Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween! Feliz Dia de Muertos!

In Mexico we celebrate Dia de Muertos on November 2nd. A very popular tradition on that day is to compose a small funny rhyme related to Death. Mexicans have a very dark humor in that sense, they like to laugh at Death and they always represent it in a funny way.

I tried to come up with something that would more or less represent this tradition.

Miss Death came nocking on my door
And made me slip while cleaning the floor

I offered her candy from the bowl
But what she wanted was my soul

She took me to her reign below
No matter what she wouldn't let me go

I screamed and ran and cried Oh, no!
She laughed a hundred times or so

Since then I've had to work for her
So if you hear me knocking, beware!

Happy Halloween!!!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

She Said, "Relevance Makes a Huge Difference"

I remember when I was studying English in highschool, everybody feared the second grade because that's where you learned "Reported Speech" and "Passive Voice". Everyone had horrible experiences of failing tests and even the subject because those two structures were just too difficult.

So, when I got to the dreaded secong grade, I had no other choice but to study very hard, memorize the rules for those structures and pass the test (barely, in fact). But those two names stuck in my memory as the most difficult and useless thing I had to learn in English during my 15 year experience in a bilingual school.

More or less 3 or 4 years later when I started teaching English, I remember I got to the part in the manual where I actually had to teach reported speech. I couldn't sleep the night before, how was I going to be able to explain a structure that I don't fully understand myself, that awful experience from second grade was still haunting me...

In the end everything worked out well, I was able to teach reported speech to the best of my ability and improved the more I taught it. The first few times I realized my students were finding it just as hard to understand so I tried to figure out ways of showing the real practicality of it.

From that day on I committed as a teacher to the concept of relevance. Students need to find the topic meaningful and they have to be able to find the practical use of it in real life if you want them to remember it and actually learn it. Learning a language must be an enjoyable experience, nobody needs to suffer and sweat from a hard grammatical structure.

What I do now whenever I have to teach Reported Speech is choose the latest gossip in a celebrity's life and ask the students to tell me what has been said. Or I bring the newspaper to the class and have the students report what it says. Seems so easy, uh?

Friday, October 23, 2009

The "Uncomfortable" Neighbour

There have been many new things that I have learned ever since I came to Canada, things that make us Mexicans very different from Canadians; however, there is one thing that both cultures share... the way we feel about the US.

In Mexico we are always critizing everything the US does, politically, economically, and even culturally. As a neighbor country we are very influenced by everything they do. And I am not talking about things you only hear in the news, I am talking about everyday stuff. For example the movies, 90% of the movies shown in Mexico are American. You get to see snowy winters, yellow cabs, and all sorts of references to a culture that is not your own.

Every year we celebrate Halloween doing the traditional "Trick or Treat" on Oct 31st. We all dress in costumes and walk around the streets without even understanding the meaning of it, and then, 2 days later cemeteries are flooded with people celebrating "Dia de Muertos".

We all brag about our trip to San Antonio and show off our fashionable Gap clothes, why, because that's what we watch on TV every night! The other day my husband and I were laughing so hard remembering how back in the days of Beverly Hills 90210 a lot of babies were being called Dylan, Brandon, Kelly, etc.

Even though here in Canada the influence is not so strong, the US seems to be an uncomfortable neighbour for them too. You hear the same kind of comments about politics and economy and it feels like the American shadow is always upon them. The two countries depend a lot on the US in a lot of aspects. I am sure I will not stop hearing that kind of comments, that's how it will always be, I myself make them every now and then, just like yesterday after reading a comment in a blog from an American girl saying how the US should take over Canada... urghhh!!! Sometimes you just can't help it! Try reading it and see what your reaction is...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


They should come up with a name for people, like me, who share two or more cultures. When you move to a different country, you never stop to think how you will manage to integrate the new culture into your own. You keep saying to yourself that it won't be difficult to adapt and you are in the best disposition to learn and embrace the customs of the new country. It all seems so easy!

