Archive | March, 2016

In North America, Only ‘Merica Doesn’t Do Sick Days

27 Mar

My immediate boss at work is Canadian, which is absolutely relevant when it comes to all kinds of cultural stuff. I mean, Canadians grow up with things like universal health care and gun control. Radical stuff like a year’s paid maternity leave, you know- social policies that set people up to have a good life. So even though I believe in all those kinds of things, sometimes it’s glaringly obvious that I was not raised in that kind of culture. It’s the same reason that no one can say, “Race doesn’t matter.” When you live in a culture permeated by racism, it can’t not affect you greatly.


Hehehe… (Missing some commas in this meme, though.)

It was one of those glaringly obvious moments when I went in to work yet again with my ragingly snotty nose, sore throat and cough. My mommy immunity had finally failed me after the kids had had an almost month-long cold and cough thing going on. It was the first thing in the morning, and I was in the bathroom using up all the toilet paper on my nose. My boss heard me as she walked in. “Julia, is that you? Are you sick?”

“No, it’s nothing.” I told her. “Just a little cold. These damn germ magnets of mine, you know. They finally gave it to me.” Cough, cough, sniffle.

“You sound like you’re pretty sick. You can’t be feeling good. Why don’t you go home?”

“It’s not that bad. It’s just a cold.” This is not just something I said. This is a mantra in my family. I can totally hear my mama’s voice, repeating, “I don’t feel like crap. I just have a cold. I don’t feel like crap. I just have a cold.” It’s part of the mind-over-matter prescription we give ourselves. That, along with gargling with warm salt water, is all you really need to take care of a cold. Rest? Pshaw! There’s no time for rest! That stuff’s overrated, anyway.

“Seriously. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Even if it’s a cold, it doesn’t feel good, and it’ll get better faster if you rest.” What? Did she not get my mental memo? Rest is not necessary for illness. I brought tea to work.

“And you’re not doing anyone else any favors, either.” She continued with her logic. “You don’t want to pass it to all your students. We complain about them coming in and hacking all over us, so you should set a good example.” Damn. She got me there. “Plus I don’t want to get sick. Vacation is coming up in a couple of weeks and I don’t want to spend it in bed.” Double damn the guilt! Especially when it’s all reasonable-sounding like that.

“Okay. You’re right. I’ll think about going home.” Years of stubbornness can’t be reversed with a 5 minute conversation, even if there’s good logic and guilt involved. But it’s not the first time I’ve had a conversation like this, and the thing is, I know that my attitude is absurd. Well, not the mind-over-matter or the salt water gargles part. But the idea that we should go ahead and go to school or work or whatever your regularly scheduled program is, despite whatever illness.

And the culprit in that part of my attitude is definitely my country’s culture. In part it’s that work-a-holic, can’t-rest-because-the-world-NEEDS-ME attitude. We’re all so damn important (eye roll, ‘Merica). And part of it, of course, is because most of us there don’t get paid leave. So if you’re sick but not actually on your death bed you might as well go to work. You might even get fired if you don’t go, so just pretend you’re not sick as best you can, guys.

Thanks to U.S. policy and culture, and the way I internalized those beliefs, I have taught classes despite losing my voice from illness. I’ve attended classes because I didn’t want to miss them (in college, not high school, mind you). I’ve walked around with pneumonia because I was too busy and broke to go to the doctor and get diagnosed until it reared its ugly head and put me into bed forcefully. I’ve gone to the hospital for a urinary tract infection that turned into a kidney infection because I was too busy to get it treated for real, and wished it away with copious amounts of water. I’ve waited tables with colds and fevers, because I couldn’t get a sick day. This is what U.S. culture looks like. We don’t need universal, free healthcare. We don’t need paid leave. We like our cooks and servers to snot all over our food, because that’s better than giving poor people benefits. People being in debt for hospital bills because they didn’t have access to preventative medicine, or better still, people dying from something curable, is preferable to changing our system. This is what the U.S. system looks like. It looks like not getting the care that we need. It means believing that you don’t deserve to rest and take care of yourself.

When I stop and look it all like that, I feel a bit sheepish about my attitude. Sure, I don’t want my students to miss class. But they’ll be thrilled about it! And it’s not going to make or break their entire language practice if they skip a couple days of class. Goddess knows they do it for themselves all the time. Repeat to self: I am not all-important. Everything will be fine if I am not there. I am important enough to deserve to rest when I am sick.

And we get paid sick days here. This is Mexico, folks- the part of North America that the U.S. treats like its Cinderella-style stepsister. The part of North America that’s “underdeveloped.” This is where I had to move to get maternity leave, sick days, and my first ever paid vacation time (5 weeks a year, thank you very much). I had to move down here to get reminded by a Canadian to take advantage of my rights here in Mexico.

