Friday, March 23, 2012

Jeremy's Birthday

Last night was Jeremy's birthday. Took a few pictures. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Statement of Purpose

For the last few months (or really since I got back from France) I have been grappling with the idea of going abroad to teach again. There have been several things that have made me pause. Some of the concerns have been more superficial, but the main idea that keeps coming back to me is: How can I justify it?

I can't help but feel like going to another country to teach is really just a form of selfishness. Or is it laziness? Traveling abroad, teaching and even working for non-profits has been glorified to the point of cliche in my generation. Everyone and their brother has had some sort of amazing experience. Don't get me wrong, travel is important. Anyone who has done so can tell you of the ways in which it changed their perspective on things. Maybe even changed their lives. My first trip to France changed my life. I have no doubt.

But here I am, in DC where there is plenty to do. Plenty of causes worth fighting and really, plenty of students. Why do I feel the need to go elsewhere? It's like saying "I don't care enough to try to make a difference and be important in my own country. My mere presence in another place will be viewed as helpful and beneficial solely based on my nationality and the privileges I grew up with and continue to enjoy."

On a more personal note:

How can I preach the teaching of social change in other countries when I have done nothing to bolster the courage and the intellect of our own children? How can I talk about helping out my global sisters when I haven't spent the time protecting my actual sisters here in America from the oppressive reproduction bills that are being passed? How can I claim to want to work with refugees in their camps one day when there are refugees right here in DC who need language skills? How can I pretend to want to help some countries future children escape the shame of racial discrimination when my own country still hides from the ways in which is segregates and predetermines the fate of it's different races? How can I long to help the poor and impoverished abroad when I do nothing to ease the suffering of the homeless and needy right in my streets? How can I learn the skills of pelvic therapy for the women of war ridden nations when there are women right here, right now that could use those same skills?

I can't justify it. Ignoring it gives in to the lure of exoticism. It speaks to the privileged life I lead. Ignoring it speaks to the naivety of thinking you can be a great catalyst for change, a great saintly steward of do-good energy in a community where you can't communicate much less understand the complexity of their culture. If you think you can you're fooling yourself. You will be a burden on them until you assimilate. If you can.

To clarify - I'm not saying people shouldn't ever travel or volunteer or live abroad. I'm just saying - let's be clear about it. Let's be honest. Why do you think volunteer-tourism and eco-tourism have become so popular? Maybe we need to stroke our egos even while we "relax." Maybe we feel guilty about those hand-outs from Daddy or the school we went to or the freedom we enjoy and so we feel like we need to "give back," while visiting the most interesting and exotic places in the world. Sure, we can fall back on the "well this is my field of interest," excuse or the "this is what I'm passionate about," one, but really isn't that privilege in and of itself? The opportunity and means to go and live somewhere, study something or perform something that doesn't have anything to do with changing your community, putting food on your table or making sure your children have clothing?

These feelings have been brewing inside me, not fully formed into thought. And then I took the TEFL course and a fellow student asked why I wanted to teach abroad. It all hit me when I said this:

"I want to teach people in their home countries so that they don't have to leave their countries to find opportunity. I want to teach for social change. I don't just want to teach English, I want to teach balanced history, social justice, women empowerment and community building. Social change can only be brought about when the people demand it. The people can only demand it if they are present to do so. Once they leave their countries they leave the conversation. I want to give them the tools to work with their situations and create change for the future."

IRONY. Oh how bitter it tasted as soon as I said it. Social change? You mean the social change I would like to see in MY country? If I leave my country to devote my time to another country's problems, I leave the conversations of my own country's problems behind for someone else to change. I said it myself.

In the Radiolab podcast called Killing Babies, Saving the World they pose a few morality questions. One of them being this:

You're a man walking down the road in a really nice suit. You see a girl drowning. Do you jump in and save her?

Pretty much anyone would say yes to this I imagine. It's the moral thing to do right? But then they ask another questions.

You get home and find a letter in the mail saying that if you just send a $1000 dollars you can save girls on the other side of the world from danger. Do you send the money to save the girls?

Let's take scam artists out of the equation here. It's real girls in real danger and they really need your money. Jad and Robert suggest that you aren't a saint for not sending money...but perhaps it's not immoral either.

Josh Greene who is the Harvard professor who studies morality and was on this podcast went on to explain that our impulse to save the drowning girl comes from the evolutionary impulses in our brain that have stuck with us. Sending the money to the girls across the globe though requires a different part of our brain though. One that has only developed more recently. The abstract part of our brain.

Here is what I find interesting about all that: My generation seems to over-use the abstract without focusing on the here and now part nearly enough. The idea that we can all enact social change just by liking someone's status? We can catch a killer by reposting a video? How freaking abstract is that for you?

All this KONY 2012 stuff really got me thinking about this more. The amount of people who reposted the video on my facebook was amazing. I knew I didn't know enough about the issue to take any stand so I waited. Then the criticism for Invisible Children poured in. One of the main issues raised by the IC videos was the concept of Americans pretending to be saviors and the issue of White Guilt. I tried to talk to a friend about it and ended up hitting a wall. My friend just stopped talking. It seemed that very quickly people got burned out on the topic. Why? I couldn't stop thinking about it.

The criticism for IC came from all over the board and all sorts of people but I kept hearing this underlying message from the Americans in my head as I read them. The message was "I'm really interested in Africa and I want to do something REAL there and not work towards superficial goals. BUT I'm self conscious about this desire BECAUSE of who I am or my experience or lack of. Because I feel uncomfortable and guilty and im grappling with this I also want you to feel uncomfortable and grapple with this."

That's what is said to me.

There was also criticism from citizens of Uganda like this one that speak to this idea of American's puffing themselves up and playing the savior.

Here is MY opinion and what I would offer as a solution to this problem we seem to be having not only with IC but foreign aid in general.

The reason we have this issue of guilt and these misguided desires to be a savior is because of the things we've done in Africa (obviously this does not just apply to Africa) of course but more, I think, because we try to hide from it.

EDUCATION! This is where I want to see the social movement go! If we are so worried about how racist or "privileged white" we come off why are we doing nothing to educate our future generations in a way that will prevent this? If we want to built trust and coordination between nations why are we not teaching it?

The banning of ethnic studies in Arizona is pretty much a direct example of what I'm talking about here. Not only are we denying the students of Latin American or Native American background the opportunity to learn and embrace their culture but we are also denying that their culture has any significance to our own. We are teaching that there is only one history. That there is only one right answer. The the "our" is only for the American decedents of Europeans. The way in which our education is controlled to keep us in the dark about the reality of the situations, to keep other cultures as aliens instead of as people is the reason this feeling of guilt persists.

When it comes to other races and cultures I sometimes feel I don't have the right to explore these cultures because I have no background in them. This is the exact situation I am in currently where I want to engage with the black community for a photography project but feel self conscious about it. Why should it be a big deal that I am white and I want to know about MLK and interview the people in my city? The educational system has failed to prepare us for this. Yes economics and other things come into play but mindset is a huge huge part of social change.

If we have the mindset from the beginning in school that we don't even need to study Africa, that it's not even important enough to be mentioned in our world studies programs, it's no wonder we feel uncomfortable about all of the sudden having feelings about this place that we have no connection to. We feel superficial.

I would like to see a move towards better social education. Ethnic studies, literacy, language acquisition, world history that is fair and not biased, more foreign exchange students and teachers, and even classes on social change and international negotiation and peace being implemented on a broader scale.

My question is - how do we get those idiot senators (who have been passing sooo many crazy insane scary laws lately) to pass laws and help implement the things we want to see in the future. Because the future is getting more oppressive and biased, not more open. Why is it that we don't find out about these scary bills until they are already voted through! More could be done on this front really.

So I think what I've realized is that my place is here..that what I want to work on and be active in is education for social change here. Because until we address this issue the guilt will not just go away. And those being "saved" won't trust our genuine desire to help. Any maybe with more social education and change here we might realize that the way we are going about helping isn't nearly as helpful as we would like it to be. We might realize that in order to even the playing field on some of the global issues we get so passionate about, we may need to sacrifice some things. Like not having everything we want. Not eating anything we feel like. And maybe even not traveling to any old place that strikes our fancy and expecting everything to be affordable and user friendly for us

Just a thought.

Where to Eat Vegan: Quiet Storm - Pittsburgh PA

Quiet Stormis a cute little vegetarian and vegan diner in the East End of Pittsburgh. Tess and Jesse brought me here my last day in Pittsburgh and we all enjoyed a quick meat free meal. While the burger was calling my name and the home-fries piled with tofu scramble and seitan were tempting, I opted for the Cheesy Snake. A hoagie topped with seitan, queso sauce, red onions, lettuce, and tomato. If you are looking at the picture above you may be saying to yourself...."ugh...where is the cheese and seitan?" A valid question but rest assured under all that fluffy lettuce was indeed the gooey seitan I had hoped for. This dish was actually pretty good. It was served with a side of black bean and corn salad which was simple but tasty. My main regret - not getting a milkshake!

