Saturday, May 24, 2014

Language Tricks: A Year in Reflection Part 2

            Describing Bulgaria plays tricks with language. So has my year, one long trick of language. The year has been a long game of language differences (literal and metaphorical), complex grammars without a handbook that you only learn by mistakes, like that card game Mow.
            For example, my students and I had an interesting cultural moment on the night rain after the last BFL tournament, one where we did not get sleeping compartments. We were in two compartments and sat up all night. During a fun party game around midnight, a student said, shocked, “Miss Dana! Where are your shoes?” I had taken off my boots and was moving around the train in my thick wool socks, hadn’t thought a thing of it. My feet didn’t smell. My Bulgarian teacher and friend, Rosi, explained on my behalf. “It’s an American thing. It isn’t strange to go without shoes in America.” The student nodded, shocked, trying to understand. I’ve always liked going barefoot or with as little shoes as possible. I thought this was a description of Dana. I had no idea that the option to have this preference was a deeply American thing.
            These kinds of things can be hilarious and fun to discover. Over time, they can also contribute to a sense of isolation, of being the Other, such a blatant experience being very new for me.
            There were also moments of deep connection where language, literal and metaphorical, did not get in the way.
            Each of these language moments played out in different ways through my year. From them, I learned a lot about myself and about cultural adjustment.

Lost in Translation
Like Banging Your Head
I didn’t always know the right questions to ask to get the help I needed. I didn’t always realize I needed help. This was the worst thing.
I wish I had asked more questions, assumed less. Realized how little experience I’ve actually had in highly structured and stratified environments. The rules and norms are opaque to me. I’m used to just making things work, but that skill is only useful where you understand the quiet norms of your culture.
1)   Administration upkeep
2)   Classroom Norms. Do I go for the mentor/friend route? Do I try to teach complex thinking and lots of assignments? How legitimate am I allowed to be? Do they want me to be? Questions I never fully answered.
3)   Bulgarian Language. I felt inadequate in learning Bulgarian. I took lessons since November but feel like I haven’t gotten very far (that is nothing about my teacher, who was wonderful and kind and a good friend to me in every way).
4)   Lonliness. This was the biggest bane of my year. I’ve had to grow a lot through being alone and feeling lonely. Remember the loneliness cake, long time blog readers? Yeah. Lot’s of “cakes” this year.

What I’ve learned: Where things get lost are often the places where things might have gotten lost back at home. My own personal struggles are highlighted and exacerbated here. Struggles with communication and being part of institutional structures and helping the larger institution, not just my own creative ideas and schemes.

            I wrote this year. That’s more than the last few years post-college can say. And I like what I wrote. I like how dance and writing keep moving together for me. I like how both of these things were a “way in” for me on a deeply personal level.

            Dance is, of course, the language of my heart.
Unfortunately, teaching schedule prevented me from being at salsa lessons this spring. But I made it to a few local dances and enjoyed it very much.
            Folk Dance started in January. Everything is taught in Bulgarian. I just listen, watch, and hopefully catch on. I’ve loved going to parties and seeing hundreds of people participate in this together. Holding hands, moving to complex rhythms and beat systems, it’s just really cool.

            Since October, I’ve attended a small Bulgarian church in my town. It’s from the protestant tradition, which is my background. They do simultaneous translations through headsets. It’s been a grounding place for me.
            Having even a few friends felt like a huge accomplishment. I didn’t get to see my friends very often. The people around me work long hours and have very full lives.

            On a lunch outing with my students the other week, one student made the audacious claim that Fight Club was infinitely superior to Titanic. I don’t know how those two could even be compared but they were. Someone else replied, “What is your criteria?”
            I’ve learned a lot through BFL. I still struggle with debate structure but oh well. My kids seemed to have figured it out eventually.
One girl moved from her first practice of constantly stopping, turning read, and saying, “I failed, I failed,” to a calm, poised presentation on the problems with self-harm.
            Other students constantly impressed me with their leadership potential. One student has now volunteered to help the next ETA start a team and help with BFL leadership. Two students are eager to be part of the Student ambassadors. These kids are my pride and joy.
            Winning 2nd place small school division at the Kirjali tournament was a highlight.
            American Forensics League. A smash hit, I would say. The world is a better place for those poems and stories and chalga debates and a DUO of Lion King. Seriously.

Older teaching younger. Pass it on.

What I’ve learned: You need to be grounded.
1) Find the things that keep you sane. Maybe these are new things, a new food or hobby or hang out spot. Maybe these are buried deep in your life stories, like church is for me. Finding these places will affect the rest of your life in a new place.
2) Finding something outside of your “job” that can be your job. That can give you structure. Like BFL.
3) Things get better over time. I was a far better teacher in February than I was in September. Give the hard things time.

No comments: