Friday, September 23, 2011

Most Optimistic Post Ever

This one's long, but worth it! 

OK let me start off this very optimistic post by saying thank you and showing my happy surprise at what a great response I got to the Portuguese teacher problem. Things are in the works and I'll keep you guys posted!

But that is not the focus of this post. The focus of this post is that I'm starting to feel as though I am single-handedly changing Brazilian culture -- or at least my experience in it.

Here's the thing: as some of you may know, it is not standard in Brazilian culture to complain about stuff, or to express your dissatisfaction with a service. Sure, Brazilians are humans, so they complain -- but they scoff at injustices when in the company of friends; they rant to their partners over dinner; they lament -- but complaining directly to the source of the problem, especially at a place of business? Rare indeed! Have a bad experience at a restaurant? It's practically unheard of to say something to the waiter or the waiter's boss (if the waiter was, in fact, the problem). A hotel with lots of problems? Complain about it to your friends later, but don't fill out that little survey card they leave for you in the room!

I've gone along with this for long enough. This year, the frustration and the feelings of hopelessness have become stronger than the desire to follow social norms, especially social norms that are the scars of a dictatorship and which need to be questioned. I've begun to take a stand!

Because Brazilians seem to be more forgiving of written grammatical errors than they do of spoken accents, my main method of complaining and calling businesses on their shit has been in writing. Did you know that most Brazilian company websites have a complaints section?

So I'll give you a list of some things I've complained about, and then I'll tell you the most amazing story. (It seems to good to be true, but it's REAL, I swear! It will give you hope for the country, it's that amazing.) My complaints are not rude, and I try to be as formal and direct as I can: "Your business practice makes me not want to give money to your business anymore." (Sometimes I can get a little grandiose, saying things like, "it's in YOUR hands now!", but I'm not offensive.)

OK so first, here are the things I've complained about and stood up to this year:

*The local supermarket -- they pay some car to drive around with a giant speaker playing their radio commercials. This car drives around our neighborhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It's only come by once since I wrote the letter. Coincidence? I like to think not.

*The crappy hotel where we stayed when we went to Ribeirão Preto -- you bet your you-know-what that I filled out that customer satisfaction card.

*The interstate bus company that I used to go to Rio -- the driver was smoking the whole trip home, and I was in the seat behind him! This company's site actually had a live customer service chat that I used to report the driver.

*The post office -- they're way late on getting a package to me from the US. Turns out it's because they're on strike. (Thanks to Stephanie for informing me of that, since the customer service rep at the post office somehow failed to mention it.)

*Melissa shoes -- those sandals gave me blisters!

*A local salon -- the only time I paid to get my nails done since moving to the beach town, the lady was totally grouchy and way too aggressive. Lindsey is OK with the aggressive manicures, but I'm not. After asking the manicurist twice to be more gentle, and after having to take the clippers out of her hands and finishing myself to prevent any more bleeding, I complained to her boss on my way out and showed her my cut cuticles.

*The language school that tried to charge me 100 reais an hour for Portuguese classes -- they got an email response with a piece of my mind!

*The Brazilian animal protection agency when I saw that endangered parakeet in a cage on someone's balcony.

You call it annoying. I call it a squeaky wheel who gets the oil! If you don't say anything, there's a 100% chance that things won't change. If you alone say something, there's a slightly greater chance that things will change. Imagine if everyone said something! Be the change you wish to see in the world!

OK guys, so after building up my confidence with all of those events above, I brought out the big guns today. You may remember my stories about the crazy smoking neighbor who loves to play insanely loud music. I wrote that she moved out, because it seemed that she did, but Alexandre's eavesdropping on their fights has revealed that, actually, the husband got in a fight with the wife's brother and won't let him in their apartment anymore. So now she spends a lot of her free time at her brother's apartment, instead of him spending his free time in their apartment. So that explains why she's still living here but there is much less cigarette smoke seeping up into our place. I'm going to tell you about the events in the order that they happened today, even though things were not clear to me in this order:

1. Gross neighbor starts her morning onslaught of offensively loud music presumably before heading off to her brother's apartment (shack?) to smoke.

2. In my frustration, I research Brazilian noise laws, and discover that it is, in fact, illegal to play music this loud in Brazil (proof here!).

3. I call 190, which is the non-emergency police line. Rather than assuming that it's a prank call because of my accent and hanging up on me, the dispatcher is amazingly friendly and understanding, and actually laughs at a joke I make. She confirms that excessively loud music is illegal and says she'll send over a police car. Because Brazil is notorious for shoddy police officers, I don't believe her, but give her a polite thank you for her efforts and friendliness nonetheless.

4. Ten minutes later, I hear the neighbor's intercom phone ring. I look out the window to see a police car parked in front of the building! It's a police officer calling the neighbor.

5. Because our intercom is broken, gross neighbor is forced to go downstairs to talk to the cops, which works out in my favor because I can eavesdrop through the window. Cops scold her for her noise and inform her of the law and say other things I can't understand. Gross neighbor has the nerve to be testy with the cops, shouting things like "who was it, huh?! Who called you?" They are not having it and are stern with her until she backs down. I do a little dance from atop the closed toilet, where I am standing on tip-toe to be within hearing range.

6. Gross neighbor storms back upstairs, shouting nonsense in the hallway that I can't understand. I have long since locked my door, planning to pretend I'm not home in case she suspects me and tries to retaliate. Lucky for me, she doesn't. She apparently realizes that the police are on my side.

7. Gross neighbor goes back into her apartment and spends a good 10 minutes arguing with her husband. I can't understand, but I later come to discover that he's likely now scolding her for causing problems with the neighbors and tells her he's going to sell the speakers, probably because they can't afford to get kicked out of their place that they're likely living in without proper documentation, since neither of them work.