So I drank my tea and assessed my situation. I decided that it was, indeed, a good idea to rest, even though it was “just a cold.” Imagine what it would be like to have constant access to tea and kleenex all day long! How it might feel to lie down! I might, indeed, actually get better faster.

The only thing standing between me and my bed was the insurance company, IMSS. I needed a note from IMSS to take off for two days. (It was Thursday already, and I was sure even 1 day would help, but I wanted a whole day to sleep past five in the morning.) IMSS is my nemesis here. I pretty much prefer death to IMSS. And the process is so slow and bureaucratic, and so many of their staff so incompetent, that death is certainly possible there, although it might start off as just a cold. Plus, as the secretary at my work informed me, I was not going to get an appointment that day. I can only get an appointment for the same day if I arrive before 7AM (preferably around 6AM to get a good spot in line for their opening at 7). Emergency services won’t see me without a fever or some other type of emergency.

Thus, IMSS was a no-go (disaster averted). I could go to a private doctor and that would buy me a paid day off, but only for one day. So I’d still have to go to IMSS at 6 the next morning in order to get off the next day. I decided to power through the Thursday (sorry, boss, coworkers, students, for sharing my germs).

I vowed to take Friday off, however. And I did! I slept in, thanks to going to a pharmacy doctor! I laid down for an hour in the middle of the day! I drank unlimited tea! I didn’t have to talk for hours on end. I rested much more than I would have at work, although I still did too much at home. It will take more than a day for me to really, truly convince myself that I deserve to rest when I’m sick. That I deserve to take care of myself. I don’t want a martyr complex. I don’t think any job I do needs me so much that I can’t rest when ill. I know I’m not irreplaceable. In theory I know this. But the idea that I deserve to rest is not what my country believes. It’s a powerful cultural message that I’ve been breathing in for 32 years. I did not grow up in Canada, although from now on, I’m going to try to pretend that I did. Let’s all try it, dear compatriots of mine, and maybe someday we’ll succeed in changing our culture and ourselves. Someday we can truly believe that we all deserve to rest and be well, and we’ll demand the paid sick days and insurance with which to do so. And hopefully the insurance will be better than IMSS.

To Serve or to Self-Serve, That is the Question

20 Mar

This is not an urban legends, guys, but a true story. In Kentucky, back when we lived there, there was this one lovely lady’s husband who insisted on an extreme version of being served by his wife. We’re talking about being served everything ingestible; if his wife’s hand hadn’t passed it to him it was not yet worthy of his mouth. He’d be sitting next to the pitcher of water and he’d call his wife in from the other room to come pour it into his cup. Unable to get his own silverware from the drawer. He didn’t have any sorts of abilities lacking to cause such behavior- just a big ole case of over entitlement.

That couple was from somewhere in Mexico, but I’d never have called that behavior a cultural phenomenon. My male friends from Mexico weren’t like that. My partner from Mexico was nothing like that. I chalked it up to a case of extremist patriarchy, which is tragically common worldwide (and yet none of these anti-terrorist organizations are doing anything to stop it).

Fast forward to us living in small town southern Mexico. I’m planning kid #2’s first birthday party and decide I want it to be different from the norm. I don’t want to serve typical party food (here that means tamales, pozole, barbacoa). I thought it would be fun to have finger food in honor of my birthday boy who eats everything with his hands. So I made sandwiches of varying types and cut them into cute triangles like I do for Lucia’s lunch, so people could mix and match with different kinds. I made cream cheese and cucumber, cheese and avocado, and peanut butter and jelly (on both white and wheat bread). Conan grilled some hot dogs to give carnivores something to eat. I cut some fruit and some veggies, too, to appease my own standards of giving my kiddos healthy things to snack on. To drink we did rely on the standard agua de jamaica (sweetened iced hibiscus tea) because it’s easy and cheap to make a ton of it (and good for you if you don’t add too much sugar).


Pozole- A soup with chicken and/or pork, hominy, cabbage and other “fixins” on top… Delicious, but not what I wanted for the birthday party.


Barbacoa is nothing like barbeque, although it is meat. It’s often goat or beef, and the seasoning is not sweet at all like BBQ sauce. It’s slow cooked and delicious. Also not what I wanted for the party. 

