Monthly Archives: May 2011

Warming up to the Amazon

Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house in Manaus.

So it’s been a few days, and I thought I should give an update on my present state of mind vis-á-vis “the Amazon.”

Somehow, against all odds, I’m finding myself warming up to the whole jungle expedition thing.  Well, mostly because I’ve realized that it would be nothing of the sort; in fact, Manaus is twice the size of Ottawa at around 2 million.  If I were to judge my openness to this rainforest ramble on a scale of, oh say, degrees Celsius, then on Sunday night I was at or below freezing (0ºC, for all you Fahrenheit users).  Over the last few days, the temperature has risen slowly but surely (I would say like a Canadian spring, but that’s too unpredictable).  After I talked to the Embassy people on Tuesday it was around 25º.  After I told friends, family, and coworkers and got many encouraging responses, it was pushing 50º.  Centigrade by centigrade, with each conversation and Google search, the mercury has crept higher.  I’m really not sure whether the catalyst here is time or excitement, but the conversion is undeniably happening.

You may have noticed that I’m somewhat of an (obsessive) planner (at least for special events; I am way too lazy to plan for the day-to-day).  Basically, I like to know everything that can be known about a place before I go.  I memorize maps, budget out costs, research activities, talk to other people who have been there, and basically drive myself and others crazy with details.  Last fall I went to NYC with two girlfriends for a three-day trip, and I had a folder, an itinerary, and a home-made travel guide shortlisting all the activities I liked in the bigger travel guide so we could still “wing it.”  Yeah, they laughed at me, but it was totally worth it.  Anyway, my point is this: while I had researched the shit out of pretty much the entire Brazilian Atlantic coast, I hadn’t given a second’s thought to the interior, and especially not to Manaus after I’d dismissed it as impossible.  This led, as you know, to a massive freak-out when I was suddenly told by authorities outside my influence that my placement was in Amazonas.

I think that a lot of my first reaction was due more to unpreparedness (mentally and scholastically) than to a genuine aversion to Manaus.  I also think that the excitement that followed that initial shock was neither positive nor negative, and with the influence of my friends’ and family’s reactions, it has taken on a positive energy.  Hence, the upward movement in the jungle thermometer.  I’m really not much of a worrier when it comes to meeting new people, learning new languages, or starting new jobs; these are things that I would have to do no matter what part of Brazil I moved to.  Once that knowledge set in, I’ve come to realize I can probably handle whatever is thrown at me – and learn to love it, too.

Now that I’ve started to get over my fears, I’ve started becoming more receptive to some of Manaus’s many positive characteristics.  First, there’s the fact that it’s quite a large city, as I said earlier.  This truly is the best of both worlds for me: big cities are exactly my cup of tea (downtown Toronto is still “my” hood), but I didn’t want to get swallowed up in the hustle of 20 million Paulistanos or eaten alive by Cariocan favelas.  (Don’t ask me why enormous cities require food metaphors…must be a subconscious allusion to Atwood’s Edible Woman.)  Anyway.  In Manaus, I’ll get all the culture, night life, and diversity of a larger city without the same kind of hustle.

Secondly, while I probably won’t be able to observe the integration of Brazilian immigrants at close range as I wanted, I will have the opportunity to learn more about the indigenous people.  The anthro/socio side of my trip is extremely important to me, as I’d like to do a social sciences Master’s some time in the near future.  Fortunately I’m equally passionate about all human cultures (although I do tend to favour some at different times), so this change is fine with me.  Besides, I will actually be the immigrant – I don’t need to observe others, I just need to observe myself!

Third, I have always known that the host school and living conditions will be more important than location when it comes to happiness and ease of adjustment.  I had a major breakthrough in this area last night.  Thank God for the internet, it does everything!  I trolled through some of my favourite Brazil expat blogs in search of any hint about life in Manaus.  It was on Danielle’s blog, which I’ve been reading for half a year now, that I found a post with a few dozen comments from other English teachers on the quality of the very school (franchise) that I’ve been accepted into.  And then, the real bingo: I found the blog of a girl who actually went through the same program as me, in the same city, in the same school, and loved it!  All this was at around midnight last night, and in my animated exhaustion, emailed her for details.  Meredith has been kind enough to message me back words of encouragement and assurance, and I look forward to talking to her more.

All of these considerations have my little internal thermometer spiking upwards.  I’m at the point now where I’m sure I will go, as long as the visa pulls through.  However, I eagerly anticipate the moment when I reach 100ºC and my excitement starts to boil over, as is deserved by the trip of a lifetime.