I remember the first time I went to Mexico to get the rest of my stuff (everyting I hadn't been able to bring with me when I first came to Canada), I still felt like being in Canada was just a long vacation. However, as time went by it started to feel the other way around, getting out of a plane and stepping into Pearson International Airport felt like arriving home. Cross cultural experts say that it takes 1 year to adapt to a new culture, and during that time you experience all kinds of feelings. First, everything seems new and exiting, then, you go through a period in which you start missing your food, family, friends and you see all the negative things of your new home. Finally, you end up understanding that this new place is not Paradise and you learn to cope with the things you don't necessarily like.

It has been 4 years for me and I have definitely left that learning curve behind, but it hasn't become easier to go back to Mexico and experience those very weird feelings of not belonging there anymore but not belonging here yet either. It's like living in a world in between worlds that is inside you, and nobody can fully understand it unless they are going through the same process. I think that is one more reason for hanging out with my Mexican friends here.

I wonder how it will feel like after 10, or 15 years, how different it will be and if I will ever feel completely Canadian (by the way, it's just 1 more month for me to be able to apply for the Canadian citizenship).

And then there is my son... who is, will be and will always feel truly Canadian. How will that affect our relationship and our understanding of each other? It is very sad to think that there is already something that separates me from him (as dramatic as it may sound). We will probably feel very different things when singing the Canadian anthem, or when Canada wins a gold medal in the Olympics. And of course it will be the same thing for him when Mexico wins a soccer game...

People should take these things into consideration before deciding to move to a different country. I don't regret my decision at all, I just wish I had been better prepared.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Canada In 4th Place, Are We Almost in Paradise?

The Human Development Index considers three areas to rank countries from the best to live in to the worst, these areas are life expectancy, adult literacy and gross enrolment in education; and purchasing power parity and income. According to these 3dimensions, Canada ranked 4th in the most recent report, behind Norway, Autralia and Iceland (it's good that they don't include the weather as one of the deciding factors). Historically, Canada has always been ranked in the first places in these reports, and I am sure that is why so many people around the world apply to become a permanent resident; however, there are other interesting reports that one needs to look at before considering Canada a true paradise...

There is another index published by the UNDP called the gender-related development index (GDI), introduced in Human Development Report 1995, "it measures achievements in the same dimensions using the same indicators as the HDI but captures inequalities in achievement between women and men. It is simply the HDI adjusted downward for gender inequality. The greater the gender disparity in basic human development, the lower is a country's GDI relative to its HDI."

In the GDI Canada ranked 74. Before discussing this result, I also want to discuss the results of the GEM (Gender Empowerment Measure) which "reveals whether women take an active part in economic and political life. It tracks the share of seats in parliament held by women; of female legislators, senior officials and managers; and of female professional and technical workers- and the gender disparity in earned income, reflecting economic independence. Differing from the GDI, the GEM exposes inequality in opportunities in selected areas." In this index Canada made it in 12th place.

It is interesting to see that in some areas like the government and politics the country seems to have embraced diversity very positively, but in general inequality seems to still be an issue. According to these studies, women still don't have the same opportunities as men. I wonder if the long maternity leave offered by the government has something to do with this...


Monday, October 5, 2009

Rude vs Condescending, How To Find The Balance?

My worst experience when I started working in Canada regarding cultural differences was when after leaving a message over the phone to one of my clients, she called back and told the customer service representative that I sounded condescending. I felt so bad!

In Mexico we bend over backwards to offer the best service possible, we put too many words in proposals and business agreements just to make them sound formal and polite. We say thank you so many times; we have so many adjectives to describe things, and we like to put so many of them together... that now that I think about it, I am sure that for such a practical, to-the-point culture as the Canadian, we do sound condescending.

The problem is that after that experience, I think I go to the other extreme. Sometimes I show my husband a letter or e-mail that I intend to send to my employer or a customer for feedback and he finds it too direct, so I don't know if it is just that he is another "condescending" Mexican or in fact I sound almost rude in my intention of being straight forward.

So, how do I find the balance? How can I learn the best way to behave in a culture that is not my own and in which people are too polite to tell me I am being rude (or condescending for that matter)? Is this a cultural issue or a language issue?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Leaving Your Shoes at the Door: What a Huge Controversy!