The radical part wasn’t so much what we served but rather how we served it. We laid it all out on the table and let people serve themselves. I was stoked to mix it up a bit from the normal boring party thing. Because that set-up, in my little potluck-loving Kentucky heart, is so dull and restrictive. You end up not talking to anybody; there’s no mingling. It’s all business. You sit down, get served, eat your food, get up and wait for the cake or the piñatas or whatever the next order of business is. Done. Half the time people can’t even be bothered to stay and eat the cake. They take their plate of cake with them as soon as it’s served, because apparently their quota of socializing is all used up for the day.

So I was determined to do something different. Yet I suspect that some people were as appalled by our style of self-service as I was back in Kentucky by the extremist husband. Going to the table and getting their own food was probably like they hadn’t even been invited at all, a sort of anti-hospitality. But it wasn’t on purpose! It didn’t even occur to me that it could be offensive to people. I thought it would be pleasant, so that people could pick and choose what they ate instead of being served things they might not like. I thought it would be more fun than the traditional style. Some of our crowd liked it, for sure. But there were definitely some that were far from impressed. There were women and men alike at the party who felt embarrassed to go up to the table and serve themselves. That’s just not how the roles are supposed to go at a party. That’s not what hospitality looks like here.

k bday

Khalil is like, “Are they going to give me that thing? Or are they just teasing me?” You can see our buffet table there in the background.

k bday2

More of the set-up: laid back! Relaxed! Chairs here and there for socializing! I had a great time, anyway.

k cupcake1

Finally! Cupcake deliciousness- banana cupcakes with nutella on top… I think it was a hit with the birthday boy.

k cupcake2

Here he makes sure to devour it all while being on the lookout for anyone coming to take it away from him.


So I got to thinking some more about the whole concept of serving and hospitality. Y’all that know me know that I pride myself on making sure that guests and visitors feel welcome and taken care of. I’m from Kentucky, after all. And I’m also a feminist (aka believer in equality).

Thus I think that serving food can be anybody’s job. Usually, if I cook something and I’m stoked about it, or we’re having people over for a sit-down dinner, I want to serve it, because it’s a matter of pride. But sometimes I just reheated some frozen soup and I’m in the middle of nursing the baby so just go help yourself, please and thank you. I refuse to believe that other adults should not eat when the person who cooked is obviously busy and they’re perfectly capable of adding their own finishing touches. Furthermore, I know that men can cook. Men can serve food. I have confidence in men. My dad was a great cook, for example, and when he cooked, he served the food. Ideally, I believe that everyone should be able to cook at least some things. Everyone should be capable of serving themselves, too. This is a basic and important skill, folks. I learned to pour from a pitcher of water in kindergarten, and you can do it, too.

I also think that being in charge of the food and the serving of food is both a tedious, never-ending chore and also a serious power. Anyone who’s ever been a server in a restaurant knows this. There are always some customers who lash out and treat you poorly, trying to make you feel little or unimportant. They confuse server with servant, but really the customer is at your mercy. They can’t eat their soup if you don’t bring their spoon. They can’t do anything useful for themselves; they rely on you for everything. It’s almost like them being a baby all over again, except most customers have better communication skills than babies (most, but sadly not all of them).

Here, it’s like all meals are restaurant meals, and some woman or the other (mom, grandma, oldest daughter, whoever) is the server. Men become these helpless creatures. There’s the food, right there on the stove- so near and yet so far, because there’s this invisible barrier preventing them from getting their plate and piling it on. Seriously! Okay, not all the time, not everybody, but more here than I’d ever seen on any of my travels or my time in Kentucky. Sometimes it makes me outraged, and sometimes it makes me sad for the helpless men. Because ye who wields the serving spoon wields part of the power of deciding who eats what!

But this avoidance of self-serving is not just a patriarchal thing. (Do I think that overly defined and restrictive gender roles are at the heart of it? Yes, mostly. But that’s not the only factor.) At its best, it’s a case of meal time being a special time for family and sharing. It’s the antithesis of microwave dinners in front of the TV. And I love that aspect of it. It’s nice to be served sometimes, just like it’s lovely to serve, when it’s a show of welcome and love. It’s a case of a non-individualistic culture, where it doesn’t always matter that you want less vegetables and more rice, you get what gets put on your plate because that’s what everyone’s eating. It’s about community, and feeling taken care of, too. There’s a lot of good things to be said for this style of eating together.

Self-service is just not a phenomenon here, and I can respect that in a culture. I can appreciate it lots more, though, if the roles of serving changed equally- if everyone took a turn and not always only women. If it weren’t the case that at giant neighborhood parties, for example,  it’s filled with women in aprons doing all the work, and men with their beer and mezcal enjoying the party. So while we work on that (in every culture), there’s an extra present for my son on his first birthday: I promise to teach him equally the basic life skills to take care of himself and others. Everyone can pour the pitcher of water! Cheers to that!