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Filed under Brazil, cheesy metaphors, IICA internship, life choices, overcoming fear

Amazonian Woman?

I love irony. I really do; it’s the perfect type of humour in books, movies, plays, and Alanis Morissette songs. But in real life? In my real life? Not so awesome.

I’ve known I wanted to go to Brazil since last summer, and I’ve been working all year towards this goal. While I consistently tucked away cash, I read blogs, books, and websites for teaching English abroad and scoured the internet for job postings in Brazil. Based on what I’ve read, I can easily go with just a tourist visa and stick around to work, but some complications are that housing is sometimes hard to get if you don’t already own land (wtf? Why would you need to rent if you already own?), and that employers can take advantage of you if you aren’t working there legally. Also, the maximum amount of time I could stay on a tourist visa is six months. In February, I found what looked like the perfect solution: an organization that provides English teaching internships in different locations around the country. The school provides free housing and a stipend, and this setup qualifies the intern for a trainee visa – good for two years, and more importantly, one of the only legitimate ways of teaching English in Brazil. I requested an application package, then did a ton of research, including speaking with three past and present interns about their experiences. Reassured that the program was legit, I submitted my application, complete with a $450 deposit, in April.

Now, one major drawback to this program is that I have no say in where I am placed. It could literally be anywhere in Brazil, and the placements change all the time because they’re dependent on schools being interested in hosting an intern. When I spoke with the other interns, all three of them were placed in São Paulo state, which sounded fine by me. However, one girl mentioned that her reference had been placed in Manaus, a city in the middle of the Amazon.

Let me make this clear: I have zero interest in traipsing through the jungle, surrounded by boa constrictors and piranhas and 100% humidity, for an entire year. Manaus sounded like a horrible idea to me, but the girl I spoke with said her reference was there a few years ago and she hadn’t heard of anyone else being placed there since, so I thought my chances were pretty low of getting stuck in the rainforest. I figured if they put me in the rainforest I just wouldn’t go.

It’s been about a month since my application, and I’ve been on tenterhooks all day every weekday, checking my email constantly in fear and excitement. (I’m also really stressed about talking to my current boss about leaving, but that’s another story.) Finally, last Thursday, I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized it had been a full four weeks, and I hadn’t heard anything. So I emailed the program coordinator to ask if this was a normal waiting period, or if they were having problems placing me. Even if they were, I’ve been in contact with another school that could get me a visa, but I just wanted to know if I should continue to wait. I didn’t get an email back on Friday, so I figured I wouldn’t hear over the weekend, and I was going away anyway.

So. I’m in Ottawa, visiting friends and having an excellent long weekend. I get back to their place on Sunday night after a day of wandering around the Byward Market and shopping, totally relaxed after splitting a half-litre of wine with my friend over dinner. I open up my computer, casually refreshing my email…and BAM. Email response from the program.

I’m instantly nervous. I click open the email, afraid of what I’ll find. Lo and behold, there it is: three lines that determine my (potential) future for the next year:

Dear Skylar:

Your visa paperwork has been submitted to your host-school in Manaus to be signed and issued.

Within a few days  you will be receiving your package.

Kind Regards.

Program Coordinator.

Holy shit, they placed me in Manaus! What am I going to do?!

I actually said this out loud to my friend and her boyfriend, whose room I was in. Then, after about five minutes of reading and re-reading the email, googling the location of the city to show my friends, and searching for images (not soothing), I started laughing and crying hysterically at the irony of saying, for about two whole months, that I would go anywhere in Brazil – anywhere but Manaus.

Boa constrictor sleeping off lunch in Manaus, Brazil

“Boa Constrictor sleeping off lunch in Manaus, Brazil.”  Photo courtesy of Tripadvisor, categorized under “Food/Restaurants.”

So I spent the past two days basically freaking out. I emailed a bunch of my friends, talked to my mom, spoke to random food-vending Brazilians at a festival, and watched a (scary but awesome) TV show documenting these people’s trip through the Amazon. In between, I tried to forget about it. And this morning, I went to the Brazilian embassy (a convenient 15 minute walk from my friend’s house) to learn about visa stipulations and hopefully glean some insight from native Brazilians.

