful stab about another person’s weight, the verbal context is what matters instead of simply the words “gordo” (Fat) or “Flaca” (skinny). The first time one of the staff members made some comment about one of his co-workers weight, I was completely shocked (Imagine big eyes, jaw dropping, quickly putting finger to lips to shush him, “WHAT, NO, NO, NO!”, type of shocked). Not that there aren’t eating disorders there or insecurities over weight, but those are not as distinctly attached to a certain body type, at least as far as I observed, and the ownership of more or less weight is not immediately seen as a moral discussion as it arguably appears to be in the U.S.

2. Time rules.
I believe this particular discussion holds true to more than simply Nicaraguan or Hispanic culture, but I was amazed by the relational vs time orientation in Nicaragua. When leaving to Nicaragua I assumed that people in Nicaragua and other Hispanic cultures were simply late to most appointments, like they just kind of set their clocks half an hour back and uniformly elected this new time to arrive at all functions. However, this mindset still grew out of my U.S. time orientation- still putting time as the ruling factor in the calculation. I discovered, however, that this culture actually views time as subordinate to relationships. Time is merely the chosen mode to order our relational interactions. For example, should one plan a meeting for 8:30, that number simply signifies the time around which the meeting will occur. Should you happen to receive a phone call, be in a conversation, or have a co-worker bring cake into the office, those interactions will almost surely take precedence over attending a meeting when a certain number is on the clock face.

3. Declaring your authority and enforcing hierarchy is negative:
This concept is still somewhat puzzling for me to explain, but I will do my best. I am studying social work and have thought extensively about the use of power structures and the fact that all men… and women, and children, and LGBTQ persons, and everyone, are created equal. I went to Nicaragua, therefore, and was somewhat disturbed at the flaunting of power and the distinctly hierarchical societal rules I could so easily perceive. I hated the fact that men viewed themselves generally as more important than women, and even more that many people took my word as gold and truth because I was from the United States. Power, authority, honor, and conversely shame and weakness were emphasized more highly than I had ever seen before. Another way to explain it is to say that if you had keys you jingled them, and the more you had, the more people could hear them jingling.
I was continually frustrated with this power structure until one day my boss looked at me in a meeting and said, “I do not have all the authority in this center. Each of us has our own kinds of authority and should try to use it well.” I then realized that whether we realize it or not, whether we want it or not, and however hard we try to get rid of it, all of us have certain types of authority. I can do many things with the authority I have. I can abuse those under my authority, I can neglect those under my authority because I am in denial of that authority or do not take it seriously, I can discover that that authority has been given to me unrightfully and seek to restore it to its proper owner, and I can continue to use that authority I have for good. Some of these decisions are inherently immoral and some of these are situationally dependent, but whether or not I like it, I will always have some sort of authority. I believe that this perspective is sobering and empowering, and one I had not thought about distinctly before. I am not trying to say that I understand this perspective as a whole now, but I am more able to understand certain aspects of it and willing to try to look for ways in which I can deconstruct harmful perceptions while still respecting cultural values.

