Teaching is a skill

As a Chinese language learner, and an English language teacher, I have come to realize something important: knowing what you teach is not enough, you also need to know how to teach.
Many people assume that knowing a language is enough to be able to teach it, but people forget that the learning process is different for adults than it is for children who learn their first language. Someone once told me, “if you teach English in Mexico it should be easy, just start with the ABCs and move from there.” I assume the person said so because when we are children the first thing we learn is the alphabet.
A long time ago, some friends from China would offer to teach me Chinese. They would be excited to share what they knew, and began presenting common phrases and translating them to English. But in a short amount of time they struggled to explain the concepts behind the grammatical rules, the connotations, and the contexts in which the phrases are commonly accepted. One of them got a book to learn how to teach “foreigners” (people who don’t speak Chinese and come from a non-Chinese country. I bet they thought that all they needed to do what to share their knowledge and that I would automatically take it in.
As I took graduate courses on teaching English to speakers of other languages, I got acquainted with a multitude of theories on teaching languages. I learned about the differences of teaching students of different ages, levels, and even anxiety levels. I saw how context also mattered in terms of language learning goals: Does the student want to improve conversation skills, job skills, academic skills, etc? Is the student learning the language to pass a test or just as a hobby? What is the learning style that the student is most comfortable with? Visual, verbal, aural? How can I create course and lesson plans that cater to the student’s needs? What kind of materials should I use for the lessons? How can I make my classroom more student centered and less teacher centered? How can I measure student progress?
Today I was able to meet with a Chinese tutor who has years of experience, and who has developed a teaching philosophy based on acquiring a strong sense of the fundamentals before progressing to vocabulary building. Her way of teaching seems to fit with my language learning needs, and I sense that by attending her sessions I will improve as an English teacher, since I will also learn from her teaching style. As a language learner myself, I will be able to empathize with my English language students and have an intuition about how to deliver lessons in ways that can be useful to them.
I can sense that I still have a long way to learn to master the art of teaching, and that the journey has only begun. But along the way, I will maintain a sense of appreciation for the skills that are required to teach, and to learn, the language of another nation, culture, and ancient heritage.

Mythologies as Mirrors

Often when I visit Oregon, there is a giant book on world mythologies that I borrow from my brother in law entitled “Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth & Storytelling” edited by C. Scott Littleton. There is one line on the book that struck me: “…myths represent the heritage of the world’s imagination.” If we personify the world as having a collective imagination, and make mythology synonymous with that concept, then I think we can also say that mythologies are allusions to the collective subconscious. Stories of Odin’s self-discipline and sacrifice on the World Tree, or Rhea deceiving Cronus by handing him a stone wrapped in blankets to save baby Zeus, appeal to the multi-faceted traits of human nature. Through those stories, we can discover so much about human psychology and values, both the flaws and the virtues that permeate the actions and intentions of the collective and of the individual. So long as people are around to echo the traditional mythologies, or develop new ones, myths will continue to be an ornate reflection of humanity itself.