8. Gross neighbor insists on one last hoorah with the music, blasting, in a beautiful irony unbeknownst to her, the Motown hits "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Swear to God.

9. When Alexandre comes home from work later that evening, he pulls into the parking area and sees Gross neighbor's husband selling giant speakers to some Japanese guy. With no idea that he's totally rubbing it in the guy's face, he tries to make manly small talk by saying, "wow, those are some big speakers, eh?" Glorious.

10. Alexandre comes upstairs to tell me that he just saw the guy from 202 selling speakers to someone, and asks if I think that means they aren't going to play such loud music anymore. I cackle in hysterical happiness and tell him about my day. We high-five.

So reporting something to the police totally worked; the police did their job; the evil neighbors learned an important lesson on living in a society, and I feel hope for this country once again.

Join me in the crusade! Or revolution! Or protest! Or whatever metaphor you prefer! Speak up!!!!!!!! It just might work. I'm living proof.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Want a Portuguese Teacher

So I am frustrated about something that perhaps may be troubling some of the other Portuguese learners living in Brazil.

I've never had consistent Portuguese classes. I've written in other posts about how I tried a few teachers, but how it never worked out, for different reasons. I've had about 8 hours total of Portuguese classes. Eight.

My Portuguese is strong, but I'd like it to be closer to fluent. I'd like practice with formal Portuguese. I'd like to learn how to spell. I'd like to learn more expressions that trip me up, things like "para seu governo" or "tenho para mim" or "estou nestes dias." (These are examples of things that I've heard that have caused a breakdown in communication, the last one being especially embarrassing.) I'd like a Brazilian teacher who knows about their native language from a linguistic perspective, and who doesn't tell me that things I hear Brazilians say every day are "wrong."

The problem I'm having is that Brazilians think they're espertos. Oh, all gringos here in Brazil must be rich, right? By virtue of being from the US, I must be swimming in money. My family must send me the dollar bills that grow on the trees in their backyard. I must be in Brazil just to take advantage of all the poor people. So Brazilian Portuguese teachers come to this conclusion and charge exorbitant prices for Portuguese classes.

HELLO! Many of us living here are teaching English. We know how much private language classes go for. More importantly, that's how much we make! I just tried negotiating private classes with a school that wanted me to pay 100 REAIS an hour for Portuguese classes, and I'd have to go all the way to Santos for them (a looonnng bus ride when Alexandre has the car). I would also have to make the commitment before seeing the material or meeting the teacher.

Um, here in my poor and small beach town (and I had to give my zip code on the company's site, so they know where I live), I'm lucky to get people to pay 25 reais an hour for English classes. The economy here is not strong. As a couple, Alexandre and I are not as poor as my students, but my own personal salary is pretty damn low because of the region, much lower than it was where we used to live. So, no, I'm not going to pay 4 times what I charge for classes in the same damn area.

I just really, really want a decent and affordable teacher, who isn't going to so drastically take advantage of the supply-demand situation of the market. Yes, I know there are more English teachers (and a LOT of bad ones) than there are Portuguese teachers, which is going to make the price a bit higher. I know that my specific neighborhood is unusually cheap. But there has to be some middle ground. I know from talking to Lindsey and her friend that even in a city as expensive as Rio, Portuguese teachers are charging 75 reais an hour. (Based on what the girls said, that's only slightly higher than what most of the private English teachers charge in Rio, so it seems fair.)

So now I'm sad. I'd be a model student. OK, I'd be a challenging and difficult and picky student, but I'd still be a GOOD student. I would do all my homework and learn fast and ask good questions. But I can't seem to find a good fit.

Does anyone reading this want to be my teacher? I'm serious. I would be so happy if we just read articles from the Brazilian newspaper that you choose, and then I have to write about them, and you correct my writing and we discuss my mistakes, and then we discuss the topic of the article, and I get to learn cultural controversies from the article, as well as Portuguese. It doesn't require that much prep on your part (just choosing a good article, thinking of good discussion questions, and correcting my writing), but it requires a really strong understanding of your native Portuguese and also a decent understanding of English, to understand where my mistakes are coming from.

(I've been trying to do this on my own and sneakily making Alexandre be my teacher, but he's catching on! Also, he doesn't know how to explain the things that are difficult for me.)

I'll pay you if your price is reasonable, or, better yet, I'll trade you for my high-quality English classes. It can be over Skype. My Skype classes with my students from our old town have been going very well. I've learned a few cool Skype tricks, and I can show you.

So? Anyone up for the challenge?  I want to learn!

EDIT: Thank you so much for all the offers! I was flooded with generosity. I did find a teacher, though, so no need to offer anymore. :D 

Samia's Visit

So some of you may know Samia, the blogger who Lindsey, Marc, and I met at Cambridge Day. We got along so well in São Paulo that she came to visit me here at the beach! Lucky me. :D

We spent most of her visit in my kitchen, so I'm not sure how much fun she had, but I sure had a good time!

She got in late Saturday evening. On Friday I had bought a fresh whole chicken from the farmer's market. (I've since learned that you can ask the butcher to take out the head and organs and feet for you. He's happy because he gets to re-sell them. You're happy because you don't have to pull a chicken's head out of its abdomen or throw away edible parts. Everybody wins!)

So Saturday night, Samia and I roasted that baby up! I didn't take any pictures, but this is the recipe I used. I also made my own stuffing by cooking butter, chicken broth, onions, oregano, and toasted bits of French bread together. Yumyumyum.

Then we made a fabulous dessert reflecting the benefits of globalization:
That's right. It's banana blondies with brigadeiro and vanilla ice cream. Only 5 million calories!

Saturday morning we went over to the teleférico (tram / ski lift thing) that I went on with Karine when she came to visit. It's a big hit with the tourists.

