Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Insiders and Outsiders

So something really interesting just happened.  I was talking with some colleagues who were sitting at a table for four, eating lunch.  Two of the people have a reasonably high level of English, the other two people are in my introductory English class.  A small joke was made in English.  I laughed heartily as did the person who made the joke and the other person who understands English.  The other two people looked at each other and said in Spanish “did you understand?”  They both said no.  In Spanish I said, “welcome to my world”.  Everyone laughed. 

For a moment, I was an “insider”.  That is a status that I have not enjoyed in my everyday life for a while now.  I no longer expect to understand all of the conversation at the dinner table or on the bus or on the radio.  I don’t expect to be a leader or to make many decisions.  Sometimes I still need help to understand things and to do things correctly.  

In Canada I never questioned my status as an insider.  I understood the language and the culture and if someone spoke in another language I expected that it would be translated for me.  When I travelled I expected that there would be people who spoke not just “some” English, but fluent English.   
Despite being on the outside, I am still someone who has enjoyed much privilege in her life and in many ways still does.  

Yesterday I became aware that my teammates were collecting money for a colleague who was sick.  I didn’t completely understand the conversation around this action.  In my head I drew the conclusion that made sense to me…we were collecting money for a gift.  I wondered about this as the collection well beyond my team and to the whole office.  I later asked one of my housemates what was going on.  She explained to me that my colleague and her brother are both sick.  One needs to see a specialist and one needs a special x-ray.  In total they need about $100 to pay for both and the family doesn’t have the money.  Having grown up with universal health care it still shocks me that people can’t get health care because they can’t pay for it.  I assumed that we were collecting money for an “extra” not a necessity.  A point of privilege. 

This weekend I went on a lovely trip to another part of El Salvador with two busloads of youth and their families and a few other staff.  We went to see an archaeological site and then went to a “huge” pool.  The pool was a standard “municipal” pool in Canada, but for here it was enormous.  There were signs all over to warn people that the water in the deep end was in fact, really deep.  I quickly changed into my bathing suit, dropped my stuff off with a friend who was not going in the pool and then jumped into the deep end.  I then looked around.  There was hardly anyone in the deep end.  Almost no one was wearing a bathing suit.  People swim in street clothes.  Most Salvadorenos/as don’t know how to swim.  In fact on the bus people were commenting on what a shame it was that so much of the pool was wasted with deep water that so few could use.   Another point of privilege…even in Canada most of the poor kids go the pool and many have at least a few swimming lessons. 
The "huge" pool.  Notice the palm trees at the sides.   This is the deep end and there is no one in it!

After almost 5 months, all my housemates were home at a reasonable hour and I was able to convince them to pose for a “nice” picture.  Finally, here is the group of people who I live with during the week:

From Left to Right:
Alex: He is married and has a son.  He is the head of the "local economy" team.  He is outgoing, fun and talks fast.  The day I understand Alex completely in a regular conversation, I will know that I understand Spanish! Alex has discovered that he likes peanut butter, but doesn't think that peanut butter toast is a complete breakfast all by itself.   He is a good cook and makes fried plantains that are my favourite food here.  

Jenny:  Jenny is my "host".  I live with her in both of my houses.  She is the head of administration which means she is in charge of finance, HR, physical plant and cars.  Jenny is smart and personable.  She knows everything about everything and everyone.  One day I thought I knew something that she didn't and it turned out someone had lied to me!  Occasionally we have overnight guests at our house.  They are usually young women from the office who have come to seek Jenny's counsel on family or relationship issues.   

Vinicio: Venicio is the young hottie of the house but he doesn't act like he knows it.  He is 22 and in great shape.  He has been incredibly kind to me and he has a very special place in my life here.   He is doing a joint project between ADES and another agency REDES (they like acronyms here as much as we do) that has something do with optimizing corn production.   I'm not sure that I'd understand it in English!   For a while he too was a bit of an outsider, despite speaking the language and the culture.  We bonded while he is was in his first few difficult weeks here.  

Vicenta:   She works with the women in the Co-operative that run a restaurant and give out micro-credit loans to small home based businesses.  Vincenta is the "mischievious" one of the group.  She is a lot of fun and enjoys playing cards.  However, you have to watch her because she likes to "bend" the rules a lot!  She lived for a while in the US and then studied for 5 years in Cuba.   She makes most of the suppers at our house.  Her beans are the best I have had.  We believe it is the Cuban influence.  

Soto:  Soto's first name is Oswaldo, but everyone just uses his last name - Soto.  He reminds me a lot of my Uncle Bruce.  He is devoted to his family, likes to have fun and is very wise.  Soto is the head of the team that works on water and mining issues.  Soto and Alex generally cook breakfast.  Soto makes baked plantains - very yummy.  He also loves futbol (soccer), coffee and tortillas.  

Note:  Jenny wanted me to explain that I am a very lucky woman here.  It is very rare to find men in El Salvador who cook and I have three in my weekday house -  Alex, Soto and Vinicio and Jonathan on weekends.  

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