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Finalmente

imageAlright, this is fairly unacceptable. I should probably update this blog more often! I’m going to try just posting little stories instead of giant updates because that will be less daunting, I think. Not that you all don’t deserve a rather giant update, but…
Right now the kids are on holy week break. During Semana Santa here, many people spend their free week going to the beach, relaxing, and partying. I am mostly just breathing and having fun remembering that I am not just the work I do here and watching Netflix, and eating mangos. Basically being super introverted and absolutely loving it. Not that I don’t kind of really miss all my little compañeros, and I will be more than ready to see them again when they get back.
Daily schedules and activities shift from week-to-week, but I usually get up early enough to see the kids off to school at 6:30 every morning, eat my oatmeal in various stages of dazed philosophicalness, and get ready for my English class which I have every morning but Wednesday at 8:30 . Teaching middle schoolers English is everything but peaceful and predictable, but we’ll get into those adventures at a later date.
So, yes, English class finishes and I do…? The next part of my schedule until lunch is probably the most varying part of my schedule and has involved everything from home visits and leading a meeting with community leaders to making tortillas with my middle school students. 12:00 is lunch, and I usually spend the next hour or so going through emails, filling out the endless skeins of paperwork which a social work practicum entails, or translating some document or another into Spanish for the purpose of good communication with my director. 2:00 p.m. brings my daily guitar class with Jesus, and at 3:00 I lead a relaxation therapy class with different groups of the younger kids which is an interesting test in engagement skills and personal creativity levels. The last hour of my day after 4:00 p.m. is always my favorite. The kids get out of tutoring at that point, and so we spend the next hour or so waiting for their parents to arrive and playing soccer, hop scotch, and guitar. Most of my favorite one-on-one conversations and interactions have occurred within this hour as the daily stresses of school and work are shoved into backpacks and set aside for a little while.
One other thing I have started doing is volunteering at the special needs school for a couple hours 3 days a week to teach non-visual skills, and mainly cane technique, to the blind students there. I really, truly love this opportunity to bust up a few low societal expectations and to watch my students start navigating their school more and more independently.
So now you all get an exciting accomplishment story and a funny/ gross foreign country story.
Cool accomplishment:
This past week the educational psychologist, Guadalupe, came to me on Wednesday to talk to me about a meeting with the local community leaders which the HCN would be leading on Thursday. The HCN has plans to bring in new children/ families into their program and wanted to engage the local community leaders in this process. We had already discussed this as an event, but on Wednesday, Guadalupe came and asked me to help facilitate/ present at this meeting. She wanted me to discuss our organization’s principles of partnership and the definition of “at-risk” as it refers to children. I was excited but mainly nervous. I had never discussed these topics in front of a group… of important political figures in the community… in Spanish… with one day to prepare. I crammed, and translated, and crammed, and worried once or twice. To my great relief, the meeting went off fairly seamlessly; excluding the extensive political discussions between different communities, but, everyone appeared to believe those were the most natural part of our meeting.
Funny story:
Yesterday, the professors had an abbreviated work day as the kids were not here and we were just making some posters to put up around the center. In the middle of the day we had a giant vegetable/ crab soup. When I say giant, I mean that the pot was like the size of a dog tub and literally full of soup. When I say giant, I mean that they gave us taurine of soup instead of bowls. Anyway, enough about the amazing soup. On Friday, Marisol had told me that all the ingredients for the soup were in my refrigerator, and she said that I shouldn’t let the “animalitos” scare me. I was like “wait; there are little animals in my fridge? What is this?” A former staff member who had come on a visit was there and said in English, “She means the crabs.” Unfortunately, I definitely thought she said “rats,” so that didn’t make me feel better. After I simply stared at them with a completely shocked face for a few minutes, they re-explained that there were crabs in my refrigerator. Alright, so back to Monday. Friday’s shock was only one-upped by one of the professors discovering an actual dead rat that had begun to rot in the unused bathroom adjacent to my kitchen. Oh, the very unfortunate irony.
Maybe that is a really unprofessional place to leave this post, but Franklin just came to invite me to dinner with him and his brother and their professor, so I am unashamedly leaving to eat Nicaraguan food!