On my next trip to Pittsburgh I will definately want to swing through here again because so much on the menu looked good. Be aware, they have three different menus: weekday, Saturday and then the Sunday brunch. They all look varied and delicious but you may want to see what your options are before you choose a day to go.

Some of the things I had the option of eating and would certainly have done so were I able to eat as much food as an elephant:
Vegan queso and chips, the VHF home-fries (smashed red potatoes, seisage, tofu, veggies and red pepper mayo or queso on top), Ginger Sunflower (peanut ginger sauce over brown rice, scrambled tofu, broccoli, sweet potatoes and sunflowers) Boystown Combo (brown rice, kale, scrambled tofu and roasted veggies with sesame or tahini sauce) the Banh Mi sandwich.

But lemme talk about brunch. UGH why did I not go on a weekend to experience brunch. Nyam (Jamaican inspired cornmeal and coconut pudding with roasted sweet potatoes, bananas and cinnamon maple syrup, served with seitan sausage patties and fruit) Biscuits and Gravy, the Black and Gold burrito (scrambled tofu, black beans, roasted veggies, taters and onion gravy) and the Pancho burrito (kale, brown rice, chickpeas, mushrooms and tahini sauce). These all sound delicious. Guess I'll have to go back!

This cafe has ample space and was inviting and comfortable with its eclectic mix of tables, chairs and hanging lamps. I would had love to have tried their desserts as well but such is life.

PS If you go to Quite Storm say hi to the cute bearded guy behind the counter for me. I was too shy to do so myself.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Mythology of English: Part 2 - Register

Rewind a month to where I wrote The Mythology of English Part 1. After writing that I got completely swamped with TEFL work and let me blog slide. Never fear, I'm back to finish where I left off! So I left off with the questions: But is English really as democratizing as it seems? Are we really as casual, informal and non-hierarchal as our lack of formal titles suggests?


I would argue that our formalities are still there - but they are covert. Rather than having a strict set of rules laid out for us in our language, we have a set of social rules that dictate our use of language.

It comes down in part to our register - as sociolinguists like to call it. Register means saying the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person. Or in another sense: language that is dictated by its use and not by the user. But doesn't every language have registers? Well, yes. As I discussed in Part 1 many languages have formal ways of dictating register through the different forms of addressing someone - such as the French "vous" for formal situations and "tu" in informal situations.

But here is the thing about American English register - it's sneakily friendly. It can be so hidden at times that we don't recognize it until it is presented inappropriately.

As Vance, my amazing and awe inspiring wealth of information of a TEFL instructor liked to say: " In America, every stranger is a friend you haven't met." In other words, our bank teller, our server, our office-mate, our teachers and even our bosses have the potential to all receive the same style of treatment.

An example of this is how we so casually and automatically ask a rather personal question as a greeting. Not sure what I mean?
Ever walk down a hallway and pass a coworker or an acquaintance and say "Hey, how are you?" and keep right on walking without any intention of listening to their response because REALLY you don't expect a response?

"Hey, how are you?" is the greeting - not a question. This personal question that one might use to probe after someone's health or emotional well-being in another language is flung around in American English in a way that in most cases is not at all meant to be taken literally.

Time and again I have had students ask me "why do the people who work at the mall ask me how I am?" or "why does the lady at the grocery store ask me so many questions and smile so much?" Their initial reaction to being greeted this way by a stranger is a mixture of confusion and also some sense of awe. I always laugh to myself when my students comment on how friendly Americans are or when they comment on how often we smile in public and at strangers. Another Vance quote that I loved was that he frequently referred to Americans in his tongue in cheek way as "shiny, happy people."

This informal and personal way of addressing someone speaks to our values. They speak to who we want to be as a country and how we want to be perceived. There's no hierarchy here! Everyone is a friend. Equality for all. We Americans know this to be untrue, of course, but it ties in with our myth of the American Dream. In the land of opportunity, all you need is will, determination and a friendly disposition. Oh...and you have to speak English.

To go off on a mini-tangent for a moment: my hometown of Frederick, MD recently decided it's official language to be English. Was this really necessary? Not only does it seem unnecessary to me but as Commissioner President Blain Young said himself, "'it set's the tone." This, I imagine, for the "minorities" in Frederick, who are very quickly becoming the majority of the city's residents, is a tone they will not misunderstand. But there are times in which simply knowing the words in English does not mean the speaker understands the register they are striking in how they use those words.