The Two Worlds of Bilingualism

     The first phrase of English I was ever taught was “I don’t speak English.” I was trained to say that in my first visit to the United States when I was 6 years old, when I was on my way to meet my first niece. At some time, my family decided that I should be raised in the United States, so that’s when that phrase became a first step to second language learning more than just a tourist survival tool.
Today, native speakers of English are surprised when I say English is not my first language. “You speak perfect English. You don’t even have an accent,” they say. “It’s still there, it’s just very subtle and hard to pick up, but it’s still there,” I respond.
     The time space between being a Spanish speaking child to becoming an English speaking adult is my experience of bilingualism, of the careful balance between two worlds: the Spanish speaking world of the family, and the English speaking world of the country.
     As a kid, the first challenge was to face the anger of people who could not understand me and that I could not understand. In elementary school, substitute teachers that did not speak Spanish would yell at me when I couldn’t follow their directions. A lunch lady threw my food away because I couldn’t give her an explanation of why I forgot my meal ticket. A teacher scoffed at me when I tried to explain that when I get migraine headaches, I can’t think well, and can’t do my homework. Also, back in the Spanish speaking world of the family I often had to be the translator, since I was often the only one available who spoke a little bit of English. When I tried ordering pizza for them, the restaurant would often hang up. When I tried ordering fast food for them in person, they would often get upset with me for getting the order wrong.
     I was told that my mission was to learn English, and so I did, but the process entailed much more than just that. I had to open my mind to different cultures and ways of seeing things. Whereas before in Mexico, I could easily see what my role was in relation to society, easily consume the popular mindsets, the religion, the traditions, the expectations, the United States was able to destroy my sense of stability and forced my eyes to adjust to the glaring light of alternative cultures, viewpoints, expectations, and mindsets.
     When I was 10, I got to briefly visit Mexico, and found a tremendous amount of relief from the challenge of learning English. I could navigate the world with Spanish alone, a language I already knew, with people I already knew. Walking down the street to the local grocery store, even the cashier remembered who I was. I was extremely happy with that linguistic and cultural environment, that I begged to stay. I promised that I would do well in school, that I would never change my mind about staying. But I was given no choice, I had to go back to the United States. The last day when I had to say goodbye to my grandparents, I promised that I would see them again. They passed away before I ever did.
Back in the United States, I quickly realized that the process of becoming bilingual was not just a matter of learning a language, but about immersing into a culture. The culture and the language could not be separated. The clichés, the proverbs, the catchphrases of American English are intertwined with an American mindset, just like the popular Spanish sayings in Latino culture are interwoven with the heritage of Latin America.
     My first three grades of elementary happened under bilingual education. Instruction was initially in Spanish and as the grades progressed, more and more English was incorporated into the lessons, until the classes became exclusively in English. Every grade I moved up, the more dread I felt. I was afraid of being in a class where only English was spoken. I was afraid of not understanding, and not being understood.
     Little did I know, Spanish became a tool of English acquisition. The “fancy words” of English often have a Latin root, which made me recognize them since they were similar to Spanish words. My academic English vocabulary expanded very quick because of that mnemonic. I also memorized words that were hard to spell by sounding them out in Spanish. Since Spanish has a strong orthographic/verbal correlation (words are spelled the way they sound), I was able to sound out hard-to-spell English words and memorize them. As my English writing skills improved, my English pronunciation improved just a few years later.
     I could never really understand the argument against bilingual education, since I benefited tremendously from it. A news camera crew visited my classroom in 4th grade and interviewed some of my classmates to see if bilingual education was worth it. A friend told me that he saw me on the news a few days later. Eventually, California voters opted to get rid of it.
California voters back them opted to push against the threat of words, of a language, of a culture. That was their way of shifting the balance between two worlds that bilingualism entails.
     As for me, to this day, I still carry the delicate balance of two discourse communities. The popular compromise of many is to use self-determination to promote Chicano-ism and Spanglish. Very often friends who were born in the U.S. will throw me a Spanish word or two with the aim of cultural appeal and bonding. Very often I hear Chicanos say that they belong to neither the United States nor Mexico, since their way of speaking does not let them fit into either. It’s an identity crisis that I can understand very well, but do not relate to it. I am a guest in this country and not a member of it, almost like an extended tourist. I already have the citizenship of one country and will not demand the citizenship of another. I already have a mother tongue and will not mix it with another as much as I can help it. The Chicano community can have my love and support, but never my membership.
     With that said, I treasure the value of knowing two languages. To be bilingual is to speak two languages, and to live in two worlds. Your realm of possibilities expands because you belong to different discourse communities and can navigate them with ease. In the expanded availability of media you can note a richness in the shades of meaning that you would not perceive otherwise. To be bilingual is to carry the legacy of two civilizations with you at all times.
That’s why as I look back at the tremendous challenges I went through to learn English, I have to see the struggle with a lense of appreciation. The empowerment I gained through language learning is something no one can take away. If I channel it properly, it will be my tool to travel the world and teach English in different nations, beginning and ending with the one that brought me to the world.

