Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dominican Culture through the Eyes of Children.

I was just at a neighbor's house (teaching more math), and listened in as two girls clapped their hands and sang a song.  I think it provides a pretty good perspective on how young girls see the roles of various people in this community:

Cuando era bebe, bebe, bebe,
Yo lloraba, aba, aba.

Cuando era niña, niña, niña,
Me pegaban, aban, aban.

Cuando era joven, joven, joven,
Coqueteaba, aba, aba.

Cuando era madre, madre, madre,
Cocinaba, aba, aba.

Cuando era vieja, vieja, vieja,
Pateaba, aba, aba.

Cuando era muerto, muerto, muerto,
Yo pestaba, aba, aba.

Cuando era angel, angel, angel,
Yo volaba, aba, aba.

Cuando era Dios, Dios, Dios,
Yo mandaba, aba, aba.

Cuando era el diablo, diablo, diablo,
Pelliszcaba, aba, aba.

Translated, the verses mean:

When I was a baby,
I cried.

When I was a little girl,
They hit me.

When I was young,
I flirted.

When I was a mother,
I cooked.

When I was old,
I tottered around.

When I was dead,
I stank.

When I was an angel,
I flew around.

When I was God,
I gave orders.
When I was the devil,
I pinched people!

(at this point they attack each other with pinches and the game collapses into giggling).

Knowing that their about to make the transition from little girl to young person, they add in more hip shaking than is becoming on nine-year-old girls.  Also, notice that there's no transition between 'young' and 'mother.'  Fifteen-, fourteen-, and even thirteen-year-old mothers are not unheard of here.

Basically, they cry, they get beaten, they get treated like objects, and then the only possibility for their lives is housework until they're too old to do anything useful.  And God is nothing but a demanding tyrant (not to mention the sketchy theology about turning into angels and then into God...and then into the devil).

While I have some disagreements about what happens after they die, the rest of it is depressingly true.  More than teaching English and Computers, I feel the need to teach the community not to beat their children for the same bad behavior that the adults constantly (shamelessly) model.  I'd like to teach them to overcome the oversexualization that starts at a disturbingly young age and teaches that there's nothing in between 'I like them' and 'We're having babies together.'  I could even take a page out of the not-so-radical-feminist book and teach them that women can, in fact, work outside of the home, if they so desire (or their body).

There was another game I found myself playing a couple of months ago, which they called 'malcriada' (badly-raised/misbahaved child).  It was something like playing house, except there was a mom and a daughter, and the mom was beating the daughter: kicking her, pulling her hair, telling her how stupid and worthless she was while the daughter cried.  I ended up joining in as the 'good' parent, and then the daughter would hide behind me and cry while the mom shouted insults and tried to hit her.  I usually like playing with kids, but I didn't like that game, and I ended it early.

I'm probably overreacting to this kids' game, but it's really wearing me down to be constantly surrounded by (what looks to me like) child abuse.  And seeing the kids accept it as normal and incorporate it into their games doesn't make me any happier.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

English Classes

Things are starting to take off.  I had a busy day today, but everything seems to be going fairly well:

I started the day teaching English to kids.  I was really worried I was going to have to entertain 50+ misbehaved kids by myself for an hour, but there were more like 15, and they behaved pretty well the whole time.  We practiced colors, simple commands (stand up, sit down, look up, look down), and numbers 1-10, and I taught them "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes."  We still have a few days of practice before they know any of the material completely, but I'd say it was a very successful first day!  I'm still, however, worried that the class size will grown and become difficult to manage.

After class, I took a trip next door to our batey to a community center run by a group of Brazilian nuns.  They provide health and legal services to whoever needs them.  I partly just wanted to talk to someone about my frustrations in the batey (and the woman there was a wonderful and sympathetic listener), and I also needed to get some information on how to get legal documents for children without them.  The short version is that the Dominican legal system is a complicated mess that is extra troublesome for Haitians.  Gracias a Dios, the nuns have become very familiar with the system, and most of my work will simply be connecting the undocumented with the nuns who can help them.

After lunch, I visited some houses in the community to introduce myself and ask some questions.  I need to visit about 100 houses, and with today's four I'm at 23, right about on target.

After playing with the kids in my host family, I went to teach another English class, this time to teenagers.  The turnout was even smaller, which surprised me, because there have been lots of teens who expressed interest in the class.  I suspect this class size will grow also.  Even if it doesn't, there are already some very promising students in the class.  Today I reviewed some things I knew they've already studied in school (greetings, family members, numbers), and to be honest the class was more boring than the kids class.  But it's pretty hard to beat out "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes."  I hope and expect that some of these kids will be able to carry on some kind of conversation in English by the time I'm done with them...they already have a foundation and they're self-motivated.

After this class, I visited some neighbors because there was a 6th grader who wanted (!) extra practice with multiplication.  While I was there, two of her cousins joined in to practice addition and subtraction.  I wrote out math problems as fast as I could and gave them timed worksheets until I was worn out.  There is something fundamentally wrong with school...all these kids want to learn and enjoy learning, but hate school and don't learn anything there.  That's not just a Dominican problem; throughout the world, kids want to learn until there's a teacher forcing them.  Solve that problem, and humanity will take several leaps forward.

There's a Haitian girl living with us because something is wrong with her mother and her dad is somewhere in Haiti.  She's 7, but still can't read and has terrible (Spanish) grammar.  The nuns are looking for a family to adopt her, but it's difficult because she's already 7 and hasn't ever even been in school.  I almost started to teach her to read, but one of my host sisters yelled at her to pay closer attention to me and learn, and she lost interest.

