15 Nov

The Stranger

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!”


One thought on “The Stranger

  1. comment
    Tim: Reality bits-but one most labor on. Think of poor John Kerry, he had to contemplate eating more that just grass. I’m sure the day after the election he would have liked to give this address:

    My fellow Americans, the people of this nation have spoken, and spoken
    with a clear voice. So I am here to offer my concession. [Boos, groans,
    rending of garments]

    I concede that I overestimated the intelligence of the American people.
    Though the people disagree with the President on almost every issue,
    you saw fit to vote for him. I never saw that coming. That’s really special.
    And I mean “special” in the sense that we use it to describe those kids who ride the short school bus and find ways to injure themselves while eating pudding with rubber spoons. That kind of special.

    I concede that I misjudged the power of hate.

    That’s pretty powerful stuff, and I didn’t see it. So let me take a moment to congratulate the President’s strategists: Putting the gay marriage amendments on the ballot in various swing states like Ohio…
    well, that was just genius. Genius. It got people, a certain kind of people, to the polls. The unprecedented number of folks who showed up and cited “moral values” as their biggest issue, those people changed history. The folks who consider same sex marriage a more important issue than war, or terrorism, or the economy…

    Who’d have thought the election would belong to them? Well, Karl Rove did. Gotta give it up to him for that. [Boos.] Now, now.
    Credit where it’s due.

    I concede that I put too much faith in America’s youth. With 8 out of 10 of you opposing the President, with your friends and classmates dying daily in a war you disapprove of, with your future being
    mortgaged to pay for rich old peoples’ tax breaks, you somehow manage to sit on your asses and watch the Cartoon Network while aging homophobic hillbillies carried the day. You voted with the exact same anemic percentage that you did in 2000. You suck. Seriously, y’do. [Cheers, applause] Thank you. Thank you very much.

    There are some who would say that I sound bitter, that now is the time
    for healing, to bring the nation together. Let me tell you a little story. Last night, I watched the returns come in with some friends. As the night progressed, people began to talk half-seriously about
    secession, a red state / blue state split. The reasoning was this: We in blue states produce the vast majority of the wealth in this country and pay the most taxes, and you in the red states receive the majority of the money from those taxes while complaining about ’em.
    We in the blue states are the only ones who’ve been attacked by foreign terrorists, yet you in the red states are gung ho to fight a war in our name. We in the blue states produce the entertainment that you consume so greedily each day, while you in the red states show open disdain for us and our values. Blue state civilians are the actual victims and targets of the war on terror, while red state civilians are the ones
    standing behind us and yelling “Oh, yeah!? Bring it on!”

    More than 40% of you Bush voters still believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. I’m impressed by that, truly I am. Your sons and daughters who might die in this war know it’s not true, the people in the urban centers where al Qaeda wants to attack know it’s not true, but those of you who are at practically no risk believe this easy lie because you can. As part of my concession speech, let me say that I
    really envy that luxury. I concede that.

    Healing? We, the people at risk from terrorists, the people who
    subsidize you, the people who speak in glowing and respectful terms about the heartland of America while that heartland insults and excoriates us… we wanted some healing. We spoke loud and clear. And you refused to give it to us, largely because of your high moral
    values. You knew better: America doesn’t need its allies, doesn’t need to share the burden, doesn’t need to unite the world, doesn’t need to provide for its future. Hell no. Not when it’s got a human shield of pointy-headed, atheistic, non-confrontational breadwinners who are willing to pay the bills and play nice in the vain hope of winning a vote that we can never have. Because we’re “morally inferior,” I suppose, we are supposed to respect your values while you insult ours. And the big joke here is that for 20 years, we’ve done just that.

    It’s not a “ha-ha” funny joke, I realize, but it’s a joke all the same.

    And I make this pledge to you today: THIS time, next time, there will
    be No pandering. This time I will run with all the open and joking contempt for my opponents that our President demonstrated towards the cradle of liberty, the Ivy League intellectuals, the “media elite,” and the “white-wine sippers.” This time I will not pretend that the simple folk of America know just as much as the people who devote their lives to serving and studying the nation and the world. They don’t.

    So that’s why I’m asking for your vote in 2008, America. I’m talking to you, you ignorant, slack-jawed yokels, you bible-thumping, inbred drones, you redneck, racist, chest-thumping, perennially duped grade-school grads. Vote for me, because I know better, and I truly believe that I can help your smug, sorry asses. Thank you, and may God, if she does in fact exist, bless each and every one of you. There, how was that! Bill

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