On Anxiety and Depression, Peace and Happiness

I have seen many people post lately about their struggles with anxiety and depression, which is unfortunately a very common phenomenon, and seems to be on the rise. I wish it were only me with those challenges, and the rest of the world to be in a state of perennial well-being, yet so long as the topic is relatable, I want to share my views on it. My goal is not to offer remedies or advice, but only a sense of what I’ve come to know in regards to those things and ways to deal with them.
Anxiety is a fear, nervousness, or dread for what the future might hold. It is negative anticipation. It is not only in the mind, since it has physiological symptoms. It can lead to health problems.
Depression is a sadness that zaps motivation from the individual. It is not enough to suggest a change of thinking or routine to the depressed person, since the melancholy lingers over the thoughts and actions of the individual. Depression can be said to originate in the past, in a sense, a lingering of unhappy memories and emotions. It can also be caused by a medical chemical imbalance of serotonin.
When both depression and anxiety are present, a person feels dread at an anticipated fear, but feels very unmotivated to take action about it. Depression and anxiety are parasites that can make even the wealthiest person feel that he or she is in a living hell.
On the other side of the coin are peace and happiness.
Peace is an awareness of consciousness beyond thoughts and feelings, people and things. It is a paradoxical detachment that ends up with one feeling more connected everything. Peace does not ignore the problems of the world or the individual, but simply sees them from a centered state. Peace is to find comfort in one’s own skin, and to navigate life from a standpoint of equipoise. Peace is not just to be calm, but to perceive the pain of life as a faint echo in the totality of the oneness of the world. A person may be at peace yet not smile, but the sense of peace in palatable to those around the peaceful person. Peace can be induced, but sometimes it can come as a pleasant surprise. In the concept of “satori,” or brief moments of enlightenment, one feels peace for absolutely no reason. It is hard to describe, but it is a feeling that makes life and everything in it worth it, and can never be bought or sold, but is a random flash of contentment.
Happiness is a joy that is a byproduct of gratitude, gratitude to what one has and is, and gratitude to what others have and are. It is not unusual to find a humble, poor person who is very happy, and then to find a CEO enflamed with dissatisfaction and greed. The opposite can be true as well. Happiness is a birthright to everyone, and is inherent in one’s nature. It is the ultimate goal and pursuit. People search for it in relationships, money, power, nature, art, hobbies, intoxicants, knowledge, and other endless things that sooner or later end up falling short of bringing lasting or true happiness. I have come to believe the statement that I hated in my youth, since it didn’t make sense back then, but there is no other way to put it: happiness is inside you.
In regards to dealing with anxiety and depression, one thing I have found to be effective, and which I have read in The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, is to face the feelings of anxiety and depression. The feelings they evoke linger in the body, and to give them attention is to make them subside. By attention, I do not mean thinking about them, but rather to feel it. The common mistake we all make is to think about the sadness and looking for people and situations to blame. This usually makes things worse, as the mind can bring forth resentment towards oneself and/or others for what one thinks is the cause of one’s suffering. On the other hand, when you allow yourself to feel the emotions in your body, without adding thoughts to them, you burn them out little by little. You allow them to be expressed through attention, and sooner or later you find that you don’t feel as bad as you used to. A sense of relief slowly starts to creep in, and you find yourself more aware of your surroundings as your inner suffering is no longer distracting you as much. You find yourself with more energy, motivation, and drive to move forward.
In regards to peace and happiness, I realize that nothing and no one in the world can give that to you until you find it in yourself first. No one can really tell you what those things are, since you know them by first hand experience, and that is the only to recognize it. This means that they are states felt deep within one’s being, and hence, can be found inside. By reading Inner and Outer Peace Through Mediation by Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, I have come to believe that mediation is the only way to find the type of peace and happiness that can’t be found by perennially chasing the things and experiences of the world.
My account of anxiety, depression, peace, and happiness is continually evolving, as I’m sure so is that of you, the reader. I will not end this note with a call to action, but rather with an acknowledgement of what we as humanity share together, the journey towards our place in the world.

Lessons I learned through teaching others

I’ve worked as a tutor for years, and one of the things I like the most about it is that I learn alongside my students. Helping them with their schoolwork forces me to review, learn, and relearn concepts that I would have otherwise not learned or forgotten.  Algebra, Geometry, and Science terminology are now still fresh with me.

One of the most important things that I get out of tutoring is the need to keep myself to the same standards that I expect from my students. I ask them to read everyday, to practice math everyday, and to work hard at whatever they try to do. This, in turn, encourages me to do likewise. When I found that one of my students needed a personal planner to keep track of his assignments,  I felt obligated to set the example and buy one of my own to keep track of my goals.

Also, I think that tutoring has taught me that I should also stop and reflect on the lighter side of life. The kids I tutor remind me (sometimes explicitly) that I should not take everything seriously and that I should just try to have fun. That is a lesson that is worth remembering, as we in the world of adulthood sometimes we forget that joy is the reason we live to begin with. Ultimately, I get paid to teach, but perhaps I’m also the one getting tutored somehow.

Fact Checking the Politicians: Trumps Speech against Clinton


On June 22, 2016 The New York Times wrote a reaction to Donald Trump’s speech entitled Donald Trump’s Speech: What you Missed and our Fact Checks.  It was very informative and worth the read, and I recommend that you take a look at it.

