The great writer over at Satin and Lace once told me that as I travel, I should remember to avoid getting stuck behind a camera to the point where I only see my surroundings in megapixels. For that reason, the majority of my trip has actually gone (photographically) undocumented. Between my occasional photos, less occasional journal entries, and even less occasional blog posts, I’ve save the rest for my memory and tuition payments. That being said, there are a few mental images I want to share that stand out to me.

Me despertó.

I’ve been woken up by many interesting things. The first of these was an earthquake. There are two distinctions of earthquakes here, temblores and terremotos. Temblores are small and very frequent. They occur throughout the country every day and you probably don’t notice them. My first happened at about 4:00 in the morning, and there were two or three small rumbles that shook me awake (wow, I don’t think I’ve ever used that phrase literally before).

The other wake-up, which has happened more frequently, is dog barking. That might sound silly, but there are stray dogs all over this country. The sound of the dogs can be louder than the traffic on the nearby road, and when the dogs right around the house stop barking, I can still hear the baying for miles like a carpet of noise. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll sleep right through it.


One of the most difficult parts of foreign language immersion is that I feel like a child and I’m treated like a child. The best way to come to terms with it is to join everyone in the room and laugh at myself. (Yes, they are laughing at you.) However, it doesn’t shake the urge to try to prove myself. Turns out, though, that I don’t have much to work with.

Monopoly was never a game I enjoyed much as a child; it was too much strategy, too much math, and too long. But I wasn’t going to refuse a good round with my host brothers. On any other day, I would have been stricken with fear; but the immersion experience has definitely shaken a good amount of skin off me in some parts of life. The math turned out to be less difficult than I thought, even though the game uses Chilean pesos.

“You landed on mine! Rent is $5,800.”
“You have a $10,000.”
“Give me the ten, and I’ll give you change.”
Mamá Chilena: “Ross, you better count that change. These guys are tricksters.”
(counts) “Hey!”

The next day, to my surprise, I was playing Monopoly again. This time, though, I was with family relatives; an older cousin (about age 30) and a younger one (age 9). I began to realize what a poor position the older cousin put herself in. Here was a pesky nine-year-old having a blast gathering houses and miscounting his die, and next to him a blubbering foreigner battling with simple phrases and big numbers. Once dinner began and our game was cut short, I don’t think many of us were disappointed.

Harry Potter.

A group of gringos went to — or, descended upon — the movie theater at in the mall in Viña del Mar to see Harry Potter Number Seven Part Two Before Anyone Else Ha. A great amount of media in Chile is originally in English and either dubbed or subtitled. Flipping through channels, you’re likely to come across Los Simpson (which is very popular) and some familiar soap operas dubbed into Spanish. Movie theaters often give you the choice between dubbed and subtitled films. As you may imagine, dubbing requires almost a complete overhaul of the sound effects, and creates an odd reality in which the lips don’t quite look right. A few weeks earlier, I watched Transformers 3 with subtitles, and enjoyed comparing the real dialogue with the subtitled translation (not all of the swear words nor American colloquialisms translated quite perfectly). Harry Potter, however, was going to be different; I was determined to look past the subtitles and enjoy myself watching the culmination of one of the staples of my generation. From head to toe, I was entrenched in the world of magic and Hogwarts for one last time.

Emerging from the theater was an awakening. Funny how easy it was to forget, for two hours, that I was in a Spanish-speaking country, where normally my brain is on high speed trying to catch the words flying by me, where expressing an opinion is as difficult as ordering McDonald’s.


Lastly, the sight of where I’m living from the surrounding hills was a spectacular sight. Fortunately, did take a picture of that. Words would be hard to describe this one.



Here’s a short example of the many ways I’m constantly learning Spanish.

I met more of the extended family, and they gave me some tips on places to travel after my classes have ended. As they left from visiting over the weekend, I shared a kiss on the cheek with the aunt (which is how you greet and say goodbye to women). When I tried to say, “Thanks for your advice,” I said, “Gracias para tu aviso.”

