by Ann Abbott
Pico Iyer is a novelist who has traveled a lot, to interesting locales, and with interesting companions (the Dalai Lama!). So I read his piece, "10 Things Every Traveler Should Do," with interest. In fact, when I read it, it made me think of how our students can connect in different ways to the communities where they do their Spanish community service learning (CSL).
Obviously, I don't think that our students should think of these communities as "exotic" locales for their "leisure travels." And in fact we sometime have to explicitly stop them from exoticizing both the community members and the spaces they inhabit.
But on the other hand, many of our students rush into the community to do their work, then rush back to campus to do their studying and socializing. They're busy people! They may come to know their workplace (an office, a school, a clinic, etc.) very well without every getting a real sense of the larger community context.
So wouldn't it be great if our students could spend some time further exploring the places where they work? It's in that spirit that I offer the Spanish CSL counterpoint to Iyer's list of things that tourists should do.
#1 "Savor every moment of your first few hours." Iyer argues for the importance and authenticity of first impressions.
Spanish CSL: This is tough for Spanish CSL students. Most are very, very nervous in the beginning. They're worried about speaking Spanish. Worried about understanding Spanish. Worried about what is expected of them on the job. Worried, worried, worried. Honestly, I don't think there's any way around that. But when you're in that state, you're concentrating on yourself: how you'll perform, how you'll look, how others will judge you. As soon as you can relax, just take a deep breath and look around you. Who is this person across from you? What posters are on the office wall? What announcements does the principal make in the morning? Which house on your walk has the nicest flower garden? Take it all in. It's all part of your learning.
#2 "Embrace the prospect of being a tourist." You don't have to call yourself a "traveler" instead of a "tourist." There's nothing wrong with doing typical sightseeing, and that may be just what you need in order open doors for other kinds of experiences.
Spanish CSL: If you were on a trip to a different city or country, what would you want to see? During my junior year abroad, I saw enough European cathedrals to last me a life time. In the community where you do your CSL, what are the churches like? What art do they display in their churches, if any? Is the church (temple, mosque, etc.) a neighborhood hub, or is it in decline? Do you like museums? If there's one in the community, go. If not, do local artists display or sell their work somewhere? Do the women (and men!) gather somewhere and do traditional (or modern) handcrafts? Is the art on the school walls similar or different than in the school you attended? If you're going to be a tourist, why not find a tour guide. During your work in the community, have you gotten to know someone who could show you around the neighborhood? Ask them to tell you about the local businesses, the houses, some local gossip, some tips on the best place to eat.
#3 "Devour the hotel literature." Iyer makes the point that you can miss a lot of good information if you dismiss the tourist brochures as tacky.
Spanish CSL: Write the hotel literature! Not "hotel" literature literally, but write something up that really promotes the cultural heritage of the community. Its architecture. Artifacts. Write some restaurant reviews for the local stands. I'm serious. This is a good exercise in seeing a community's assets, not just its needs.
#4 "Run an errand for a friend." This seems very wise to me. If you search for something that someone else wants, that will take you off your common path. If you always hit the local art museums, your friend's request for a Christmas tree ornament to add to her collection will lead you where you never would have gone on your own.
Spanish CSL: Ask someone to tell you a question they have about the community where you're working. You know you're going there for: to improve your Spanish and get to know more about Latino cultures. But what is your dad curious about? Maybe he sees all kinds of Latino dishes prepared on cooking shows and wants to know if you can bring him some plantains or yuca. What would your roommates want you to bring home? Maybe a copy of one of the ESL highschooler's playlists would give them some new ideas for party music. Who knows? Ask!
#5 "Take in a performance or a sporting event." These are familiar events, yet unique experiences in different cultures.
Spanish CSL: If you work in a school during the day, why not go to one of their games in the evening? Do they sell the same things at the concession stand that you grew up with? Or different? Are they gearing up for a school musical? Invite some friends and go to it. Do the employees in the agency where you work get together for happy hour on Friday? Don't drink if you're not 21 (and drink responsibly if you are), but do consider joining in if they're open to it. Did you help them organize their annual fundraising banquet? Offer to collect tickets at the door so you can attend (and eat!) for free.
#6 "Check out a bookstore." The books they stock reflect local interests.
Spanish CSL: Is there a bookstore in the community? Unfortunately, the big chain bookstores have run out many independent bookstores. But maybe there is a magazine section in the local grocery store that carries titles you're not familiar with. Is there a branch of the local library that caters to locals' reading interests? Does a local shop rent Spanish-language movies? And no, I'm not talking about "art" movies that your professors would show in class. Take a look at some of the cheesy action movies you see other people pick up when they're at the check-out. See if you can understand the dialogue.
#7 "Ride a bus to the end of the line." You'll see what the locals see. Literally.
Spanish CSL: Safety first, but if it's possible, go ahead get off one or two bus stops later. Or if you usually ride the bus to your CSL work, walk. If you normally walk, take a parallel street to the one you always take. The point is to get a deeper understanding of the community as a whole, to take a few steps away from the place where you work.
#8 "Read the daily newspaper." Iyer urges us to pick up a local English-language newspaper to get the local take on things (news items of local important, and a local take on US news). And even if you can't read the local language, those papers can give you insights too. Do they have different sections than US papers? What stories do the pictures tell?
Spanish CSL: These are bad times for newspapers. But if you're lucky, the community you work in has a Spanish-language newspaper. Reading it is required homework for the course, worth 100% of your grade! What are the local stories? What are people buying and selling? Who got married? What news from Latin America makes it into the paper? What businesses are buying ads? Why? If there is no newsletter, what are the community's sources of information? Church bulletins? Bulletin boards? School newsletters? Find out what community members want to find out about.
#9 "Go to McDonald's." All McDonald's have adapted slightly to the local culture, Iyer says.
Spanish CSL: Is there a McDonald's in the community where you work? Step on in. The menu may be exactly what you were expecting, but are the types of customers different than those in your neighborhood? What are people doing while they're in the McDonald's? What about different times of day? In the early morning, working people may be speeding through the drive-up to get a breakfast sandwich while inside a large group of retirees has taken over the tables, nursing a cup of coffee for hours. On a Saturday in the winter, moms with cabin fever might be there to let their kids play in the play structure. Maybe it's a teenage hangout on Friday nights.
#10 "Get lost."
Spanish CSL: Iyers really means that you should roam. Vagar. I know you have to log 28 hours of CSL work during the semester, and that's a tall order while you're also studying for other classes, running to meetings for your three team projects, working a part-time job and trying to have fun, too. But stop the clock for at least a few moments, and just let your body--and your mind--vagar while you're in the community that is teaching you so much.