Today in class, I passed by a student who had an Ecuadorian Spanish-English dictionary. There was an outline of Ecuador on the cover. I was circulating around the class while the students were working on a present progressive exercise, and this realization hit me that “I am in Ecuador!”
I thought back to one of my favorite Far Side cartoons in which there are several cows in a pasture and one of them says, “Wait a minute, this is grass! We’re eating grass!” When I was in middle school, this was my favorite Far Side. I still think it’s comic genius.
I also thought back to this past summer when Eileen and I were teaching at Centrohispano in Madison. On any given night, the crowd could be pretty similar to the group of students I’m currently teaching here in Ecuador: there were about 15 to 20 of them; they were very nice; they spoke Spanish, but wanted to learn English; they were Latinos.
It’s in the classroom that I’m most prone to forget that I’m in Ecuador. Because the class could be in Madison. In the classroom, I’m the English authority; I’m not seen as a foreigner (alien, inferior, ignorant, naïve, rich). I’m seen as an expert, a holder of knowledge. It’s more like home, where I teach, and where I know the culture.
My senior year of high school, we read The Stranger by Albert Camus in my English class. Apparently, there’s a better translation that’s now more in favor with the academics, but whatever translation we had then struck me as absurd and, well, boring. I can still vividly picture my friend Adam pointing to a line in the book and laughing; it read “as I was partial to café au lait, I had a café au lait.” Well, duh. “What ridiculous writing,” I thought at the time. And to tell the truth, I haven’t revisited The Stranger since those days.
But I have read a little bit about Camus, and I just recently read an essay of his called “An Absurd Reasoning.” And it now occurs to me that, whatever the original French may have said, Camus may very well have intended for the occasional statement about café au lait to be utterly absurd.
Absurdity is incongruity, out-of-placeness. A shirt that says “Trash up your ass” is absurd. The following joke is absurd: “What is black and white and has trouble fitting through a revolving door? A zebra with a spear through its head.” In fact, much comedy is absurd. It plays with our expectations; or really, it defies our expectations. Heck, even the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke is absurd because the first time we ever hear it in our lives, we expect something not so obvious. Thus, the answer, “to get to the other side,” is incongruous, out-of-place.
Camus was more concerned with existential absurdity. You know when you look in the mirror and you think, “whoa. That’s me. I’ve always been that person, no one else”? Or when you’re in Ecuador teaching an English class and you suddenly realize that you are in Ecuador and holy crap? That’s existential absurdity. It’s the feeling that your existence itself is out of place.
Camus and others like him were fond of the metaphor of the exile – the stranger who was living away from home and who thus had this constant awareness of his own absurdity. Eileen and I are certainly not exiles. But we are separate from this culture. We’re strangers. And so, more often than normally, we transcend the cultural norms here. That is, we step away from them and look at them from outside. So for us, there is a lot of absurdity.
TV is absurd. When it’s in a different language, you can tune out its meaning and see its power, how it sucks people in, how people use it as a source of hope.
Having public bathrooms you have to pay for in a city where men pee on sidewalks is absurd.
Soccer fans are absurd. They arrive at games five or six hours early. They feel like champions after a team they’ve only watched compete has won.
It’s absurd that the light switch in my classroom is two wires that you connect together and with which the risk of shock is very high. (I think they teach electronics in the building somewhere).
But when I’m teaching, I have complete purpose. I momentarily forget that I’m in Ecuador, that everyone outside of this classroom, including my students, speaks Spanish, that I will most likely have to jump onto a moving bus later in the day, that eating enough food to stay in the 170s is difficult, that my family and my beloved dog are not accessible. In short, I forget that I am a stranger.
And then I leave class, and I squeeze into the front seat of a Police truck dangerously carrying twelve full-grown men, and I think, “Wait a minute! This is grass!”