By Conor Sanchez
“Profe, nos diga algo de gringolandia,” my students call out during class. “¿Es tuani?”
At least once or twice a week, I’m asked this question from students in class who want me to tell them something, anything, about what the United States, or as they like to called it – gringolandia, is like. Most of all, they want to know if it is indeed tuani (cool).
Impressions of the United States are all too often funneled through various distorting lenses such as television, movies, the Internet, and what national leaders say about America. As is always the case when information is limited to these four mediums, impressions tend to be a bit exaggerated. America is blonde-haired, blue-eyed. Everybody is rich. Everybody has a good job. Everyone is basking in the good life. Americans are ruthless capitalists. Guns are rampant.
Occasionally, there are some really bizarre questions like, is the Colorado River actually green? Why hasn’t Ronald Reagan given us the money he promised? Do people love Michael Bolton’s music as much as they love it here? The hyperbole, the half-truths, and the flat-out falsehoods are not entirely surprising since few tourists ever visit my town. For the most part, foreigners are either Christian missionaries, NGO workers, or Peace Corps Volunteers like Michaela and I (there are presently a total five of us here).
Few people, in my community have ever talked to an actual American, which puts a lot of weight on my shoulders as one of the official gringos in town. To play the part, I’ve often considered sporting an Elvis costume and running up and down the main street waving an American flag, yelling, “U-S-A, U-S-A!” Might as well give in to the loud, obnoxious stereotype we’ve given ourselves, right?
Seriously, though – explaining America is tough. Where does one begin when asked, “What’s America like?” Do I talk about the things I love most (red and green chile, national parks, running culture) or things I know others love but that I know little about (Nascar, grits, snowmobiling)? Do I show them pictures of Hollywood, which they’ll surely recognize, or do I show them pictures of Santo Domingo Pueblo, which they’ve never seen and might challenge their notions of who is American and what their communities look like?
It’s never an easy task, but overtime, I’ve learned to do a little of both. I engage students with things they already know, but then I introduce seemingly contradictory or surprising ideas. As an English teacher, it’s pretty easy to do this since I’m often expected to give students some context to the language they’re learning. And because the idea is ultimately for them to hold a conversation with a native English speaker, I hope they’ll appreciate knowing what questions to ask or, if nothing else, not to assume Americans always act the way they do on television.
What I’ve learned to do:
- Raise Awareness About American Diversity – I want my students to see America for the salad bowl that it is. Too many people are surprised to hear my last name is Sanchez. Too many people ask if my site-mate is from Japan. Too many assume we’re all Christian. To understand America, you have understand that its culture has been shaped and formed by the people who inhabit it, and that is always fluctuating.
- Represent Underrepresented Regions – Most people know about big states like California, Texas, and New York. Few know about New Mexico, Iowa, or Rhode Island. I also try to differentiate between cities and states. Sometimes students of mine ask if Miami is a state, since it contains one of the biggest diasporas of Nicaraguans. I think giving them a better geographic sense of the country will inevitably help them understand the country as a whole, instead of relying on the points of reference they get from relatives or popular media.
- Dispel the Notion that Everyone is Rich – While even low-income Americans tend to enjoy a standard of living higher than those in some low-income countries, many Americans face daily struggles that are comparable. In fact, a recent study by the New York Times showed the certain Americans have life expectancies equal to some of the poorest countries in the world. To teach students about this, I talk about the different debates happening in the elections right now. As always, wealth disparity and social mobility are always hot topics.
- Explain What Americans Could Find Offensive– In my community, it’s common to hear people refer to someone by their skin tone or nationality, whether it’s el moreno (the brown guy), la chelita (the little white girl), or el gringo (the American dude). As far as I can tell, there is no negative connotation to these terms. They use it with close friends, colleagues, and with me. These terms, however, are obviously abrasive and off-putting to an American. You can imagine what would happen if you walked down the street yelling at people, “Hey white guy!” or “What’s up, brown man?” Nevertheless, my students ask me why Americans seem to bristle when they hear it. I find it suffice to tell students that in the U.S., racial tension is alive and well. In such a diverse society, we’ve learned to get along by respecting each other’s differences. Being called out by your ethnicity in public like that can feel objectifying and is therefore considered disrespectful.
What I Know Not To Do:
- Assume Behavior in the U.S. is Culturally Appropriate Here – I learned this the hard way a few weeks ago during an outing I helped facilitate with university students. I planned a scavenger hunt for students, which included getting a photo with someone giving bunny-ears to one of the teachers. Turns out bunny ears don’t have the same childish, goofy meaning that they have in the United States. Here, by putting two fingers behind someone’s head, you’re placing horns on them and signifying that their spouse is cheating. Yes, I was that guy. At least they learned something about America, right? Lesson for next time: run your activity by someone before doing it.
- Assume People Want to Learn About American Culture – Some people might not care to learn about American culture, and that’s perfectly fine. I mean, obviously, I wish they did because I love my country and love talking about it, but if someone doesn’t care about learning about it, I’m not going to force it upon them. (For the record, I haven’t met anyone who told me they’re uninterested in learning about my culture, but if that happens, I won’t be hurt).
- Compare Our Systems and Share My Opinion – Nicaragua and the United States have very different forms of government and a different philosophical approach to democracy altogether. In my classes, I never draw comparisons, much less share an opinion. Why? My job here is at the invitation of the government of Nicaragua and we’re not here to meddle in politics. We want to avoid even the slightest perception of political involvement.
Fortunately, I’m happy to say that I rarely face anti-Americanism. The overwhelming view is positive, especially among young people. A poll in 2014 by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of Nicaraguans held a favorable opinion of the U.S. I honestly can’t trust how accurate that poll was, but I can safely say that, at least in my experience living and working here, people really like the U.S. and I enjoy being to able to share more about our culture with the people I encounter on a daily basis.
Now, if I could only get my students to ask me that first question in English.