Enough clutter. Enough confusion. Enough complications.

15 August 2011

Suggested Reading

For those of you looking for a bit of extra reading, I highly recommend this Wanderphilia entry.  It's a great blog in general.

And since my last post was photoless


When I first moved to Jícaro I went out to look for some plastic containers. I needed something I could store leftovers in, use to freeze things (well-drained soy meat, for example), or just trust to keep my lunch and my backpack separate. As I wandered from place to place I found myself surprised and dismayed at the price of simple, closeable storage options. Thirty córdobas here, twenty-five there, but by far the most common price I saw on the type of vessel I was seeking? Seventy cords!

The stores that sell plastic goods, pots, pans and other household goods often call themselves “variedades”. You could translate it as “variety stores”, though in my mind I usually think of something more like “everything that would fit in the truck”. Variety just seems too coherent a word to describe a place that will sell you heavy frying pans, cartoon character sippy-cups, mangoes, green coffee, blocks of refined cane sugar, soccer cleats, fabric by the yard, shampoo, plastic garbage cans, leather belts and a microwave. These stores are, however, one of the few places in Jícaro that label merchandise with its price. I was especially appreciative of this fact during my early days in site. For me, knowing what things should cost is a big part of feeling comfortable in a place. Not knowing the bus fare from one place to another, a good price for a pound of onions, or the average price of a cup of coffee or a beer leaves me feeling out of place and at risk of being taken advantage of. That may be because, here, if you don't know what things should cost you end up paying double for them. Anyway, after browsing through Variedades Luz for awhile, I ended up with a set of three plastic containers for which I paid about seventy cords. Not bad, considering that the ones I really wanted appeared to run seventy cords a piece.

The strangely expensive plastic containers continued to bother me. Then, about a month or so later, I started noticing strange math mistakes in all my classes. My students having trouble with math was not overly surprising, but it usually results in them leaving questions blank because they didn't have their calculator, not in making calculation errors. After about a week of seeing the numerical equivalent of “seventy times three equals thirty” and “twenty-seven divided by three equals seven” it finally hit me: they are misreading my sevens as ones. Which, of course, meant that I was misreading their ones as sevens.
 Turns out, the Nicaraguan one looks like this:

     and the seven like this:

Simple little misunderstanding, right? Now I write my examples and homework problems with the Nica seven and am no longer fooled by outrageous plastics' prices (10 cords, not 70). If I have doubts, I know to ask and now that my Spanish and my confidence are much higher that isn't as difficult. But the story isn't over.

Understanding the Nica seven is very cultural adaptation. The cross-bar on the seven isn't natural to me, but I've learned to understand it and I've used it over and over again for the last eleven months. Sometimes I forget, other times I find myself doing it without thinking. But on occasion something more interesting happens; I look at something I've written (a phone number) or I think about something I am writing (a date) and get caught somewhere between the two ways of writing the number seven. Was I talking to a Nicaraguan and using my Nicaraguan numbers when I copied the phone number? I know this form is going to the Peace Corps office, but will they misunderstand me if I don't put the crossbar on the seven? Will I misunderstand myself later? It is a neat little summary of my cultural adaption process. For me, cultural adaptation isn't so much learning to live and function seamlessly in a new and different place as it is navigating smoothly in a world where there are a million little things that are done differently or have a different meaning than what you originally learned.

Many of these little cultural differences are communicative. Even when firmly in the middle of our own culture we often make the mistake of thinking that everyone communicates the same way we do (Hi Mum!). Outside one's own culture, knowing how to give and receive information is even more difficult. “Ud. casi no habla español, ¿verdad?” doesn't mean the same thing as the English phrase, “You don't really speak Spanish, right?” I've learned to accept that and not be offended when someone questions my ability to speak Spanish after we've been talking for half an hour. On the other hand, I still feel like I'm being yelled at if I receive a text message in all capital letters. I know I shouldn't, but I also know that my mom trying to make my plans doesn't mean she thinks I'm incompetent and that is still the most common source of our arguments.

One of my hopes is that Peace Corps service is making me a better, more aware and more intentional communicator.