When words are similar across languages, they are called cognates (such as “lamp” and lámpara). When they sound similar but mean different things, we encounter false cognates. A notorious example is “embarrassed.” If you’re in a restaurant in a Spanish-speaking country and you knock over the table when standing to go to the bathroom, and the entire restaurant is looking at you, you do NOT say that you are “muy embarazado.” They will all laugh at you, because you just told them that you are very pregnant. False. Cognate.

When I looked up aviso, here’s what I learned.

aviso: warning.

Oops. Not quite what I wanted to say.

advice: consejo.

But this still seemed odd, because it reminded me of a different word.

conejo: rabbit.

Yep, that one.

After my research, I will now remember how to correctly thank someone for their advice.

But, I can’t feel too bad. On the bright side, sharing a kiss and saying, “Thanks for your warning,” was probably better than saying, “Thanks for your rabbit.”

Habla ablah blah blah

So, I’ll write a bit about what it’s been like for me to live in a world that speaks Spanish.

The beginning of the trip was fairly well cushioned. Our program pulled us around Santiago in every direction, every day, all day, giving us tours and letting us do some good shopping and eating. The tourguides were primarily the program staff, who were excellent and would always present information in both languages, knowing that every student had a different level of experience with the language. Quite soon, I realized what kind of a cushion we had, and I had a lot of fear when I met my host family for the first time.

Fortunately, they were very patient. They all knew that the strange new student could either speak fluently or only know “¿Baño? ¡Mesa!” They were quickly able to learn the speed of my understanding, and by speed I mean speed.

Chileans have one of the fastest and most incoherent dialects of the Spanish-speaking world. They cut out consonants and word parts, make words up entirely, and have unique sayings called “Chilenismos.” I have been told that going to Chile was a poor choice for learning Spanish for these reasons, but I’ve now grown very attached to unique aspects, even though I still don’t understand most of them.

“¿Como e’tái? ¡Vam al cine!”

“E’toy cansáo. Voy al tiro.”

In many ways, there couldn’t have been a better place to go. After my seven weeks, I’ll be able to understand anything. That’s the dream.

For the first few days with the family, I would be in my bedroom by 9:00 or 10:00 playing music in English and checking English websites, waiting for my brain to make the slow, arduous shift away from Spanish. Imagine that you’ve been at a concert or a club that’s as loud as ever, and when you leave the sounds of the street are hidden behind the ringing that’s in your ears. It takes a while for the ringing to go away before you can hear again. This is somewhat what it’s been like for me to change between the two languages. The ringing in my brain seemed to only go away if I stopped all thought and, as the Wolves say, “dinked around.”  Nothing happens quickly, though it is getting better. I am almost able to successfully chat with someone online in English while following a conversation around me in Spanish. Almost.

I begin and end each day watching the news and chatting with my mamá chilena. She continues to tell me that my fluidity and comprehension have improved in the past two weeks, which I believe to be one half of the tale. The other half has to do with the comfort level, with the ringing in my brain. Although I took many years of Spanish courses, studying abroad is the only thing that breaks down the barrier between the mental mathematics of grammer and my mouth. In other words, confidence. But confidence only comes if I take the opportunity when it presents itself.

Some context…

I’m spoiling you with two posts in two days. Don’t expect this to continue.

At this time, I’ll explain a few things about living here that will help to provide more context. Some are basic, and some are complicated.


Decimal points and commas are reversed in Spanish. A given number, like 1,000.5 in English, becomes 1.000,5. Currently, one US dollar is about 500 Chilean pesos (still shown with a $). A typical meal costs about $3.000-5.000, or $6-10. More importantly, wine costs about $2.000-4.000 a bottle. Do the math, and I’ll wait for the jaws to drop.

You don’t put your toilet paper down the toilet. You throw it away. It’s hard to remember, but the pipes are very narrow; so it’s better to throw it away than have a clogged pipe system.

In Chile, dogs are not captured, put into shelters, and eventually killed like they are in the States. I’ve seen many, many strays wandering around in every city I have seen. Usually they are sleeping.


Both college and high school students in the Chilean public schools are on strike. Basically, they believe that the schools are run too much like businesses. Exams at the end of high school that determine placement in college are useless when it comes to how much money the student’s family already has. If they can afford to go to a good school, they can still go at get the same degree as those who work very hard to pass those exams but have lower financial means. So, the students took control of the universities and are not allowing anyone in to take classes nor work. For a while, the international program at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso (PUCV – Pontifica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso) continued to function. However, since it’s something that PUCV is very proud of, the students decided it was time to get serious and put it to a halt. They came into the offices, kicked everyone out, and sealed the door with silicone.