When I first told my family I was moving to Canada, besides the big shock, they were all excited of having someone to visit abroad. However, for my very dear uncle Jorge the excitement was gone when he announced he wanted to come and visit me and I told him he was going to have to take his shoes off when coming into my house (and anyone else's house for all I know), it seemed to me like he was making a big deal out of it, but I really wanted him to come, so I did some research in the internet to track the origins of this custom and to be able to provide him with more information.

I did a Google search and was surprised to get so many results from discussion boards, blogs, articles, etc refering to this (to me very simple) issue. I found a blog which entire content is devoted to that and even a book called "Sole Truth About Those Soles" by Shirley Sanders. I never thought this was such a big thing for some people.

Of course, since I adopted this custom I have had to be more careful with the socks I wear, it is very embarassing to take off your shoes and show one of your toes through a nice little hole in your sock... it also makes me think sometimes if it is worth spending a lot of money in a nice pair of shoes if everytime I go to a friend's house I am going to have to take them off; and sometimes it also puts me into a dilema regarding the length of my trousers, if I leave them long in order to be able to wear them with high heels, as soon as I take them off I trip on my pants; on the other hand if I leave them at a flat shoe length I am not able to wear my heels.

Besides those few complaints, I have found that walking in my socks or slippers at home is super comfortable, it makes me feel more relaxed and it gives the concept of home an even cozier feeling. And this of course on top of the huge difference it makes when I clean the house! Last June I went to Mexico to visit my mom and even though they vaccum and clean very often my baby's belly, feet and hands turned black after a few minutes of crawling... yuk!

I have come to embrace that custom so much that now everywhere I go I feel the urgency of taking my shoes off even if I am in Mexico with my dear uncle Jorge. Pretty much like what happened to Emily Prucha.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Living in a Multicultural Environment Can Make Us Less Friendly

I have been living in Canada for the last 4 years, and so far, most of my friends are from Mexico. Strange, right? living in such a multicultural environment, one would think that by now he would have made friends from different nationalities and backgrounds. However, if you pay close attention, that happens to almost everyone. You go on the subway and you see people from the middle east talking to people from that same region. You hear people speaking Portuguese, or Russian, or Italian. In Toronto, there is China Town, and Little Italy, etc. So it seems like no matter how open we are to meet people from different cultural backgrounds, we end up sticking with our own kind.

Talking with some friends the other day, one was sharing an experience she had had with a coworker in which she hadn't been sure how to behave because she hadn't wanted to do or say something that could offend the other person due to his own cutoms. That happends to me all the time, with colleagues, clients and in general with people I meet. First comes the greeting: should I shake his hand, kiss the person on the cheek, say hello and not make any kind of physical contact... it is always a big dilema. Then, once the conversation has started you wonder whether it is appropriate to ask the person about his family, or about work, or ask what he did during the weekend... you don't want to sound like you are inquiring about his personal life or customs and offend him.

Likewise, when someone does something that is not common in your culture, like give you a hug, for instance, your mind starts spinning and you don't know how to interpret the action... what are this person's intentions?

So in the end, you behave like you are not you. You adopt a robotic, cold, neutral attitude that keeps you from making that connection with other people and from starting true, long lasting relationships.

I think that if you really want to be friends with someone who has different customs and traditions, you have to show a genuine interest for his culture and you have to share and explain your own behaviors. Be yourself and don't worry too much about what the he is going to think about you. But mostly, I think you have to be very patient and let the friendship grow stronger with time and shared experiences.

A lot of us hang out with people from our own cultural background because we feel comfortable and safe; and that is perfectly fine, but maybe we are missing great opportunities to meet very interesting people and making true, life long friends because we don't want to take the risk of making mistakes and feeling embarassed due to cultural differences. If we remember that we live in one of the most multicultural places on Earth, not doing so sounds like a waste, doesn't it?

One more time I have to make use of one my grandma's sayings (man, she was wise!), "relationships are like plants or flowers, if you don't water them and take care of them, they die".