Speaking Personally: Jeremy Johnson in Paraguay
Being in a foreign country is always a little unnerving, especially when its residents speak a different language than you. The impression is that everybody is in on some big secret that they won't divulge, especially to you. The only thing you can do in response is to pretend you know it too, that you're not completely lost and out of place, even though, in reality, you are.
This is exactly what my month-long trip to Paraguay was like: mostly pretending not to look like a tourist, gawking at all the marvels in sight. It was difficult at times; it takes some fortitude to accept that on the opposite side of the world, you aren't in Kansas anymore, and just because things don't immediately make sense to you doesn't mean that they don't make sense. But I had some help, since a few of my friends from my undergraduate days happened to be living in Asuncion, and they acted as my guides to the new landscape. They were a godsend: without them, I would have effectively had no one to whom I could speak in English, and had no one to translate (both literally and figuratively) the conversations, places, and events I witnessed around me.
Having someone with me who was willing to say aloud the secret everyone seemed to be keeping made the culture shock much less turbulent than it might have been. Little customs and cultural nuances became much clearer and less threatening. And in some cases, these differences proved delightful. One of the customs of Paraguayans is to greet acquaintances warmly, in a way U.S. Americans used to giving other people a wide berth might perceive as an invasion of the "personal bubble": while men customarily shake hands and hug on occasion, women greet everyone-women and men alike-with a peck on both cheeks. On more than one occasion I had someone I had just met lean in and put her face right up next to mine. It often caught me off-guard, but it was such a lovely gesture, an elegant departure from the well-buffered relations I was used to in the U.S., and a subtle reminder that the understanding we hold of "reality" is often a very limited one that excludes other possibilities for being human.
There were moments, though, in which I was left to fend for myself and try to make sense of, and engage in, the world around me. The biggest challenge presented itself in my wonderful caretaker, who graciously and unhesitatingly did my laundry, cooked my strange food requests (a vegetarian is a rare sight in a place where meat dishes are valued on a scale rivaling, if not surpassing, that of the Midwestern United States), and chauffeured me around the city. She also did not speak one syllable of English. As a result, our communication was rudimentary in the extreme: I would stammer my way through some semi-coherent jumble of Spanish, occasionally thumb through the pocket Spanish-to-English dictionary she had so thoughtfully offered to me, looking for a word beyond the scope of my knowledge. She would pause to sort out my attempt at bilingualism, offer a response that I would inevitably ask her to repeat, and we would start the whole thing all over again. Even momentary exchanges, such as the simple question, "What time do you want to leave for school?" became drawn-out episodes of tragic comedy as we desperately tried, often totally failing, to understand one another.
But amidst this tangled mire of communication, we found common ground-to share a joke, to vent frustration, to figure out what we would have for dinner. We were able, if only briefly, to transcend language, culture, and geography, solely the result of our continuous and purposeful struggle to relate to and comprehend each other. It is very fitting that I entered into a foreign country to teach, because the same principles of mutual understanding and respect, integral to any sort of cross-cultural interaction, apply equally well to teaching. As one of my teaching colleagues put it, students don't take a class; they take you, the teacher, and it is through you that they will gain any knowledge. One lesson, which would serve me well at home, became immediately clear in a classroom on the far side of the globe: my students weren't learning how to do "academic writing" so much as they were learning what some Kansas boy fresh out of graduate school thought it meant to express yourself through words, academically or otherwise. For learning of any kind to take place, I had to meet them halfway; in order to teach them anything meaningful, I had to learn what it meant to face the world-all of it, across national and cultural boundaries-as these young Paraguayans did, and what I, the young American English teacher, looked like to them, through the eyes of a different culture, a different set of values and experiences. This strikes me as being at the heart of the exchange of knowledge, wherever one may happen to be, in all cases a fundamentally human enterprise-first we must try to understand one another, and, in the process, we ourselves are changed.
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