So, I will be taking my classes in a hotel until the strike ends. Hopefully it ends before I leave, since I would love to experience a bit of college life here in Chile.

Students on the march. The red sign reads "I pay to study, I study to pay." (Photo via Prensa Latina)

After a whole day speaking Spanish, though, makes me exhausted. After about 9 pm, my brain starts to slow down and it’s hard to think as quickly. If I could think of an image to represent my brain in this state, it would be this:

An American Idol Safari: Musical Language

You might believe there to be two universal languages: math and music. I had always thought this was true since I first heard it, and have used it for my own purposes to justify music education (yes, in my teaching classes we learn tactics to save our jobs. Sad). But recently, a friend of mine brought something new to my attention. There are musicians who often cross cultural boundaries — ethnomusicologists and such — that claim music is not a universal language whatsoever.

Wait, what?

Music as a universal language seems like an easy enough idea. We believe it to be so globally understood because melody and harmony illicit physical responses that do not require the weight of words. We can listen to Spanish pop, Italian opera, Mexican mariachi, or Canadian folk and understand the emotional message. So there’s your background. Moving on.

Music is a language, and as a language it evolves, degrades, blends, expands, etc. etc. I think a great example would be American Idol. For the last ten years, it has been at the peak of popular culture in our country and exemplifies — if not pioneers — the way we listen to popular music and popular music’s changing culture. So, rewind to when you were a pre-teen and listen to Kelly Clarkson’s winning performance in 2002:

Mm! Such good memories. Now it’s time for observations. We’re going to act like ethnomusicologists now. Ready?

This American Idol concert is now our “field,” so let’s make some field notes. Start simple.

She sang in English (duh), she was emotional (again, duh), she interacted with the audience, the backup band was a recording (either that or they’re very sneaky), the audience made noise verbally and non-verbally in support, and they were fairly well lit. Let’s stop there.

Make sense? What we’ve observed are “cultural codes.” According to author Mat Schwarzman,

All communities have cultural codes to signify their most important shared agreements and values — “I will cross at the crosswalk because that’s where drivers agree to stop for pedestrians,” “I will go to school because I believe it leads to a more fulfilling career,” etc.

These codes include many things, from team mascots (Go, [Gophers]!)  to historical community incidents (Were you around when…) to maps (That’s where the [Mississippi] river is) to well known individuals. Cultural codes can be expressed through a song, a statue, a phrase, or any image that sparks strong feelings and associations.

Cultural codes are powerful. They shape our thoughts, our dreams, what groups we identify with, everything down to our most basic sense of reality.

You might not realize it, but any concert audience you’ve been a part of has gone through steps that are culturally specific. We know the appropriate moments to applaud, the appropriate way to applaud, the appropriate action to take when the lights dim, etc. (I did lights at an all-Somali high school graduation recently, and realized that very little of the audience had any sense for what to do when the houselights dim. Suddenly, my entire job had no purpose!). The concert-going atmosphere becomes our tiny “reality” and most of us don’t think about how anything else could be different.

Okay? Okay. Now we compare. Here’s Nevena Covena’s winning performance in the first Bulgarian Idol of 2007:

Did you “get it”? If not, that’s okay. We’re talking about music as a language, and if you haven’t grown up hearing Bulgarian music, you just listened to a foreign language.

Field Notes: She sang a Bulgarian folk song in Bulgarian; there was a live bagpiper, positioned equally onstage with Nevena, though not lit equally; the audience’s reaction was non-verbal; only a specific section of the audience was standing in the beginning, and the rest was sitting (did you notice that?); the seats were not positioned in a way that would let the Nevena interact with the audience, and they were poorly lit; outwardly, Nevena’s emotions were in check.

All of these fall under “performance practice” that make up the structure and exercise of a performance, which goes beyond what the musician is doing. It would seem that the Bulgarian Idol focused more highly on the accompanying instrument and less (very little, actually) on the audience’s reaction. Does this mean that Americans are more interested in critical response?