From the top of the little mountain, you can see great views of Santos, and because it was a beautiful Sunday morning, we got to see lots of paragliders:

After enjoying the view from the top, we went down to the beach for some fresh pineapple juice -- just for you, Ray! It was from a kiosk, not a cart, but it was tasty nonetheless.

The beach by the teleférico is really nice. There were a lot of families and people playing sports. 

We went home and made garlic and potato soup, and then added the leftover chicken and potatoes from the night before. It was so great to have Samia there. An extra mouth to feed meant that Alexandre and I didn't have to eat chicken leftovers for too long! :)

But I had a really nice weekend with Samia, talking about books, about teaching, about moving to another country, about cross-cultural partners, and about all kinds of other good stuff. I hope she comes back to visit soon! I promise I'll have the food ready next time. ;)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


So you know how people say something like, "you don't know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes"?

Well, if you walk a mile in Melissa's shoes, you may come to know her very, very well. And, if your situation fares as poorly as mine, you may soon loathe whoever the "Melissa" was that invented such a crappy shoe brand.

I tried wearing my adorable new Melissa sandals down to the beach -- the walk to the nicer beach takes less than 10 minutes! -- and by the time I got there, the shoes had done enough damage to cause a huge blister to develop on the bottom of my foot.

Don't let the adorableness fool you. They're horrible torture devices.

It hurt so bad that by the time I decided to leave the beach, I was in too much pain to walk home, and I had to pay a bus to take me 5 blocks. Ridiculous. (Whine whine whine. This sounds like a case of first world problems.)

You know how you also learn lots of Portuguese words when you need them? Like how you learn that sink is pia when it breaks, or that you need to say estou rouca when you've lost your voice, or that the word bomba is not only "bomb," but also something like "water pump," which means you don't have to freak out on your neighbor when he tries to explain why the water turned off in the building? Well, now I know the word bolha. It means blister. And according to Alexandre, I should not "open" it. I should just suck it up and stay off it when I can and wait for it to heal.

And Jim can't even give me crap about buying cheap shoes, because these shoes were expensive!! Sixty reais for a freakin' pair of flip flops! Also, Melissa shoes have a reputation for being very comfortable, but I don't get it! I wrote a complaint on the Melissa website saying how they cannot charge such high prices for shoes if they aren't even testing them out. (Writing complaints on websites for Brazilian companies is my new thing, by the way. After seeing the horrible grammar mistakes in the notes that my neighbors put up on the building to complain about the crazy neighbors, I figure my grammar mistakes are forgivable). Anyway, I told those biatches at that I'm switching back to Havaianas. You can't go wrong with rubber (that's what she said), though you can, apparently, go very, very wrong with PVC plastic.

I'll never leave you again

Are you on Team Havaiana or Team Melissa? Have you had similar experiences with shoes? Any ideas on how to still wear my cute Melissa shoes without getting blisters? I think I may have to resort to just carrying them in my purse with me to the beach, so I can put them on and still get tan lines in the shape of birds. That was my main goal, after all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Be a Food Critic in Sao Paulo!

So Diego over at Inside São Paulo just put up some great information:

If you live in the city of Sao Paulo and want to be a secret food critic for "The Palate Awards," put on by a Sao Paulo newspaper called Estadão, they'll pay for your meals at fancy restaurants in exchange for reviews!

To apply, you have to write a short sample review about a good dish you've eaten recently at a restaurant. You can even write it in English, so foreigners are welcome to participate!

At the end of the competition, the winners (and the judges) are revealed at a ceremony.

Check out the details in English at Inside São Paulo and the newspaper's official webpage on the event here.

This sounds so great. I wish I lived in Sao Paulo! I can write well AND I love food. Free food? An excuse to write fluffy and dramatic food critiques? Sounds like a dream.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rio Getaway and My First Samba School

I have a confession. This holiday weekday-turned-weekend, I escaped to Rio de Janeiro. I didn't mention it on here because, honestly, I wasn't in a blogger meetup mood. I was more in a "let's take a break from the annoying crap of life and rant about said crap with a friend" kind of mood. So, after some last-minute planning, I hopped on a bus to Lindsey's house (and by house, I mean her amazing new apartment!). Saturday night was totally omg amazing, so I'm going to hurry up and try to get through the other parts so I can tell you about it.

We didn't do a whole lot the first night or the first day. We just enjoyed each other's company and played with Lindsey's kitties and rested and ate copious amounts of Domino's (no, we did not order it two nights in a row...what?...). We went for a run along the gorgeous bay. We explored the Rio Sul mall and all its fancy stores. I bought two new pairs of shoes. One of them is a pair of Melissa-brand sandals with obnoxiously large rubber birds on them:

 The red style on the left! whoo hoo! haha

Saturday, we went to Rio de Janeiro's botanical garden. It was gorgeous! I got to reunite with some toucan buddies and I think I got Lindsey to appreciate our feathered friends a little more. :)

quintessential Rio botanical garden picture

looking for the toucans

and back to normal. Yeah, we look a little related. The unintentionally matching blouses may or may not contribute.

After the walk around the garden, we had to rest up. Why? 

Because we went to the Mangueira's Carnival rehearsal, that's why!

If you don't know what that means, then you're probably not thinking, "oh, cool!" right now. So I'll explain. But first, some background on Carnival that I learned this weekend (please correct me if I'm wrong). Let's put the following paragraphs in the category of "things I should've learned about and done much sooner as a resident of Brazil": 

In Rio de Janeiro, many slums have their own "samba schools." These samba schools form the groups that compete in the giant famous Carnival parades. Every year, each school makes its own float and writes its own song. Then the members dance and perform on and around the float during the parade. The whole point of the parade is to see which samba school has the best performance. At the end of the parade, someone (who? a committee? I don't know) votes on the best school. 