For the ELL learner, not having a set of titles and ways of addressing people may seem like a blessing. Less things to memorize, woo! The problem is that it's still there, you just have to know the social rules. While one single word may not denote a certain attitude either way, the tone of voice you use, the order of the words, the words around that word, and the way in which you deliver the word (think body language) most certainly can.

For example. In some cultures the relationship between a server and a restaurant patron is very formal and decidedly cold. The message here from the patron being: "You bring me what I ask for and you stay out of the way" kind of deal. It's not at all rude, this is just the culture and a server who delivers this distant feeling type of service is giving, in their culture, the hight of perfect customer service. In American culture this register would often be completely inappropriate. Instead it is expected that you exchange the "how are you this evening" kind of pleasantries and maybe even ask the server what their favorite dish on the menu is, comment about the weather and then tell them how amazingly delicious all the food is. At the restaurant where I work (a mid-range dinning establishment with French American comfort food cuisine, a large selection of wines and beers, frequented mostly by upper middle class families) this expected exchange of pleasantries doesn't always happen. There are two types of people who break from this general "script."

The first group that generally fails to perform the ritual and strike this register is often my foreign patrons. To be sure, some of this can be attributed to a lack of confidence in the language, but not always. The general issue here is a lack of "cushion" words, as I like to call it. American English loves to throw in all those nice little pleasantries that soften the words we use to ask something of someone. Like saying "would you mind," or "if it's not too much trouble," or "when you have a moment." Without these words our requests seem like commands and we certainly wouldn't command this stranger, whose job it is to serve us, to fetch us whatever it is we need. No no, not in America. These "cushion" words serve to humanize the position the server is in and attempts to level the playing field, if only in our minds.

When I go to pour wine in a foreign patron's cup and they simply say "No", often without making eye contact with me, as opposed to the slightly apologetic "Oh no thank you, I'm finished drinking for the evening," accompanied by the "thanks anyway" smile that I would expect; it leaves the server feeling unintentionally snubbed. While of course there is nothing wrong with saying "No" and the word itself does not imply any sort of hierarchy or position, the absence of the polite words that we so often use to accompany this word is enough to set the tone in a register that robs the receiver of that democratic feeling of being the patron's equal.

The second group that hits an inappropriate register are those who obviously feel that there IS a hierarchy to be maintained. While there is no diminutive title they can use to express this in English per say, the blatant omission of "cushion" words can be just as jarring as using the "tu" form in French with a stranger with the intent of making them feel inferior. For example: I walk up to a table of Americans and start my "Good evening my name is..." greeting. Before I have even gotten my name out of my mouth the patron, without even turning to make full eye contact with me, shifts slightly in his chair and says, "merlot."

This patron, while he may not maliciously be seeking to demean me (and I have my theories about this but let's give them the benefit of the doubt here) has in any case struck a register and has, without using any nasty words, offensive gestures or status defining titles, made it very clear to me that he views the relationship between us as just what it is. They are paying for me to serve them. The "cushion" words are not present to mask this fact. Whether intentional or not, the situation has been laid bare with that one simple word.

In teaching English as a second language it is important to make these distinctions of register clear. While every student is taught "please" and "thank you" it is the duty of the instructor to stress the different registers that can be used with those same words.

Another example is that in French is it common to start a sentence with the word "alors." If you speak in English the way you would speak in French and start all of your sentences and questions with the word "so," what register does that strike? Well I can tell you from experience that it makes the speaker sound judgmental, haughty or arrogant. Sounds like a stereotype of the French, does it not? Perhaps, instead of actually being arrogant, they just aren't following our socially prescribed register. Not because they don't want to I imagine, but because they weren't taught the ways in which our register is different from theirs.

While I have met several French speakers who speak English quite well, they seem to be missing the concept of the register. More often then not they speak English in the same way they would speak French. This results in them using different cushion words - take the example of "so" which in English is used selectively and in French is not - and also their body language and word stress sends the opposite message from what they intended. The French speaker may say things like "So, are we there yet?" as opposed to "Hey, about how much longer until we get there?" Not only do the words strike the native English speaker as being different but the stress pattern - stress on "so" and "yet" - strike the listener as being almost confrontational - even if the speaker is smiling!