“Kids These Days” in Oaxacan University

7 Mar

The best part about teaching is that I have whole classrooms full of willing victims who are forced to interact with me and with each other every day. And I get paid to facilitate this interaction. And I have lovely, wonderful students! Bwahahaha!

So I am bubbling over with excitement this week, because the new semester has started. It seems like we had months without classes, although the calendar assures me it was only a couple of weeks. As soon as I stepped back into the classroom, my energy level rose about 10 notches. The spring was back in my step by the end of the first day. I had a big smile plastered all over my face, despite finally coming down with my kids’ never-ending  runny nose and cough. The fact is, I’m really a sociologist / social butterfly who just happens to also be an English teacher. I figure you have to be willing to learn about and learn with other people before you can try to teach anything. Thus, I always have an extra special place in my heart for the first week of classes, when I get to come up with thrilling icebreakers and review games to get them back into English mode. (I might be the only one in the classroom that calls my activities thrilling. But they’re cool, dammit!)

This semester I taught both of my levels the informal (aka not always grammatically correct, but always fun) expressions “me, too,” and “me, neither.” Students shared interesting facts about themselves, and the rest of us chimed in if we had that in common. For example, when someone said, “I want to see UFOs,” then everyone who wants to see UFOs had to say, “Me, too!”  They had to make some sentences using negatives, too, so we could say “Me, neither!” It made them come up with some pretty interesting stuff.

In my level 1 classes we stood in a circle and I got them to high-five and/or fist bump when they agreed with someone. My level 2 students were too cool for that sort of thing, so we just sat in a circle. My level two students were just as interested to share about themselves, though; we added “Not me!” to the mix so they could express their differences, too. (Yep, also not grammatically correct most of the time. Oh, well.)

I made students write out their ideas about themselves and turn it in to me, partly for the needed writing practice and partly so that midway through the semester, when the students are driving me crazy, I have something nice to read to remember that they’re really lovely people.

I was all wound up and excited reading about my interesting students this semester,  loving their writing, so I thought I’d share with you lovely folks, too.


Most Popular and Most Awkward Things to Say about Yourself

One of my students couldn’t get anyone to agree with him. He said he loves to play online games, and everyone was like, “No, I don’t have internet,” or “The internet’s too slow.” He said he doesn’t like tomatoes, which is almost as bad as not liking tortillas, given the typical diet down here, so everyone just kind of looked away. Apparently that’s my class full of outlaws and rebels (aka brainy computer nerds), because he wasn’t the only one who couldn’t get any fist bumps. One of his classmates was daring enough to say, “I don’t believe in God” (except he actually said, “I don’t believe in the gods.” Article usage is so tricky.) Everyone just looked at each other in silence. “Try another of your sentences,” I told him, moving right along.

Lots of high-fives happened with the ever popular “I love the babies!” Riding horses was the other most popular activity, for both guys and girls, in case you were wondering. But the absolute most popular phrase in all of my classes was: “I love my mother.” It was a high-five and fist-bump fiesta then. I love that you never grow too old for mama love in Mexico.

A Case of Confused Tenses- and Articles and Prepositions and Spelling and- Geez, English is Hard

I din’t die in much years. (He meant to say he hopes he won’t die for many years.)

I don’t like people lived in the poor. (Even in Spanish when I inquired what he meant to say it took us a few tries to confirm that it’s the situation of poor people that he doesn’t like, and not the poor people themselves.

I don’t love to cat (Was this supposed to be eat? Or you don’t love cats? Or you don’t love to eat cats? Is there a cat verb I don’t know about? All of the above?)

I don’t drink bear. (Dear English language, how can heel and here and hear all have the same vowel sound but not beer and bear? Sigh.)

I don’t have noise nuisance. (I still haven’t found out what this means. Maybe on Monday I can get enlightened. I think I might like it, regardless.)

I am a person lovely and friendly. (Good adjectives! The battle to change noun-adjective order is ongoing.)

I don’t want to smoking someday. (Glad to hear that’s not your goal, dear.)

The Obvious Feminists

There were a few radical comments from some young women in different classes that lifted my spirits a bit extra:

I will not hit children.

I don’t want women to experience violence. (Wow, way to use the verb experience from last semester’s target vocabulary!)

I’m not going to have many sons. (She really meant she won’t have many children, not that she’s against male children. Another victim of sad choices in the dictionary.)

And finally, my personal hero wrote that she likes travel and natural zones (areas, zones, whatever), and “I don’t like the liar people” and my favorite phrase, “I don’t like other people to decide for me.” Amen, sister, and impressive use of English to boot.

