Posted by: Jeremy Martin | April 23, 2008

Dehydrated Vegetables Rock (So Squeeze the Orange)

It’s stiflingly hot in Endeavor’s office today. I’m sweating bullets (shotgun shells, in fact). But somehow people here are wearing long sleeves and scarves. I guess it goes without saying – although I’ll say it anyway – that the soupy air makes my investigation of clients and dehydrated vegetable prices in the foreign market much tougher.

The advantage of all this? Doing these kind of gigs has been giving big ups to my spanish. Especially of the technical, work-force type. How else do you learn to say ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘board meeting’? I’ll tell you, the first couple weeks of spanish had my head in a vice. Somone would say something and my brain wanted to curl up in a ball. Now I’m hitting the ball back with some umph.

Why the change? Making a conscious effort to speak and hang out with natives and not of gringos, which aren’t even called gringos in this part of latin america (Instead they say “yankees” to refer to north americans. Why? Not exactly sure, but you’re definitely asking great questions. If it were up to me, I’d rather be called a “red sox” or “celtic”.)   

I had a solid conversation with my buddy Eric last night about language frustration. Throughout big E’s little adventures, he confessed that he didn’t feel his spanish had improved that much – in terms of speaking and comprehension. “I’ve been here a month and a half,” he said, “and it doesn’t appear to be getting better.” 

I tossed a frown. Upset to hear that. Then I asked Eric how he spent his days. He responded, “well drinkin gmate, of course. Cooking, Mercosur, parques, rambla, and classes after”. Then I asked him who he socialized with. And that’s when the godzilla truth revealed itself: Too much time passed around the group and isolated, with not enough spent getting closer to locals. How else do you learn another language?

It made perfect sense. After all, the same happened to me the first few weeks here. In orientation week, we had listened to each other bumble over syllables and ask textbook questions to our directors. The next week we knew nobody of course and classes were off because of la Semana de Turismo, so we did the feel-good thing and stuck together. The third week our classes, internships, and “normal” life routines began. A lot of routines did not get off to the best start; internships delayed or got screwed up, classes needed to get sorted out and chosen, all while miscellaneous hassles filled the air. Hell, one girl even got surgery that week after a glass broke on her leg, cutting part of her tendon. Consequently, in just under a month, the yankee paste held firm.

At least for some.

This kind of trend of sticking together had grown slowly but surely and was hard for me to take note of at first. The natural tendency when you’re foreign is to hang juntos (together). You can see this pattern back in the States: China towns, Brazilian neighborhoods in northern Massachusetts, or international student cliques at most universities or colleges. Simply put, people like what feels comfortable and what comes easy. Or what feels instinctually natural.

But none of this is natural. And I told Eric that in so many words. This semester  (or for him, a year) is a total college curveball. Once we’re out of here, it’s back to the real world grind. So?

Squeeze the orange.

Corny, I know (even though its an orange). But that was the phrase I heard in Mexico years back. Plus it sounded fruitier than ‘carpe diem’ (in more ways than one) so I remembered it. I told Eric that I had felt the same way a few weeks before. Sometimes I closed myself off in my room to read “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”. I even started my internship typing away in the corner with headphones on. Pretty anti-social actually.

Then I realized being in the basement of Brecha wasn’t a problem, it was an opportunity. I quit listening to music while I was writing and started talking and asking questions. Stupid ones at first, just to get conversation started and get to know other people. And I took that attitude everywhere. I purposefully went a few hours early to La Facultad to hang out with the lady who makes delicious pizza and microwaves my empanadas. I’d stay up late listening to my host mother drone on about relatively unimportant stuff when I just wanted to go to bed. Or I’d go to the supermarket with Leticia to talk more.

And as they say, the rest is history. So here’s to the future…   



  1. Jom,

    Nice blog… thoughtful..zen-like


  2. Very good thoughts on two important, universal language acquisition challenges: domain mastery and cultural immersion.

    It’s so easy to not speak the language when abroad; it helps to hang out with the Americans who are most interested in acquiring the language, in my experience, as that will more likely lead to a comfortable group dynamic centered around using the foreign language.