Politicians are very skilled at using their rhetoric to mold our thinking with their agenda.  Trump is a businessman who simply transferred his skills of persuasion from his business life to the public arena. His rhetorical skill employs plenty of hyperbole and sometimes, flat-out lies as well.  This is not to bash on Donald Trump, but just to recognize that he fits right in with the politicians of the establishment who do likewise.  It is to your advantage, Americans, to see past the rhetoric and do fact checking whenever you get the chance so as to be an informed voter.

A foreigner’s thoughts on the 2016 Presidential Election Season


I, as a foreigner, can only weigh in so much on who your country chooses to be the next president of the United States.  As a Mexican, I can say that both candidates are a threat to the sovereignty of my country:  Trump by scapegoating Mexico every chance he gets, and Hillary for secretly pushing for the privatization of Mexico’s oil industry (as was revealed by leaks).  But, we must admit that the office of president of the United States is a global one, given the superpower status of your country, and the fact that your country has so much influence in world events.  Therefore, people from all over the world have an opinion, and the following is my own.

I don’t think anybody could have predicted that Donald Trump would make history by being the first orange clown-man with a titanic ego to take the Republican nomination, or for Hillary, the first candidate under FBI investigation, to grasp the Democratic nomination.  Nobody could have predicted that also Bernie Sanders, a European-style Social Democrat that looks like he just escaped a retirement home, to grasp the hopes and admiration of millions of youth across the country. This campaign season has undoubtedly been entertaining, but thanks to the fact that this is reality and not a T.V. Sitcom, it’s also terrifying.  What we have now is a campaign between a proto-facist, Trump, and an imperialist, Hillary.

Don’t think I use those words loosely.  Trump is not a fan of free speech and has always been trigger-happy to sue those who, as Hillary said in a speech, “get under his very thin skin.”  He wants to change the libel laws to sue journalist who cross his little line.  He bans certain outlets, like the Washington Post and Univision, from covering him in his events.  He wants to go after civilians in war, and make the U.S. into a police state, by instituting further domestic spying, to protect it against terrorism.  Which would be fine, if you don’t mind police states. He centers his proposals and speeches on ardent nationalism, and asked his supporters to pledge that they will vote for him by raising their hand, which they quickly did in a way that is too reminicent of the Hitler salute.

As for Hillary, she really is “crooked,” like Donald says.  She awards favors and concessions to those who donate to the Clinton foundation.  She wont release the transcripts to her speeches to Wall Street.  She created her own server in her home to keep secrets from the government.  And, like I mentioned earlier, she is also an imperialist.  She supported the Iraq War.  She violates the sovereignty of Latin America by secretly pushing for petroleum privatization in Mexico and backing an illegal coup in Honduras.  She pushed for U.S. military intervention in Libya, which “coincidentally” wanted to get off the dollar and use the gold standard for their currency value,  which is now a disaster zone.

Basically, it boils down to this: both candidates attack each other, and their attacks are true, but the image they create of themselves is false.  Trump is not a master mind in business, as his multiple bankruptcies attest, and Hillary is not the liberal lioness she wants Bernie supporters to think she is.  Both her and Trump are (cliche warning) birds of a feather, two sides of the same coin, and they flip flop so much no sandals can rival them.

The choices that you as a voter have are similar to choosing between Pepsi or Coke.  Both will cause took decay, but they have a certain following and debatably, their own unique tastes.  It’s not the fruit smoothie that most adults (when it comes to political maturity) in the political arena were pushing for (Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein), but it’s what the people voted for.

Of course, there are many third party alternatives.  I know many of us want them to be more nationally relevant, however, keep in mind that if you allow the voices of one third party organization, then the voices of others, which may be extreme in a way that you don’t agree with, can also come to the fray. For example, you might be in favor of the Tree Huggers United Party (I made up the name just now), but then you also have to tolerate the Racist Solidarity Party (also made up).  The point is, if you want a system similar to those parliaments in Europe that have a spectrum of parties, you may indeed hear your views may be represented by one of them, but that party’s voice might be drowned out by by the screams of other parties that have extreme views in the other direction of the political spectrum.  If that is tolerable to you, or to the country in general, which likes to fancy itself a democracy, then by all means go full-Europe.

Americans, this is your country.  I don’t know what you’re going to do and I have no recommendations for you.  Will you vote for the lesser of the two great evils?  Or will you vote third party?  It’s up to you.