Most Common Desire

By far the most common theme of hopes and future plans was to travel, to visit and live in other places! These guys have plans and passions for places including England, China, Spain, Argentina, Paris, Uruguay, South Korea, Africa (country unspecified), and “in all the world.” They want to visit uncles in Italy, work in Canada, see snow in Alaska, and eat pizza in the USA. Some, perhaps, haven’t decided where they’re headed, but they have vowed, for example, “I will not live in Puerto Escondido.” Bravo, university, for helping students dream of other places.

Inspired by the Teacher- For Better or For Worse

Some students were inspired to not be like me, which was pretty amusing. They wrote things in direct opposition to things I wrote on the board as examples for the assignment. I wrote that I love to cook and eat international food, and a few students wrote things like, “I don’t eat international food.” I wrote that I was a vegetarian for many years, and so a student wrote, “I am not going to be vegetarian.” I wrote that I will learn Portuguese and live in Brazil someday, and somebody wrote, “I will not listen to music in Portuguese.” I suppose negative imitation is a different kind of flattery. At least I’m inspiring them to write!


Other Fabulous Randomness- The Struggle to Express Yourself in a Foreign Language is Real!

All of these comments below are just little things that tickled me to read, to think about my students and how unique they are. I was so impressed with how well even my level one students were able to express many things about themselves. I was thinking about how, in general, we’re so quick to have a nasty attitude about the youth of today, to have that “kids these day don’t/aren’t (insert complaint here).” I was also thinking about how people in the U.S. often get sold an image of Mexican people that is racist and not based on the reality of the people of Mexico. So I wanted to give you guys just a few more excerpts from these lovely young folks, who are a much more real face of Mexican youth than any images you’ll see on TV.

I will listen to music of Beyonce in live. (in Spanish we say en vivo, so it was a pretty smart translation.)

I didn’t learn the book of biochemistry. (Me, neither, guys.)

I never thought about Santa Claus when I was a child.

I will be an important businessman. I won’t be poor.

I am going to drive an airplane 727.

I will not listen to heavy metal. (Is this like a New Year’s Resolution? Giving it up for Lent?)

I will not leave English class. I will learn English to finish school. (This is from my student who’s auditing my class after failing multiple times due to goofing off- not due to any lack of capability. This is his very last chance to get through and graduate. To show me that he’s serious, he even used comparative and superlative correctly in his other sentences.) I want to have a dog bigger than a horse. I don’t have the car fastest in the world. (Almost perfect, right?)

I don’t play football. (aka soccer, dear USA) I went to study music when I was a child. (So, you’re trying to tell me you’re not into the typical guy stuff, huh? Got it.)

I learn fast. I like to work in class. I like to eat cakes. I am positive. (I’m positive, too, while eating cakes.)


I am participatory. I think much about the birds. I believe in the fairy. I can play football. (Don’t you want to hang out with this person?)


I love to cook and paint. I love to cook and movie terror. (Does she really, really love to cook or did she run out of other verb ideas?)


I am not going to fight for bad people. (I suspect that this student gets picked on some, and probably got picked on a lot in middle/high school. He’s a bit unique and expressive for the world of small towns.)

I don’t like people with negative attitude. I didn’t say that I can’t. I will build a tae kwondo school. (This student chose to share his second sentence in class, but nobody understood it. We had to translate it word for word, and then he still had to explain his meaning. Obviously there aren’t many other posi-core kids in his class.)

I didn’t play extreme sports. I like to see the movies from Star Wars. (True story- Star Wars is not a popular thing down here. Nobody cares in the slightest that I’ve never seen it, and  nobody ever tries to force me to watch it, because at last half the population here hasn’t seen it, either. It’s just like me being short- fitting right in down here!)

I read books every day. (Yay for my students who love to read!)


I love bikes. I like to watch the sky. (Me, too!)


I love my girlfriend but I don’t know why. (From the flirtiest student of all- but he’s not flirty in an aggressive or inappropriate way, so you really can’t help but like him.)


I hope to be a teacher. I listen to listen to classical music.


I love exercise.


I can dance ballet.


I don’t understand the women.


I don’t like party. I don’t like the school schedule. (This is the same student who loves “the babys.” She doesn’t have any, she just loves them. Much cooler than parties for some eighteen year olds, I guess.)


I don’t listen to music rock. I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t eat vegetables. I want to go out with my friends. I love my mom. I am happy.  (I don’t know why this one- all of her responses together- tickled my fancy so much. She made herself sound so simple, and yet- I don’t know- so sure of herself, and thus, interesting.)



You can see why I’m so ecstatic with my job- and my great students. Kids these days in Oaxaca are awesome, and the best part is that I get to be their teacher!