The samba schools (and the residents of the neighborhoods that house them) spend the whole year preparing for this event. It's a major hobby and passion for a lot of people. 

To earn money and to garner publicity for their neighborhood, school, and annual song, some (maybe all?) samba schools open their doors for public rehearsals. So you can pay to go in and watch the rehearsal. 

That's what we did! We went to a rehearsal at the cultural center of Mangueira, the name of a slum and of its samba school inside. It was the first or one of the first rehearsals of the year, so it was a ceremony in itself.

Some of Lindsey's friends invited us. I didn't really know what to expect. Lindsey had gone to one before, and she said, "you're gonna get sweaty, so dress accordingly." So all I knew was that I was going to a favela for the first time, that I'd be in the middle of a big crowd, and that I'd probably be required to dance.

The samba school wasn't deep in the favela or anything. It was right on the edge, next to the main avenue, so it wasn't necessarily dangerous. But I'll admit that, try as I might not to be indoctrinated by the prejudice opinions of the Brazilians I roll with, I was scared out of my mind for just an instant when I got out of that taxi. Then I took a deep breath, shook it off and started walking.

(I'll add here that I recently read a book called "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh. It's about American housing projects, but the parallels gave me a lot of insight into how slums in Brazil operate and why I don't need to be scared going into one, especially for something like this.)

We paid at a little wooden ticket window and walked up a large staircase into the Mangueira cultural center. It's essentially one giant room with second story balconies akin to the mezzanine section of a theater. The front wall and its balcony were set up for a live band. A sort of opening band (not the main members of the samba ensemble) was playing classic samba music when we arrived. Everything was painted and decorated in green and pink, the samba school's official colors, and, as it happens, my two favorite colors. (You can probably imagine by now that this samba school is going to hold a special place in my heart.)

In typical foreigner fashion, we got to the event only 20 minutes after the technical starting time, and that was too early. We were some of the first people there. The benefit of our early arrival was our ability to find a table. We bought a round of caipirinhas from a booth and sat down to watch things start to unfold.

As the night went on, more and more people started to arrive, and more and more started dancing casually, in pairs or small groups. A woman with beautiful and big curly hair dyed blonde came to our table and insisted on teaching us how to samba.

"It's very easy," she told me with a larger-than-life smile. She was the first of many people to tell me this. She then proceeded to show me one of the many variations of foot moves that make up the samba steps. As you can imagine, I was terrible at it. The music wasn't that loud yet, and I wasn't drunk, so I kept just shaking my head to say "no" and stepping out of the circle a bit to let the better people do their thing.

Soon, things started to get louder. The excitement was building, and the caipirnhas were kicking in. The crowd was growing, and we were soon getting whistled off the dance floor and onto its peripheries.

There were sudden waves of of neon green and pink and what felt like a great and wonderful explosion to the senses. Then, at that moment, came the crashing of the drums.

As the samba school members came thundering out onto the dance floor, led by the retired dancers in pants suits, the pink and green curtains covering the balcony over the stage opened up to reveal rows of live band members. They were packed into the bleachers and moving their metal instruments to the rhythm they were making. The lights and the colors flashed off of the silver and gold. The sound was all-encompassing.

And with drums and cheering and stomping and blaring like that, there's only one thing you can do.

You dance.

The love was so big and the sound was so loud that it suddenly didn't matter if my samba steps were right or if my hips were shaking just so. Some people were just straight up jumping up and down, and that was okay, too.


The pride was almost palpable. The people in that room were proud to be from Mangueira. Proud to be Cariocas. Proud to be Brazilians. Proud of their mixed and shared heritages. And, of course, proud to be damn good samba dancers and musicians.

At one point in the celebrations, our group of foreigners (there were SO many of us! And we seemed to be pulled together like magnets) was in a circle with the woman with the blonde afro. She was showing us more steps when suddenly, a woman we've dubbed the samba goddess came in to the circle. The former teacher immediately yielded the floor to her.

She pretended to teach us for a minute, but she was really just there to show us just how good sambistas can be. She was at least 6'5'' and moved like a gorgeous machine. I literally bowed at her feet. I didn't know how else to show my respect.

We were graced with her presence for only an instant, and then she was gone, whisked off in a swirl of gold and pastels.

The festivities probably continued long after we were too pooped to move any more and four of us shared a taxi back to the southern part of the city. We were just tiny fish in a huge sea of history and tradition and joy. It was a side of Brazil that I took far too long to get acquainted with, and I feel like I know her and can love her much better now. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Two Crazies in One Week

How did I get so lucky? Two crazies in the course of four days! I suppose you are the lucky ones for getting two funny stories.

So Alexandre and I went to the gym this evening. Some gym addict (a short guy trying to compensate by building gross oversized arm muscles) came up and I actually realized for once that he was trying to flirt with me. (He apparently hadn't seen Alexandre and I come in together, spend the whole time chit chatting, etc. Actually, most people at the gym think we're brother and sister. Anyway.)

"We can't look this good if we don't work out, am I right?" Gym Guy said with a stupid little smile. Well, he something like that. I didn't totally understand.

"I don't understand," I said. Because I didn't.

He repeated himself exactly the way he'd said it before, the way a kid does. Then he tried lounging on my exercise machine a bit.

Alexandre piped up from the machine across from me, forcing the guy to turn around to face him. "Yeah, definitely requires a lot of effort!" Alexandre's non-aggressive tactic was to engage the guy in conversation himself so that the guy would stop talking to me. Alexandre left his machine and pretended to be interested in the one next to mine.

"So you've been coming here for a while, man, right?" he asked the guy. "I've seen you around here."

"Yeah, about five months," the guy drawled. "But I'm taking a lot of supplements, you know, protein and whey. That's when I started seeing results."

