Culture as a Lens

Culture. That’s such a hard thing to define, as I have always thought.

I often say that culture is really a matter of how a set of like-minded individuals live their life. Be they minor or the more significant and weighty aspects of life, there are numerous differences between the North American and the Costa Rican culture as a whole. I have noticed that people address each other on the street by saying ‘Adios,’ which is of course confusing to foreigners like me because that word is most widely known for meaning ‘goodbye.’ I started to look a bit more deeply into its meaning and thinking about the words within the words: a, meaning ‘to’ generally and Dios,meaning God. Could they be saying ‘to God’ in a sense much like how they say ‘Que le vaya bien (I hope it all goes well)’? Either way, whether someone is coming or going they go ‘to God.’ That is what I have concluded. 
I take notice of nearly everything that I can. There is an unspoken rule here about going to the end of a line of people waiting at a bus stop. When the bus is crowded it is safer not to stand up in order to offer someone else a seat because of how narrow and crowded the aisles already are; and much to our danger some bus drivers like to drive a la Keanu Reeves with the doors wide open. People even sweep the floors differently from what I have seen. They use the broom like a scrub brush more or less. One thing I have no grievances about is the fact that subject pronouns are built around respect and are contingent upon the way one relates to a person. I have yet to equate titles like ‘Usted’ (Respectful ‘you’) or ‘Vos’ (more friendly ‘you’) to many English circumstances. There are similarities but overall the relationships and views dictate the words and the use of them furthermore, thus, making it difficult to equate universal meanings.
Last week, I entered a classroom, my North American brain teeming of various—and perhaps common—misconceptions about the way schools are ideally run. I expected to be working with woman art teacher, someone down to earth, relaxed, kid-loving, dressed in bohemian attire and so on. The chances, however, of finding my grade school art teacher here are very slim. Much to my grammar-and-broom-observing surprise, I was introduced to a man shorter than me who smoked during the lunch break and thought kids were lazy. His general rule of thumb: yell or have a nervous breakdown, or both.  I agreed to work one day a week with him in order to facilitate the arts and crafts; and the school director subsequently allowed me to incorporate my personal project. Lo and behold I was thrown in the very same day with not one craft supply in hand. I had not even brought pencils. The first class was hoopla, ranging from kids pulling curiously on my hair to three different children vying for my attention at once. It is sufficed to say that the assignment had become very secondary to the purpose of the lesson. I had to remember the concept of flexibility, keeping in mind the rhetorical context of this very unfamiliar yet unsurprising situation. ‘Ok,’ I thought, ‘These kids are young, they probably speak a little more than me and spell slightly better than I do, they like shapes, they make noises like animals, they will laugh at just about anything, they will draw the opposite of whatever I instruct, and their attention span refreshes as often as a Twitter feed…Keep It Super Simple.’
There was a fifteen minute break between the second and first class. I opted out of the chance to mingle among the faculty and students out in the courtyards. Instead, I had an idea and I needed that time to figure out what to do differently, given the unstructured environment. It was mere survival instincts by the time the third class began, as that class shocked me with the kinds of frequencies that must have sent all the neighborhood dogs into an uproar. I took a glimpse at my portfolio and then at the whiteboard. Instinctively, I picked up a handful of dry erase markers, erased the contents already there and wrote in big cursive letters PLASTICOS, which means arts and crafts. (Is it surprising that I spelled even that wrong the first time?) Never mind that, though, because students had begun to trickle in by the time I was finishing up the doodles around it.  Echoes of curious and indistinct questions in Spanish sounded around me over the drumming of adolescent voices. Whether I could understand them or not I would retort back, “Pacienca. Voy a explicar pronto (Patience. I will explain soon).”
At the beginning of the second and third classes I had begun the lesson in much the same way. The lead professor gave a brief introduction about me. At one time I had to stop two students from bopping each other on the head with rolled up paper when he was talking. Another time I had to pass out copies of my developed photographs so that students could fan themselves and remain docile. The lead professor’s face turned red out of habit whenever he would begin to talk. I took note and scoured the repository of my memory about effective teaching tactics I had seen before. The instant he turned over to me the responsibility I started by addressing them, “Hola todos!” Some murmured and some were hesitant. “HOLA TODOS!” I reiterated to which they responded more vivaciously. Then I reintroduced myself, sounding like such a foreigner as I explained that I didn’t speak a lot of English but I would do my best to understand and communicate with them. I had no plan each of the three times I addresses those kids. One thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to foster in them a global-mindedness and a new appreciation for arts by means of sustainable art practices. All I asked in return was that they speak slowly and one at a time, but I knew even that was a gamble. For one of the classes, I knew I would have to get them to raise their hands when I did and close their mouths as if a string were attached to it from their raised hand. Many of my teachers always refused to talk over me and now I understand why; and yet they had the convenience of speaking a common language as me.
The lead professor came up to me as I was about to leave and said while clasping my hand a relieved and breathy “God bless you!” At that moment, my entire sentiment about my purpose there changed. I gave a short reply, which I don’t remember. Nevertheless, I have been reflecting on that entire encounter, and I have been meditating on the fact that every person has influence. Culture is a key component if not the backdrop for how the interconnected plots in our lives reveal themselves. I don’t know the first thing about these kids. I don’t have the same kind of experience or baggage with them as the lead professor does. One thing I do know and I always valued (something very universal) is that people at any age value a basic level of respect; they value relationships when the offer to form one is extended. I have never seen that as cultural but rather as a mere human necessity. I am not Super-Muchacha, as some students comfortably started referring to me by anything but my name, but I am SuperSmart and SuperDetermined not to repeat the mistakes of both the positive and negative leaders who influenced me when I was younger.

Art is messy. Art is also a way of materializing something from the inside out. 

Our perspectives vary. From seat to seat, they all see me differently. From one conception to another, I subsequently size up their situation in order to discern how to best guide them.Yes, I (even I who spells on a first grade level sometimes and who knows next to “nothing”) am just playing my role in this grand production, which is just as mysterious to me as it is to them…and to you.  

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