The response I’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive about the opportunity, but everyone has said that it’s a decision only I can make. And they’re right; it will come down to me. I’ve decided that I can’t let fear make the decision, and so I will make an effort to give this fair consideration. Instead of rejecting the offer, I’ll wait to see what information I get in my acceptance package (coming in the mail a little slower than email), and ask the program coordinator for a reference from a past participant from Manaus. I’ll utilize some Brazilian contacts (past students and other friends of friends) and learn as much as I can. I really don’t know how long I’ll have to come to a decision, and I feel the pressure, but at this point I’m willing to entertain the idea of becoming an “Amazonian woman” – which is more than I can say for myself two days ago!


Filed under Brazil, fear, IICA internship, life choices

Keep Calm and Carry On

As a twenty-four year old teacher of adults, most of my students are older than me; however, I have one student who is actually my age. It’s a bit of a weird dynamic, because we could be friends, but as his teacher I am a sort of role model for his new country. I have a lot of respect for this guy; he’s smart, creative, and driven to succeed. He’s great to have in class because of these things, but I also like that he offers yet another perspective of the Canadian experience. My older students have children, and I’m sure they’d like to know what their kids will be going through soon enough.

The other day, this student (let’s call him Andy) came up to me during the afternoon break. I could tell by his tone of voice and the look on his face that he was worried about something. When that happens I get a little nervous, because I only have so much knowledge and resources to help my guys and I want the best for them. I asked him what was up.

“Do you think that I’m late?” He asked. “I mean, if I have to do one more year of ESL, and then I start university…am I going to be late?”

“You mean, are you going to be much older than everyone else?” I clarified. “Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it. I know plenty of people who took the years after high school to work and figure out what they wanted to do. Many of my friends went through school at different points in their twenties.”

“Yeah, but they will have Canadian experience,” he countered. “I just have Korean experience.”

I rushed to reassure him. “That’s not true! You’ve been in Canada for a year, working, going to school and living. That counts. Even the people I know who have two degrees aren’t ahead of you; after school, everyone will be starting from zero.”

Andy seemed to be a little bit soothed after that, but I could tell that his insecurities ran deeper than I could attempt to quiet with a few anecdotes about my friends. Really, I understand his concern: the two or more years it takes to learn English can feel like an eternity for these newcomers, and worst of all, they feel like they have put their lives on hold. They have a decision to make, not just once, but over and over as their mettle is tested: should they invest their time, money, and energy into acquiring a high level of English, thus qualifying them for further education or re-entry into their previous vocations? Or, do they learn the bare minimum necessary to get a job, start providing for themselves and their families, but limit their potential for career growth?

Of course, as a teacher and as a university graduate, I would be the first to promote education. My own belief is that continuing studies are essential to personal growth and, in our society, are a mandatory ticket into the world of wage security. On the other hand, I’ve never been in a position to receive social assistance. I have worked for Ontario Works, and I do know that the amount you get to live off of is a pittance (seriously, could you live off of $23/week for groceries?). I’ve been financially insecure as a student, and lived off of credit – but I could also see the end to my temporary financial scarcity, and I knew I would come out with a degree that would make the debt worthwhile. I can only begin to imagine the desperation some of these immigrants feel to get out of poverty and move on.

To be frank, many of them do choose immediate financial independence over long-term gain. They think, “Well, if I can just work for a few months, I’m sure my English will improve.” They have massive guilt about coming to Canada and relying on the country’s social safety net the second they get their residency cards. Their pride gets in the way of logic: “I spent X number of years providing for myself and my family in my own country. I can do the same here. I don’t need help.”

But you know what? They do need help. They leave school for promised full-time employment at minimum wage, and eighteen months later they get laid off, and re-enrol. They spend years working at gas stations, convenience stores, and cleaning office buildings, chatting up anyone who will listen for “practice,” then go home and study for professional exams that they will fail again and again because their reading and writing skills are poor, and their job-specific vocabulary is nonexistant. They work two jobs for the American dream of putting their kids in soccer and ballet, then have no time or patience to show up to games and recitals. Years go by, and they realize they are stuck until they can speak like the natives.

I’ve painted a pretty grim picture here, I know; but this is the undercurrent of my students’ lives, and if I don’t recognize that as an instructor I will fail at providing for them efficiently and effectively. My conversation with Andy was a reminder of the great insecurity and self-doubt that he and others continually experience, and I am humbled to know that my opinion and my advice can make or break their resolve to continue. For Andy, I know this was a moment of weakness for him: he’s strong and resilient, and he’ll be one hell of a successful Canadian one day. But until that time, I can only hope that he continues to find points of motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, that will keep him on the path.