Alexandre has been entertaining the idea of taking supplements, but I'm against it. He tried it a couple of years ago but didn't like the idea of replacing or reducing meals. So that meant a lot of extra calories and not the results he wanted. So now it was my turn to butt in.

"But you have to really control your diet with those, don't you?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah. I mean, I guess I eat really well," the guy said with a fake modesty. "Lots of vegetables, salads, that sort of thing."

"So no McDonald's?" Alexandre joked.

"No no. I don't eat there on principle," the guy said sharply. I thought for a moment that we would be on the same page -- you know, against really unhealthy fast food, against supporting a place that essentially serves carbs and chemicals, not to mention its ridiculously high prices in Brazil. So I said, "I agree! I don't eat there either."

"Yeah, she doesn't like it," Alexandre added.

Gym Guy apparently thought we were on the same page, too. "Yeah, no way I'll eat there. I hate the United States! I'm a philosopher, you know? I support Osama Bin Laden."

Alexandre gave me a huge malicious smile behind the guy's back as if to say, my work here is done. Then he walked away, confident that Gym Guy wasn't going to get within 500 feet of flirting range now.

"Really? Is that so?" I asked.

"Yeah, for sure."

"Well, you know I'm American, right?" I couldn't help it. But I was wrong to expect him to, you know, apologize. Or be embarrassed. At least a little. I mean, it's a week away from 9/11, for Christ's sake.

"You are?" Short little Gym Guy tried to bulk up his shoulders a bit. I could tell he was already feeling defensive. Then, following suit of the crazy American guy on Saturday, he asked some completely random question:

"Haven't you ever read Jean Jacques Rousseau?"

"The old philosopher?" I asked, confused.

"Yeah. Well, he went to the US when it was still a colony under England, and he said it was a bad place. He said, 'if you meet an American, first they will try to convince you, and then they will try to buy you.'" [let me note here that the translation of this into Portuguese is "cute:" primero eles tentam te convencer, depois eles tentam te comprar.]

I didn't remember any America-bashing in Rousseau's texts, but you know, since Gym Guy said he was a philosopher and all, I went with it.

"Well, even if he said that, you know, that was like, 300 years ago. It's a different world now. It wasn't even the US yet."

"How can a people [um povo] be good if they vote for George Bush for two terms?" the guy asked quickly. It kind of felt like he'd been saving up these arguments, or that he'd written them out once on a Geocites webpage or something.

"Well, I don't think you can say ALL of the people are bad just because YOU didn't agree with the president. Besides, every country has good and bad things. I guess that's what's important, right?"

Sign of crazy: completely disregarding my comments and questions.

"How can a country be good if they don't have public health care? If a person gets sick in the US without healthcare, they die," Gym Guy tried.

"I agree with you. I think healthcare is a big problem in the US. Brazil's doing a great job with that. But I just think it's wrong to say that you hate a WHOLE country, a WHOLE culture, a WHOLE group of people, when you've never been there or never met anyone from there. Well, anyone else, probably, besides me."

Gym Guy was scowling now. "No, see, because here in Brazil, we CARE about our citizens."

Now I was starting to get annoyed. Is that the game he really wanted to play? Because if I were as rude as he was, I'd win that one.

"Really? You do?" I asked. "Because Brazil, like the US, is a great country, but like every country, it has some problems. I mean, education is a huge problem in Brazil. Corruption is a huge problem. But that doesn't mean Brazil is a bad country, just because it has problems."

"No. I just think that America thinks it's so great, just because it's the biggest world power. But it's not that good." He obviously did not see the disconnect in his statement here.

"I don't really think that's relevant here. Don't you think it's just kind of ignorant to say you hate a WHOLE country?"


"Well all right then. I just think it's kind of offensive to talk like that to someone about their country straight to their face."

Gym Guy mumbled something nonsensical about democracy and left in a huff.

Well, if he didn't like Americans before, he certainly isn't going to like us now, after some lippy woman (a woman!) had the nerve to call him on his shit.

And he can say all he wants about the US, but there are very few Americans who, after getting caught with their foot in their mouth like that, would not apologize and be embarrassed for saying something so overgeneralized and insensitive. This guy was just dumb-crazy on so many levels. Ah, so many arguments, not enough time.

We'll leave this on a happy note: my accent in Portuguese is apparently so native-like now that Gym Guy didn't even realize I was a foreigner. Let's end this with a Danielle FTW.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Let the Summer Begin!

Today marked the first weekend of summer for me! I know I wrote about it last weekend, too, but I didn't do any summer-y things last weekend (unless you count complaining as a summer-y thing. I think it's pretty year-round for me). I also know I'm stretching it a bit, since it's still kind of chilly outside, but hey-- it was warm enough for a dress and leggings at the beach today!

So here it is! Summer's here! I live on the beach! So this is what summer is for me, at least this year:

*Sun! Sun! Sun!
*Nice and warm mornings
*Sand all over the apartment
*A beach bag
*Use of my wonderfully tacky macaw towel courtesy of Alexandre's mom:

*Sand-covered bars of soap in the shower
*Slight and haphazard sunburns
*Blonde hair
*Sunday late-afternoon naps --  Laying around in the sun all day is surprisingly tiring!

*And, finally, serious declines in my levels of productivity (but, on the upside, increases in levels of Vitamin D, right?).

I am also determined to convince Alexandre to play with paddle ball with me. So far he is against the idea because SOMEONE lacks coordination (I'll let you figure out which one of us that is). But once I convince him and then after I buy them from some guy walking around on the beach with a sort of cart full of beachcrap for sale, this is totally gonna be us:
complete with my amazing legs and Alexandre's chiseled back and speedo, right? Right...