There are other cultural codes that are at work also. We could also talk about the stage, the lighting, the camera movement, the specific audience members seen on camera, the use of the microphone, and Kelly’s clothes, not to mention the actual music they sang.

Maybe music isn’t so universal as we thought. Maybe music is like a language, and it needs patience and practice to understand, both as the performer and as the listener. So, what do you think? Is music still a universal language to you, or not? And is that good or bad?

(RT @God) Are you sure you read that right?

I don’t follow anything specifically religious on Twitter, but today these were some of the first words I read during my Twitter check-in. God, are you speaking to me through Twitter?

“Never retaliate when people say unkind things about you.Pay them back with a blessing..& God willl BLESS YOU!”1 Pet.3:9” (Tweeted by an elementary music organization.)

“There’s only one rule I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Tweeted by Kurt Vonnegut.)

“God will not look you over for medals, degrees, or diplomas, but for scars.” —Elbert Hubbard (Tweeted by Post Secret.)

“Actually, that’s not in the Bible. by CNN.)

This last article is what interested me the most. The author, John Blake, speaks with several college religion professors about commonly misquoted “Biblical” phrases. One surprising example is the fact that yes, a serpent tempted Eve to take the apple from the tree, but that serpent is never referred to as the Devil. (This story appears in the Book of Genesis, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which may have been written in the last century BCE until 70 CE. [source] That’s important later.) One of Blake’s sources claims, “Not only does the text not mention Satan, the very idea of Satan as a devilish tempter postdates the composition of the Garden of Eden story by at least 500 years.”

Charlie Brown kicks the football

Temptation at its worst. But maybe this time, Charlie Brown will actually kick that football...

The comparison of the Devil as a serpent appears in the Book of Revelation, which was probably written sometime between 68-95 CE, likely after the Book of Genesis. [source]

Every day when speaking with others, our minds piece their words together and we get the gist of what is being said. But sometimes we don’t realize the importance of words. One word may seem similar to another, like “border” and “boundary,” but underlying connotations have different meanings and — more importantly — change over time.

If we apply different connotations, we can change the entire definition of the words and get the wrong gist. We could assume the word “serpent” to symbolize “devil,” which would give us a different idea of the context than if we think “Western diamondback rattlesnake.”

The internet, I believe, has severely changed how we think of words. The connotations words have aren’t usually considered before they are spewed into cyberspace. HTML doesn’t know the difference, and neither does the greasy keyboard, but it’s easy to forget that other human beings read what’s written. (I probably think about it too much, which is why it takes me weeks to write a single blog post… and even then I am still nervous about what readers think!)

Maybe I’ll just stick to Mark Twain’s advice when it comes to writing (who I also follow on Twitter), “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”



International Teaching: The “It”

As you explain to someone a great experience you have had, you relive it inside yourself. The memory brings back the feeling the ground had under your knees, the pitches of the voices speaking around you, the temperature of the air and the sounds that swam through it. But you know that those emotions you are feeling for a second time cannot quite rub off on this person. There is a barrier which is the simple fact that they have not had the experience themselves.

Over spring break, I traveled to the Netherlands with my conducting professor (conducting, as in conducting a symphony). We were bound for an American school near Amsterdam where he was to be a guest conductor in a high school honor band and choir festival that was composed of students from other American and international schools from around the world. It was amazing to see these students able to put forth their musical talents in such full-sized ensembles, which most do not have back at own home schools.

The world of international teaching is something of a secret. The community they create is small and tightly-nit, albeit spread over thousands of miles. To put it in perspective, the schools have similar relationships with each other as do schools in the States within athletic conferences. Competing in a basketball tournament might mean taking a weekend trip to Belgium or Paris, for example. And participating in an honor band might mean flying to Holland from Beijing.


I’m going to get a little cheesy on you for a moment, but this leads me to the thing that I was most affected and impressed by out of this entire experience. The students collectively spoke dozens of differently, and many have spent most of their lives moving from school to school. One student may feel perfectly at home wherever in the world he or she is, while another feels that they have never had a home. With each other, they can communicate, reason, make fun, laugh, or be somber, and they are safe.

You may think it’s about the music… but that’s not the “it.”