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Filed under immigration, insecurities, student stories

A Cow Dung, by any other name, would smell much sweeter

Have you ever thought about what your name might sound like in another linguistic or cultural context? That single proper noun, something you have known and identified with since before you had the ability to say it yourself, is often one of our most valued possessions. For me, it’s what makes me unique. Skylar is a very uncommon name – so uncommon that my mom thought she’d made it up, and the only other Skylars I’ve ever met have been boys, or born after the year 2000. I’ve cherished the distinctiveness of my name since I was a kid. There were always two Ashleys, a handful of Mikes and Johns, and every girl seemed to have Sarah or Lynn as a middle name at the very least. Then there was me, who only looked up at the wrong time if there happened to be a Tyler in the room.

Today, I had my students read “What’s Your Name Again?” an article in Newcomer Magazine about “foreign” names, and whether to keep them in a Canadian workplace. This topic is highly relevant to my class, and almost any class I’ve ever taught. Especially among the Asian population, it is extremely common to have an English or Christian name that you go by instead of your given name. The article specifically focussed on the use of English pseudonyms in the workforce, citing a study from UBC about ethnic versus “Canadian” names on resumes. The study found that immigrants who opted for a more English-sounding name had a much higher chance of being called back than those who kept their given names.

My class ended before I had a good chance to pick my students’ brains on this subject, although we did begin a conversation about the reasons why they had changed their own names. One of my students changed his name from “Sasha,” a very common short form for Aleksandr, to “Alex.” I was confused at the need to switch, since Sasha is actually quite a well-known name in North America, but he informed me that when he moved to Montreal (his first place of settlement in Canada) he didn’t like the way it sounded with the French accent – more like “Sacha.” So rather than have his name butchered forever, he opted for the easily pronounced “Alex.” Another student, a woman from China, admitted that she’d picked her English name in a Chinese English class many years ago by flipping through a book with English names and taking the first one that was easy to say and spell (it’s “Amy”). Other students who have changed their names have obviously chosen what seems to be the closest English-sounding name to theirs, with some changes in spelling. This seems to have worked out well for the most part, but I don’t really understand the logic behind picking a name with an ‘l’ or an ‘r’ in it if you have a hard time with those consonants. Other non-English-speaking immigrants make the mistake of picking random English words that they think sound or look nice – hence the unfortunate existence of Asian girls with names like “Circle” or “Orange.”

One student, who goes by his Korean name although he has a Christian name, pondered the potential of switching to his Christian name once he goes to university in the fall. The consensus from the class was that it should really be his decision, and he should pick whatever he is comfortable with. He divulged that he’d also played around with spelling in hopes of making his name more pronounceable, for instance by removing the space between the two syllables that make up his name. After he wrote some possibilities on the board, the class noted that a change in spelling wasn’t guaranteed to reduce confusion. This is especially true if you don’t know the nature of English well enough to pick the right vowel-consonant combinations. His options, in my opinion as the only native speaker, were more likely to lead to mispronunciation than his actual name; but how could he know that?

After class, I mentioned the day’s reading/speaking topic to a veteran co-teacher. She recalled a student she’d had years before from China, who went by the unfortunate (by English standards) name of Cow Dung. This teacher had done her best to explain to this man, tactfully, why he was not getting call-backs for interviews. But how can you tell a person that their name means something offensive and, let’s face it, sounds like a Bart Simpson prank call? The man insisted that his name was a noble and beautiful one in his native language, and that should be enough for anyone. “I wonder where he is today?” mused my coworker. “I never did hear.” Maybe this is because this man finally came to his senses and changed his name!

I must admit some reservations to the actual premise of having to change one’s name in order to better integrate into society. It is ridiculous that employers should ever look at a name and make assumptions about that person; however we all know this to be a fact of life. A case study of the pointlessness of judging based on a name: my mother. Born and raised in our small, homogeneous Canadian city, she married my father, a Trinidadian immigrant of Indian descent, and took on his equally Indian last name. She has worked for the same non-profit organization for as long as I can remember. Her very first boss, after several years of working with her, left the organization, and his parting remark to my mother was along the lines of this: “It was great working with you! Can you believe we almost passed over your resume all those years ago because of your last name? Good thing we didn’t!” My mom, understandably, was stunned by the insensitivity and inherent prejudice in his comment. When I learned of this incident years later, I was – and still am – disgusted by the blatant display of stigmatization to which so many people are still subjected.