Oh, and today, I read my Kindle inside of a magazine, as recommended by some readers when I had an incident with the Kindle at the beach. I think it was still pretty obvious that I had the Kindle. I'm not sure. I think the real solution is to read at a table at a beach kiosk with lots of other people around, and preferably in a nicer part of town, and ideally with Alexandre at my side, as opposed to alone at the beach in our shady neighborhood on a Wednesday afternoon.

But...summer! Hooray! Hooray! I can come out of hibernation. Today was a great day, full of much-needed tranquility and happiness after all the ugly, mucky feelings yesterday from the encounter with the crazy American guy.

But we've got to go toward the good! What is summer for you?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

More Mormon Madness

Long Post. Sorry.

So today was the first day that I went to "help" the Mormons with their English classes. The boys who had come over for dinner had told me to come today so I could see how they did things and offer my input. Let me just point out here that this was their idea and their tactic, not mine.

When I got there, the boys who had come over were at the door, along with three other American boys, all about 20 years old. They were friendly and nice to talk to and everything, of course.

The classes were set to start at 10:00, but they were waiting for the last American (let's call him Steve) to show up. Steve was the middle-aged man who was apparently the American in charge of the missionaries and the teacher of the advanced English group. He came rushing in, disheveled and with a toddler at his heels, at 10:10. The boys tried to introduce me to him, but he didn't even look at me. I quickly noticed that Steve had no notion of conversational skills, and that he had a habit of not responding to anything anyone said. People asked him questions or said things that required a response, and he just kept talking as if he were the only one in the room.

The boys were eventually able to shuffle everyone into the chapel, where they had quick announcements and a prayer. They also introduced me and told the group (and me and Steve at the same time) that I'd be helping Steve with the advanced group.

After their announcements, I asked the boys who had come to my house what I was supposed to be doing, exactly.

"Do you want me to just watch, and talk to you later?" I asked.
"No, no. Teach with Steve. Help him out. He doesn't speak Portuguese, so go ahead and explain things if the students don't get it."

Based on what I'd seen of Steve in the last few minutes, I had a feeling that wasn't going to go over very well.

After that worrisome exchange, one of the other boys led me to Steve's classroom, since Steve hadn't bothered to wait for me or anything. There was another missionary in the classroom with me (so the Americans in the room were me, the missionary, and Steve). The missionary had just gotten here to Brazil from New Jersey. He was really good to talk to.

Steve spent a few minutes arranging things for the toddler to do. The toddler turned out to be his son. After the kid was settled in with some toys and chairs, Steve finally acknowledged the class. It was 11:20 by this time. He plopped himself down in a chair and didn't get out from it until class was over. He was sorely unprepared. The room had a chalkboard, but he didn't have any chalk with him (not for lack of resources -- I discovered later that the other rooms had chalk). He eventually explained that they'd be continuing their group reading of a religious text, but that he didn't bring any copies for the 5 or 6 new people, so the group of 12 or so would just have to share the old copies floating around. The result of this was that 3 or 4 people didn't have the text or even any way to look at it over someone's shoulder.

Steve then asked everyone to go around the room and introduce themselves. Since he and I hadn't even properly met yet, I explained why I was there.

"My name's Danielle. I'm an English teacher. I'm living here because my husband is Brazilian. The missionaries asked me to watch the class today to see if I can help."

As per usual, Steve didn't directly respond to anything I said. "Are you a member of the church?" he asked.


Again, with no answer, he turned to the woman next to me, who was a student. "Who are you?" he asked, apparently just planning to continue on with the introductions.

Before getting into the lesson, though, Steve first spent about 15 minutes babbling about how his shower broke a few days back and how he tried to buy the parts to fix it but how it "lit up like a menorah on Hanukkah," a dumb joke that the students clearly didn't understand. In fact, Steve was clearly making no effort to modify his speech in any way for his students, or, heck, to even follow a single train of thought. The students were totally lost, but he didn't seem to notice or care.

Imagine trying to learn Portuguese from some old drunk who sits at the street corner bar and shouts nonsense at people who walk by. It was kind of like that. I know he wasn't drunk, but he clearly didn't have all his wits about him.

Eventually, one older man picked up on what he was saying, and explained to the group in Portuguese, "o chuveiro dele queimou" -- "His showerhead blew out." One of the guys in class was an electrician, and he offered, in Portuguese, to help fix it. The older man translated to Steve that the guy would help, and then they spent the next few minutes hashing out the details of the repair, while all of the other students, bless their hearts, waited silently and patiently. (It was also a big red flag that the electrician was in the "advanced" class but that he didn't even speak English to offer to help with the shower.)

After that, Steve said that the text he'd chosen was some speech that a Mormon bishop gave once. I imagined that he would read it and discuss the ideas with the students, but there really weren't any ideas to discuss. The text was just as disjointed and nonsensical as Steve was.

Steve's system was to have people with copies of the text read one sentence at a time. Then he went through the sentence "explaining" it word by word. By that, I mean he said things like this:

"OK, what about this sentence? 'The attendant gift of the baptism sets us apart from other churches.' What's that about? Anyone know? Anyone know? What's 'set us apart' mean? Set apart? Set apart? OK? Anyone know? What are some things you can set apart? Huh? What can you set apart?"

As you can imagine, the whole thing was painful to watch.

The students were being so polite to a man who clearly had no interest in teaching them anything, whether it be English or LDS beliefs. It seemed like his only real interest was getting his shower fixed.

Because the boys had told me to help, I waited until things were really unbearable before I spoke up.

"Well, maybe we can stick to the meaning of 'set apart' in this context. It's different from the physical 'set apart,' so that question might be confusing," I said quietly to Steve. "I think, here, it's like 'make different'." Then I turned to the students. "Does that make sense? The verb 'set apart' means 'make different'."