Vance shared a very interesting example with us in class concerning register. He was teaching an upper intermediate level class. As the students funneled in for the first day he was sitting among their desks waiting for them to settle into their seats. An asian woman entered the class and approached Vance and asked if he was the teacher. When he confirmed her suspicions she replied with "Yo, what up bitch," while smiling a radiant smile. You can probably imagine how a teacher meeting their student for the first time might react.

With a little digging he discovered where this student had picked up this rather unfortunate wording. She worked an evening shift at a retail store, sorting and moving boxes in the back-room warehouse. She confessed that the first few weeks at work no one acknowledged her. No one said hello. No one asked her name. She went about her work and slowly she seemed to get some recognition from her coworkers until finally one day she was greeted upon arrival to work with a "Yo, what up bitch." She had been accepted.

Now, she didn't know what the word bitch meant. She only knew that receiving this greeting, which was apparently the standard greeting in this environment, meant that the others were acknowledging her as part of the group and had accepted her.

Here was the dilemma Vance faced, and that he posed to us. What do you tell the student? IN the context of the students workplace, this register - while shocking in another context - is in fact "appropriate." Do you tell the student not to respond in the same way? Do you express to the student that this type of language is only appropriate in this situation and no others? Do you simply explain the meaning of the word bitch and let the student draw their own conclusion on the usage of this word? What would you do?

These are the types of issues that an ELL faces when using English in the real world. In a communicative classroom - these issues are explored and addressed in a way that traditional classrooms seek to ignore. This type of language is difficult to teach and discuss with students because it starts to necessitate the discussion of class and race, but it is absolutely necessary if the student wishes to interact and possibly assimilate with the American culture.

The word bitch can now be use in several registers. There is of course the use of it as a derogatory slur but then I might also jokingly call one of my girlfriends a bitch. What's the difference between me calling a woman who cut me off in traffic a BITCH and calling one of my female friends a BATCH? There is a huge difference in register here. Also, what demographic uses BATCH and what does it say about the speaker? What will people think of a speaker who is obviously foreign using this word in this way? How will they know when it is the appropriate register or not?

In my next few posts we will talk about the importance and implications of Code Switching, Body Language and Identity when teaching ESL/EFL.

Does anyone have any stories or techniques to share about teaching register? Any personal experiences of your own or with students?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Somewhere New: Pittsburgh, PA

For the month of February, I decided to visit my cousin Tess and her family up in Pittsburgh (thanks again!). I was greeted with these smiling faces.

All silliness aside, I had a lovely couple of days wandering around the city, checking out vegan restaurants and lounging around with my family and their adorably obnoxious pups. While the sky in Pittsburgh is not always clear and sunny, all the healthy pops of yellow that Tess designed into her patterns, paint and accent pieces were a nice reminder of how uplifting color can be since I tend towards the brown, black and grays so often found in cityscapes.

I also really loved the architecture of the houses in Mt. Lebanon. This house was a great example of how unique they were.

Of course there is a grittier side to Pittsburgh and of course this happened to be my favorite part. I went to E Carson street on two different occasions during my stay. I was drawn to the vintage shops, the food and the city feel it gives off. Check out places like Yo Rita and Double Wide Grill for food and then work off those seitan wings with a Jiva class at Breathe. Breathe has such an amazing space. The ceilings are pressed tin and must be at least 15 feet high but I'd wager more. The room is so big it feels like a ballroom rather than a yoga studio but the well placed lighting and the wide open windows make it feel just as relaxing as a more intimate space.

One place I highly recommend for vintage shopping is Highway Robbery. Kate, the owner of this cute little vintage boutique is super personable and I loved the style of her shop as well as the well chosen (and just as importantly - well priced) pieces she has. She also has an etsy store, so if you can't get into town check that out. She helped me gracefully move into the long skirt world by bolstering my courage enough to buy a really cute high waisted and deep pocketed (yes!) long fall skirt.

On my last night in town we rode the Duquesne Incline and got a beautiful view of the city below. It's $2.50 to ride it one way and you had best bring exact change or the grumpy man will roll his eyes at you and say "Yup..exact change," and then go back to reading his book.

On my list to see next time. The Heinz History Center because I love ketchup, the Warhol Museum and a whole slew of great food options like:Brillobox for a vegan gyro, Oh Yeah! Ice Cream & Coffee for a vegan waffle and ice cream (we did TRY but they were closed for some unexplained reason) Franktuary (more because its a church that sells hotdogs and I love its name, not so much because I like vegan hot dogs) and Spak Brothers for a vegan version of that strange Pittsburgh sammy.