So: to change, or not to change? I consider my own name, and how it would be twisted or warped in other cultural contexts. I know that speakers of Romance languages think of the direct translation of my name, Sky, and wonder why my parents gave me such a masculine name. That’s because “sky” as translated into these languages takes a masculine article: le ciel (French), il cielo (Italian), o céu (Portuguese) and el cielo (Spanish). Some languages pronounce the letters in my name differently or not at all, and others don’t officially have letters like ‘k’ in their alphabet. And if I go East, I’ll have further problems having to change my name into different characters. Would it be easier for me, then, to just pick a nice-sounding name from that culture? I don’t know if that’s a question I’m prepared to answer right now, but it’s one I think I need to be aware of as a teacher and a student of global culture.

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Filed under identity crisis, immigration, student stories

Plenty of Babelfish in the Sea

I was inspired to write tonight, not by my students, but by my experiences as a language learner. This past Friday I finally buckled down and started learning some Portuguese for my upcoming Brazilian adventure. I figure that since I’m going by myself, I really do need to know some language basics for logistics and safety. So, I cracked open my Living Language book that’s been sitting on a shelf, spine uncracked, since I bought it back in March. It promises me I can “learn Brazilian Portuguese in 4 simple steps” with only 40 lessons and 300 pages of paperback. I have also joined for reading, listening and vocabulary practice, as well as community, where I can “study online 24/7 and meet people from around the world.”  I have already been “added” by a few Brazilians, so I guess it’s working! Now, to speak to them in their native tongue…that might take some time.  Finally, I found a site that offers free weekly podcasts that teach Brazilian Portuguese with English instruction, and have listened to a different one every day this week. I’m actually doing it, people! I can say, Boa tarde, meu chamo Skylar, and I can even spell it in Portuguese. You’re impressed, I can tell.

Anyway, all of this work really puts into perspective what my students actually go through on a daily basis, living in a country that doesn’t speak their L1 (first language). You understand some things, recognize words here and there, and can even read with relative ease of interpretation. But then, some speed-talking native speaker opens their mouth, and it seems like your brain has shut off. Are they really saying the same words you just read on paper? If they are, what happened to that vowel, and what about that consonant – I thought it was a hard d, so why does it sound like a j? Portuguese and I are just getting to know each other though, so with time I have faith I’ll grow to love and even take for granted all its little quirks.

This is not my first attempt at learning a language; oh, no. You could say I’ve been around the block when it comes to languages. I can’t help it, I’m a linguaphile!

French was like a first marriage for me, the kind you enter into when you’re too young to know better, and after years of trying to make it work, you realize it was never mean to be. It all began quite romantically: the 1995 Quebec referendum was probably the first time I became politically aware, and I vowed that if I ever wanted to be a responsible Canadian citizen, I would become fluent in both official languages. Well, 12 years of core French and 2 years of university-level French later, and I am no closer to fluency than I was when I was about 14 (though I’ve learned the grammar rules in their entirety at least 4 separate times). French and I aren’t divorced, but the trial separation has been a great relief.

Then there was my love affair with Italian – the country, the food, the language, and not least of all, the person (yeah, there was one). It was just the antidote to my passionless study of French. I thought I did pretty well with Italian actually, probably because cultural immersion happened simultaneously with acquisition, but unfortunately I only discovered that passion in fourth year of undergrad and haven’t had time to cultivate it since. I don’t think that Italian and I have called it quits for good, but the distance relationship just doesn’t suit us.

And most recently, there was my brief flirtation with Spanish, in which a friend and I took a once-weekly college course to stave off boredom while working in our hometown. The course didn’t cover much, and we only really started to learn vocabulary when we started having study dates about halfway through the term. But neither of us was very motivated to continue, not having any opportunities for practice on the visible horizon. So, much like a hometown fling, the flame died as quickly and quietly as it started, and no one has spoken a word of it since.

And how about Portuguese?  How will it fit into this lineup of mismatched Romantic tongues? Well, this is a quasi-arranged marriage, in that I’ll be thrown into the middle of the language and culture with little preparation in the near future. We may be cohabiting, but will the relationship last long enough to claim common law status with my brain? It may just turn out to be the “for now” relationship that turns into “forever” – but only time will tell. And this bilinguist-to-be will continue to dream of the day when her fluency will come.


Filed under cheesy metaphors, crushes