Absolutely not the way I like to teach, but I was doing my best to salvage something of the hour.

Steve was NOT PLEASED with my interjection. "My students are not confused," he said hotly. "Confused? Anyone confused?  You guys got that? Huh? Any other words poppin' out at ya?"

No responses, obviously. Steve took that to mean that they were clearly not confused, so he repeated his question.

"What are some things you can set apart? Huh? What can you separate?"

"I do not separated from my wife," one student tried.

"Right, great!"  was Steve's response. That's about the time I started imagining myself butting my head against the wall. I turned to the guy from New Jersey, who also had a pained look on his face.

"Is this your first time in an English class?" I whispered to him.
"In Brazil, yes," he whispered back. "But I helped teach English in the US."

New Jersey guy was doing his best to speak up when he thought he could be helpful. Mostly he just tried to put Steve's ramblings on hold to ask, "Questions? Does anyone have any questions?" I mean, there wasn't much else we could do. Things were out of control and there wasn't much time left in the one-hour class anyway, since Steve had wasted so much time on his son and on the business with the shower.

I took to taking notes of things that might be helpful advice for Steve. I wrote down things like, "controlled English for lower levels," "focus on student speaking," and "more board support."

The boys from dinner came in at 11:00 to announce that the class was over. The came to me eagerly to ask what I thought.

"Oh, well..." I hesitated. "I took some notes about some things that might help the students speak more. I don't know if you want me to go over them with you, or with Steve, or what..."

The contrast between the boys' faces and Steve's face really was incredible. The boys were nodding excitedly like bobble-heads, while Steve had a look of stone that was clearly saying, "How DARE you question my way of doing things!"

"She and I can talk later, another time," Steve butted in. I took that to mean that he was obviously not interested in any advice, that there had clearly been some miscommunication between him and the missionary boys.

So while Steve stayed in the room to chat with a few students, the boys and I talked outside the door.

"Ugh, my class was beeeeeewwww," one of them said sadly, while making the motion of a plane crashing with his hand. "I just have no idea what I'm doing!"

"Well, maybe Danielle can sit in with you next week and help you out," the other one said.

"Yeah, I'm not sure...I mean, only if you guys want. I'm just here to help, I don't want to impose..."  I was feeling pretty crappy after that whole drama with insane Steve, and not sure if I was up for another hour of watching that, just to have my help be rejected.

Before we could decide, Steve came barreling out of the room and waved his hand at me. "OK, let's talk now," he said, motioning for me to enter into another classroom (at which point I saw that the chalk was in full supply). He'd apparently had a change of heart.

"So what? What do you want to say?" he asked quickly and distractedly.

"Um, well, I mean, the boys told me to give you some advice to help your classes, so I wrote down a few things." I took out my notebook from my purse. "For example, it's hard because the students are supposed to be advanced but they really aren't. So I think it would help if your English was a little more controlled, you know, with less slang or not so many jokes, so it would be easier for them to understand and follow the class."

"No no no," Steve said quickly. "Look. I am a professor of English. My forte is conversation. So that's what I do. I have conversations with them. If they don't understand me, it'll inspire them to study more. They'll go home up and look up the words I used. They'll be inspired to read good literature. Then they'll learn."

It was at this point that I realized there'd be no way I'd be able to have a rational conversation with this guy.

"OK then, well that's fine. I mean, if that's the way you do things, then that's fine," I said.

But Steve apparently had more to say. "So there are lots of English schools in town. There's the schools teaching, there's you teaching, and you may think that you know how to do things, but that doesn't mean you do. I'm not going to change my English just for them. I am who I am. As I always say, there's business English, and there's poetry."

This made no sense, and I said so.
"I don't understand what you're talking about."

"Don't you read e.e. cummings?" he asked. Illogically.

"I don't see what that has to do with teaching English to foreigners."

"Because there's formal technical English, and then there's slang. Poetry is slang."

"OK, well I have a Master's in ESL," I said, exaggerating a bit, since I didn't finish my Master's, "so for me, those two things are not the same thing at all."

Steve clearly did NOT like the fact that an educated woman was trying to tell him what was right and what was wrong. At this point, he got very defensive, and was even more rude than he was with his last comment. "You can have a PhD for all I care, but our students are never going to get PhDs, so that's not going to help them. I may not have a fancy technical degree, but I know what I'm doing."

"Then clearly this conversation is useless, and I can just leave," I said directly, not bothering with polite pretenses anymore. "There must have been some miscommunication here, because the boys specifically asked me to come in and give you some tips, but you're telling me that things are fine just the way they are, and you're happy with the way you're doing things. So I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to waste anyone's time."

I picked up my purse to leave, and skitzo Steve seemed to have some kind of moral crisis / personality shift. "Look, I'm sorry," he said, sticking out his hand as a sort of peace offering. "I guess I just got defensive. But it really is nice to meet another American. You'll definitely be a good resource here. Just stick to the basic classes. They need you, since you speak Portuguese."

I walked out. This guy was an idiot at best and a crackpot at worst.

The boys were chatting at the entrance to the church, so they didn't hear my conversation with Steve. They asked if we could meet up this week to talk more about the classes. I told them to call me and that we'd set up a time.

I was so irritated and disappointed. I don't know if it's worth still trying to help the boys. You are only able to help people who want to be helped, and it was very, very clear that psycho Steve didn't want to be helped at all. I'm not sure if the boys are going to respond in the same way. I'm guessing they sent me into Steve's class because they know he's bad, but they should've predicted his response and at least prepared him (though, who knows? They could have very well told him beforehand).

I mean, I was hoping we'd all overlook the fact that I am not Mormon. I was hoping they would respect the spirit of my intentions, which involve biblical teachings of loving thy neighbor and giving to the less fortunate. I thought we had the same goal, which was to teach English well, but I'm not sure that's the case, at least not with Steve.