I also fit in a lengthy conversation with my host mom about how unchristian and unhelpful it is that all the adults around here beat and swear at their kids.  She said something about how misbehaved all the kids are and how that's Dominican culture.  I'll consider it progress that we're actually having a conversation and agreeing that there's a problem.

I have the same two English classes tomorrow, and I have a class for adults that will start this weekend.  And I still have to visit 77 more houses!  At least I'm not bored.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dominican Music

A large part of the purpose of this blog is to try to share my experience here in the DR with people back home.  I like adding pictures, because it lets people see what I'm seeing, but there are four other senses that can't be communicated well through words or pictures.  There is a lot of noise around here, and most of it isn't very pleasant: barking dogs, motorcycles without mufflers, people (of all ages) swearing, roosters crowing, and plenty more.

There's also a lot of music, and there are a few songs that get played a lot.  Merengue and Bachata are the national genres, and you can also hear a lot of Reggaeton.  I have to admit, none of these styles are my favorite, but they are better than whimpering puppies.

Here are some links to a few of the most commonly heard songs.  Warning: I don't have a lot of bandwidth (and I've heard all these songs enough already), so I haven't actually watched these videos.  Most of the lyrics are in Spanish, and none of the English lyrics are offensive, but some of the Spanish lyrics are not child-friendly, and the videos my not be appropriate for children either.

Prince Royce
This guy is pretty clearly the current favorite.  It's rare to go a day without hearing at least one of his songs.  The most popular are Corazon Sin Cara, Yo Te Ame (also called El Amor Que Perdimos), and Rechazame.  He also has a nice cover of Stand By Me which switches back and forth between English and Spanish.

Secreto El Famoso Biberon
These are the songs you'll want to avoid if you're around Spanish speaking children.  Ponte El Chaleco and Pa Ke Te De are both heard fairly often.

Tercer Cielo
This is a Christian group, and their song Creere (I will believe) is played loudly and proudly in a lot of homes.  It's a favorite of this girl, who sings it a lot.

Lily Goodman
Another Christian artist.  During training, the ringtone on my host mom's phone was the start of her song Yo Sin Ti, which I've now heard several other times.

There are a few others, but this will give you an idea of what this country sounds like.  Make sure you turn up the volume as much as possible (especially the base) so you can share it with you neighbors, whether they're interested or not.

PS: I haven't actually heard anyone playing this, but a few kids have spontaneously started singing Shakira's Waka Waka song (complete with dance).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Friend's Birthday

First, I'd like to share one of the greatest pictures my camera has ever taken:
And I can't take credit for's a self-shot by a 5-year-old who just learned how to use the camera!

She had her birthday recently, and for weeks building up to it, she and her family kept reminding me that she was about to turn five and asking what I was going to get for her.  It presented a dilemma, because I'm already fighting the 'rich white guy' stereotype.  People frequently ask me for money, because everyone seems to assume that white skin sweats money.  I've had kids who I didn't even know (not in this batey, but in another pueblo) say, "Hey, American, give me a dollar so I can buy a coke."  Not hungry kids asking for food, but well-fed kids playing in their yard who already think I owe them money, just because of the color of my skin.  But I digress...

Anyway, she and her family are wonderful to be around, and asking for a birthday present from a friend is not nearly as bad as demanding money from a stranger, but I still can't be the rich white guy.  Even if I could afford fancy gifts for all the kids in the batey, they point of the Peace Corps is teaching (creating independence) not giving material gifts (creating dependence).

That said, she's cute and friendly and smart and better behaved than most, and I had to get her something, so I bought her an apple.  All kinds of fruit grow on this island, but not apples, so they're something of a luxury; lots of people only have apples to celebrate Christmas.  It's kind of funny, because people are surrounded by the most delicious mangos, but those are boring, because they're so common, while the humble apple is an extravagant treat.  She thought having an entire apple to herself was pretty awesome! 
I also got her some colored pencils and a pack of gum, which were fun, but not to expensive or extravagant, so I can safely buy similar gifts for other kids.  Her mom told me the next day that she finished all the gum that night.  I hope she brushed her teeth.

Besides eating apples and gum, she likes playing those clappy-singing games that girls do, and her favorite topic of conversation seems to be 'pampers rotos:' broken diapers.  Five-year-olds are the same the world over!

Silly face!
Yes, this place has mosquitoes and heat and diseases and racism and mud, but it also has some wonderful kids that make it all worth the effort!

PS: If any of you readers ever have visitors from Latin America in the autumn time, you should definitely take them apple picking.  Bringing these kids to an apple orchard would be like bringing kids to Santa's Workshop in the north pole.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Saludos!  It's been a while, so I have a few quick updates.

First: I finally have a broadband card, so I can get to the Internet from my site!  There's still some complications with the account, but I should be able to post more frequently now.

Second: School has ended, but there are a few kids staying around for extra help, so my work hasn't really changed.  The smaller group of kids is a lot more manageable, so class is quieter and less chaotic.

Third: They're paving the road!  This is huge...dirt roads turn into mud roads in the rainy season.  We have lots of dirt and lots of rain, so we end up with lots and lots of mud.  But now, with the luxury of cement, walking to school won't mean wading through mud!

So far, there's only a curb, but it's a beautiful little curb!