OK, so today's our first autism training class we've had for quite a while. In planning our session over the past week, my mind kept going back to an experience that got me in trouble that I'd had in Mexico as a graduate student in Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Colorado many years ago.
I'd learned Spanish in the university, beginning in my mid-20s, with no “in-country” experience. I was adept at discussing Don Quixote, but stammered and struggled in conversations that wandered outside the realm of academe and literary criticism.
So I signed on for a semester as the Assistant Director of the university's study abroad program in Xalapa, Mexico in order to gain fluency and expand my linguistic horizons.
I preceded our students by about two weeks, during which time I worked with the Directors of the program securing housing in local homes, setting up curricula, and making arrangements with the Depto. de Humanidades of the university for classes our students would be taking.
Though I'd travelled extensively in Mexico and Central America, the difference between life as a tourist and trying to work in the native culture was enormous. I literally could not “read” my hosts' intentions and concerns, and they could not read mine. I was repeatedly “stood up” by colleagues with whom I was certain we had firmly agreed on a specific place at a time and date certain.
“Ay, Choo-thee,” my Mexican Director would laugh, “They didn't really mean it when they said they'd meet you but they didn't want to be impolite and tell you so! Once you learn more, you'll figure out how to know when they mean it and when they are just being polite.”
“Polite!” I'd sputter, “What's so polite about telling somebody you'll meet them when you know you can't or won't!?”
Leticia just smiled.
Later in the semester, my cultural cluelessness created big trouble for one of my professors.
Memo (short for Guillermo) was a charming young professor of English language and literature at the university. He taught a course in which many of our University of Colorado students were enrolled for credit and I was assigned to be his teaching assistant.
One day well along in the semester, I was also asked by our American Director to proctor an exam for him the hour following Memo's English lit class. This was a bit problematic as Memo seldom began or finished his class on time. I thus explained beforehand that I would probably need to leave our class early in order to begin administering the exam for Tony, who as a true American insisted on beginning his classes precisely on time. No problem.
As usual, Memo arrived for our 3:00 PM class at about 3:25, and began lecturing on an American novel (alas, the name escapes me) with the word “You” in the title. At some point he mentioned the Spanish translation, using the formal word for “you” in the title.
“Ah, Memo,” I corrected him in English. “I've seen that in the bookstore and the translator used the familiar you.” This mattered, because if the students went to the library and wanted to find the novel, they'd need to know whether to look for tu or usted in the title.
“For certain?” Memo inquired.
“Absolutely, I'm sure,” I replied.
Then, noticing that it was almost time to be at Tony's class, I gathered up my belongings and slipped out the door.
That night there was a cultural event in the student center, so after supper I returned to campus. Entering the center, students from Memo's class began coming up to me.
“Oye, Choo-thee,” they said. “Estabas bien enojada con Memo hoy, verdad?” Hey, Judy, you were really ticked off at Memo this afternoon, no?
“Oye, Choo-thee. Es verdad que Memo realmente no sabe ingles?” Horrors! True that Memo didn't really know English?
I spent the whole evening quelling rumors that I Memo had offended me, that Memo was a bad professor, that Memo didn't really know English at all and was just faking.
Where could all this have come from?! Where did they get these ideas!?
I rushed home to Leti and poured out my story. She laughed and asked me exactly how I'd left Memo's class to go to Tony's.
I told her I'd just quietly departed the premises.
“That's it!” she exclaimed. “Here it's rude to leave one group to go to another one and nobody would ever do it unless they were angry or upset.”
“Even if they were expected elsewhere?” I pleaded.
“But the students didn't know that!” she said.
“What should I have done? I didn't want to disrupt Memo's class.”
“Oh, you should have,” she assured me. “You should have slapped your forehead and said, ‘Oh my God, it's almost time for Professor Lozano's class and I have to give a test for him today in Contrastive Analysis! Memo, I'm so sorry to leave, but you know Tony, he's got that crazy American thing about starting everything on the dot!'
You should have apologized to the students for having to leave the class to teach for that crazy American professor.
Ay, Choo-thee, you should have made the really big deal about the whole thing,” she concluded, as if by now I hadn't figured that out.
And so I spent the remaining five weeks of the semester singing the praises of that fine professor of English, how I had rarely witnessed such grasp of the English language anywhere in Mexico, how I wished I could switch programs and study myself under his expert tutelage…how Memo was the best prof in the department!
And Professor Lozano? The students were agreed that Professor Lozano, though he was fair and knowledgeable, and his Spanish was absolute perfection, was nonetheless cold, aloof, unreadable, and strange.