So now I don't know if I want to go back. The climate I left in (and left Steve in) was angry and uncomfortable, and frankly, I'm a little scared to have to interact with him again. I also don't think I'm being unfair in expecting to be receive politeness and to be treated with respect as a volunteer. Even if the boys are sincerely open to improving their teaching, I don't know if I want to go back to that climate again.

I'm so disillusioned. I just wanted to do something Good, but I don't think this is the right way to go about it.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Nerdy Hour: Part 1

All right. So I gave myself this new weekly task/goal to read one ESL research article per week, just to keep my brain working, to keep myself updated on research in the field, and ultimately to make myself a better English teacher.

It turned out to be so fun that I decided to take notes while I was reading and share them with all you fine readers. I know that 90% of you don't like my nerdy linguistics posts, so if you see a post titled "Nerdy Hour," you can go ahead and just skip it, OK? :) But hopefully, for those of you who do decide to read these, we can generate some nice discussions in the comments.

The article I found this week is called "Portuguese in the EFL Classroom?" by James Corcoran, published in the BELT journal in Brazil.

If you want, you can read the article by clicking here.

I understood the basic arguments to be:

1. It's OK to use Portuguese (the L1) in the classroom, especially if it's the teacher using it, and especially if the teacher is using it to explain logistical things about the class (syllabus, scheduling) or grammar differences between the languages.

2. There are benefits to using Portuguese in the classroom for all age groups.

3. The Brazilian English schools studied preferred not to use Portuguese in the classroom.

4. Many private English schools in Brazil resist teaching grammar explicitly or using Portuguese in the classroom as a reaction to the Brazilian public school English teaching methods, which are very grammar- and theory-based and in which very little English is spoken by the teachers or the students.

5. English teachers at the Brazilian schools studied were consistent in their beliefs that there were more benefits to using Portuguese in the classroom at the basic level than at more advanced levels, and more benefits to using it with adults than with children.

6. The author makes the conclusion that English schools need to be more specific about the situations in which teachers can use Portuguese and when they can't. He argues that there are specific situations in which using Portuguese can be beneficial, which contradicts this widespread belief: "the less Portuguese spoken, the better."


I essentially agree with the following quote from the article, that states the main benefits of using the students' first language in the classroom:

Auerbach (1993), a fierce critic of exclusive TL use in the adult ESL classroom, attacks a monolingual approach for being “rooted in a particular ideological perspective, being largely unexamined and reinforcing societal inequities” (p. 9). Overall, these studies point to the potential of the L1 to be used as for reducing student anxiety, forming stronger teacher-student bonds, affirming student identities, and as a tool for meaning-making.

It's unrealistic to think that adult learners are not going to always “translate” from Portuguese to English. So rather than pretending to ignore this translation (and therefore making students feel unsuccessful when they can't not do it), it's important to teach them to “translate better,” to teach students certain tools of how to learn and memorize and understand a new language so that they can translate better. For example, I think it's important for basic students to understand the following concepts when learning English:

(1) Verbs (especially basic verbs) must be memorized as collocations rather than as individual words. They need to simply memorize and accept that fazer bolo is “make a cake”, but that fazer aula is “take a class.” Many students resist this concept and want one-word translations, but it helps to give them Portuguese examples: dar aula is not the same as dar uma caminhada, which itself differs from dar in the expression dar certo. There's no connection between dar in these collocations – dar is just a base verb in Portuguese whose meaning can be somewhat arbitrary sometimes.

(2) Some translations need to be based on a situation or a context, and not on words. Students need to understand that in Portuguese, a polite and common way to greet someone is by saying boa noite, but that it's not necessarily common for people to go around saying “good evening” to their friends all the time in English-speaking countries. So instead of getting confused by the fact that the English expression “How's it going?” does not use the same words as boa noite, it's helpful if students simply understand that, when they want to greet someone in a friendly way, they can say, “How's it going?”. So they base their word choices on the situation rather than on the words they would use in Portuguese.

In both of these explanations, Portuguese is required. But like I said, in my opinion, this is the realistic way to teach. 

I disagree with the author's opinion that using Portuguese is beneficial when teaching children, too. I have very little experience teaching children, but I found that the only time it was good to use their first language was when we first met and when they were upset. The kids I taught were Spanish speakers, and I found that if I used Spanish with them in other contexts, they usually only spoke Spanish with me. But maybe those of you who have more experience teaching kids (or who have kids that you're raising to be bilingual) can share your thoughts.

One thing I did take away from the article was that I need to be more consistent with my code-switching and when I use Portuguese with my students. I've gotten so used to haphazardly mixing English and Portuguese with Alexandre that I find myself doing it with my students sometimes, too. It's sloppy of me. So based on the arguments in this article, I'm going to use Portuguese only in the following situations (some of which I already do, but not always consistently):

1. When negotiating the conditions of the class (admin stuff)
2. When explaining the lesson/activity (in the case of basic students)
3. When explaining a new grammar concept for the first time
4. To show the reason for a student's mistake (though, if possible, this can be explained in English)

I will actively encourage students to speak only English with me, except when they are talking about admin stuff or when they are asking grammar questions. I've developed a sort of dog-clicker system with my students in which, when they start speaking Portuguese unnecessarily, I say "buhp-buhp-buhp!" which is ridiculous and which makes them laugh, but which also reminds them to switch back to English. I explain it explicitly the first few times I make the noise, but then after a few explanations, I just make the noise, and they figure it out. It's quite entertaining.

OK! Your turn! Do you agree or disagree with the article? Do you think it's beneficial to use the students' first language in the classroom? If so, in what cases? What about in the case of children? When do you use Portuguese with your students? When do you allow your students to use Portuguese?

Have at it!
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