    There isn’t anything wrong with hanging out with your American friends as long as you are all collectively focusing on learning the language, and assimilating culturally.

    When I was abroad our group of friends included a bunch of brazilians and american, and even some french heads and so forth. It actually helped a lot as we each had different propensities. One buddy knew an insane amount of vocab, another one had the grammar stuff down cold, and i was really into imitating speech patterns. We compared notes a lot, and it really helped. And we kicked ass in classes that we chose to take together.

    Another problem that is common is that no matter how open a culture is, college students tend to be very clique-y. It is simply impossible to penetrate into the groups of friends at a brazilian university. They are so set in stone it’s just insane. Even though as individuals the gente are very aberto, one finds the galeras to be very fechadas.

    Really great post J-bones…. I’ll cover it on our blog.


  3. Jeremiahsssss (said in Gollum voice, but of course)! Found your blog via Eric’s blog; solid stuff, my man. Apparently you write well in English too.

    It is interesting reading Christopher’s comment about as galeras fechadas das faculdades brasileiras, as that was exactly the opposite of my own experience in Brazil, which I know we have talked about extensively, J-dawg. I guess it goes to show that you can’t lump all the locals into one group. I mean, even here in Uruguay, it looks like the ECU kids are having an easier time making friends in their classes than us Humanidades folk, and we’re all in the same small city.

    This post has made me both depressed about my own situation–I feel like I’m kind of in the same spot as Eric right now, although I can say with certainty that my Spanish has improved since I’m hardly ever speaking portañol these days–and has inspired me to push the envelope a bit more. I’m hoping the turning point is right around the corner and I think with a little more effort on all our parts, it will be.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with us yankees/celtics/what-have-you hanging out together as long as we make a conscious effort to ALSO hang out with other people, and ideally those other people will be native Spanish speakers.

    At any rate, I’ll be at the facultad tonight and look forward to the bus ride back to the glorious Canal 5. Back to my studies…


  4. jom,
    glad you’re being all you can be language-wise. you’ll have to let the locals know what an insult being called a “yankee” is!

  5. Hey!
    I am originally from Montevideo but have been living in the US for almost 7 years. I stumbled upon your blog and I like reading your perspective in living in my hometown.

    My advice? Talk to all the natives. They want to talk to you as much as you want to talk to them. Glad you are liking it! I ca’t wait to come back and visit, which is coming up soon

  6. Liked everything on the site. When i get old and retire, I’m going to move to Mexico or some where sunny and warm, and soak up the sun, the language and maybe a bit of Tequila and Lime.

  7. Don’t know how i can moderate it. I meant every single word. I’d like nothing better than to move and try to become reasonably conversant in Spanish. And sit/walk in the sun, and the other too!

  8. Jmar.

    Damn you are a blogmaster, look at the response of this post!

    I definately see what you are saying. Here in Valparaiso I have experienced the same frustrations. At the beginning it was really hard to integrate because of the lack of cohesion and organization. We are two months in and I have barely had any class. Also, I work in an elementry school teaching English so I can’t really meet any peers there, however hanging out in the teacher’s room is pretty dope. Sometimes the other teachers want to talk but for the most part I just talk with the English teacher, who is a total sweetheart.

    In addition to this, I have found myself doing alot of traveling, weekend trips to Sergio’s, or camping, thus making my time here assimilating few and far between. However, I have the feeling that the second half of this is going to move pretty fast, FOORRR SURRREEE. The pressure is on now to put ourselves out there and meet people (probably in a similar fashion to Feb Orientation). I expect that in the coming weeks the conversations will move past, what we are studying, where we are from, and whether we like Chile.

    Anywho. Keep up the goodwork my man.

    Chau Chau

  9. Jsly, I can’t resist adding another comment to this buzzing forum. I for sure agree that the easiest thing to do is stick with the gringos, particularly when you have some awesome people to hang out in and you live across the street from espacio libre bob marley. As I have more conscious about squeezing that orange this week, the juice has started to flow some in the form of great conversations with locals, numbers (chuh-ching), invitations to go boar hunting, etc. And that’s just the last few days. Allah knows what a whole year will bring.

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