Conglomerations

I have now spent 3 weeks at El Ayudante, so I wanted to fill you all in on what that has looked like.
El Ayudante is a child care and community development center in the beautiful city of Leon, Nicaragua. I will take one brief moment to note, firstly, that I am in Nicaragua not Nigeria. Nigeria happens to be quite far off although it begins with the same two letters. Secondly, please note that the city is the same as my last name, so basically this is my city… straight logic! Anyway, back to the history of El Ayudante. This organization was founded in 2001 to be a child protection agency, and for the first 7 years of its existence children were brought here by the ministry of families to live here. In 2008 laws were passed that sent all the children at this agency and the other orphanages and centers in Nicaragua back to their families. However, these children had been removed from their families for specific reasons, so El Ayudante adapted to fulfill the children’s’ needs while respecting the laws. At this point El Ayudante developed their before and after school program which gives the children food and medical care, school supplies and tutoring, and counseling. Currently El Ayudante works with 29 children from several families in the community of León. The part of El Ayudante which runs this children’s’ program is called the “HCN,” and this is the part of El Ayudante in which I am doing my practicum.
So let’s rewind. I am currently in my senior year at Union, about to graduate with my BSW degree. For this degree you spend your last semester in an internship called a practicum. For my practicum, I chose to go to Nicaragua to work at El Ayudante, so I will be spending 3 months here doing social work at the HCN. Currently it looks like my main responsibilities will include teaching several of the older boys English, teaching guitar to a child named Jesús, leading a relaxation therapy class with the kids, making home visits to the children’s families, selecting and teaching a relevant subject within social work to the professors, parents, and children (drug awareness or something of the sort), and giving orientations to the US teams which come in over the history, purpose, and goals of the HCN. Apart from this I will spend much of my time with the teachers taking daily care of the children and observing and supporting the educational psychologist in her work here.
I’ll get more into the logistics of what my day looks like in a later post, but for now I’ll just tell you a few stories to give you some snapshots of my life.
Being bilingual is pretty rough! My first issue, however, when I came here was the thick accent they have here for the most part. They swallow all of their S’s here and use a lot of colloquialisms. There are many words that I have never heard before, and I will ask them and it will be their own Nica word for something quite common. My director has one of the thickest accents I have heard here, and I swear that the first day she didn’t think I knew Spanish at all… which is unfortunate. My brain is always swinging between English and Spanish. This morning I was trying to switch from Spanish to English and instead I simply started speaking Spanish with an American accent, which let me tell you, was pretty ugly. I have also been having trouble bringing the English words which I need to mind. The other day, I was speaking to one of the translators that come to help the teams here. I was speaking in English and could not remember the English word for fan. This is especially pitiful because the Spanish version which I could remember is actually “fanico” which is literally a lengthened version of the word in English.
As always people here were curious how I could be blind and independent. Every child here thought they had come up with a new game when they asked me how many fingers they were holding up while walking further and further away from me. Since they were simply saying “how many fingers do I have” I started telling them they had 10. If they said they only had 3 I would ask them how they lost the rest of them. I don’t think most of them got it for a while, but I thought it was pretty entertaining at least.
The director also called me over for a meeting with the guards and gardeners at one point. She told me that they had been asking her how I could walk wherever I wanted so independently. I informed them that I had been in training and that this was simply a different way of life. However, I may have first looked at them and told them with a totally serious face that I was a secret agent in the CIA, so I was just pretending to be blind. What was more amusing than that, however, was the fact that when I was relating this story to the educational psychologist here, I said, “and I told them I was a secret agent in the CIA,” and she didn’t understand that I had been joking, and it took me 5 to 10 minutes to convince her that I was not actually a secret agent.
Machismo culture is also very alive here which means, in part, that many men have a sense of entitlement and dominance over others. Many of the translators have been flirting with me to a point that is just very annoying. One particular translator, who shall remain unnamed for his poor overly confident self, has really been getting on my last nerve because the way he flirts is just so condescending and feels degrading to me. Anyway, he came to me the other day and said, “Rebecca, I have a quote for you.” (At this point I am already like “Please, no. Lord save us all.”) He continued, “Women are like the apples on a tree. The best ones are at the top and maybe they don’t think they’re that great because no one comes to get them, but it is only the best and strongest men who can climb the tree and pick them.”
Needless to say, this was pretty offensive to me on a lot of levels, so I looked at him and said, “Unnamed translator, did you ever think that maybe they are at the top of the tree because they like it up there and they don’t want anyone to come get them.
He looked at me for a minute and then just said “oh.”
I have been really enjoying my time with the children here. They are ridiculously kind and sweet kids, and sometimes I have trouble hiding a smile when they do something wrong because I am thinking to myself, “That is the worst you can do?” Due to confusion in schedule this past Sunday, a few of the kids spent most of the afternoon with me. I am very glad for I-phone passwords, although I was eventually locked out of my phone for an hour. I taught them the cup game, they taught me that the way to eat green mangos is with a mountain of salt, and we played guitar and hide and seek for a few hours.
As for great accomplishments so far, I think I should mention that after filling 1500 water balloons, the professors here and I are now quite adept and professional at the art of water balloon making, although we may have each had a few extra baths on that particular day.
Again, I’ll fill you all in on more of my schedule next time, but I hope you enjoyed this stream of consciousness!
Rebecca ~