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Explaining America

or In Which I Introduce Nicaraguan Students to Phil from the town of Punxsutawney

A few months ago, the Embassy sent out a request for speakers who could talk to Nicaraguan audiences about all things American.  Since I’m not working full time these days, I volunteered.  So far I’ve only been asked to give a couple talks, and always in English, so it has been fun and not too hard.  But today, I got a few questions from the group of students that left me stumped.

The students were from a local Nicaraguan University, preparing to be teachers and taking an intermediate English course.  Their teacher wanted to expose them to native speakers and to introduce them to the services and programs that the U.S. Embassy provides to Nicaraguan students and teachers.

The first part of the talk went well.   I talked about the U.S. Constitution and checks and balances.  Then I talked a bit about this week’s mid-term elections.  Then I opened it up for questions.

First question: “What’s the main difference between the two major political parties?”

Fair question, but not as easy as it seems.  I might have an opinion on all this, but this was not the venue for it.  What would you say if you wanted to give both parties a fair shake?  Picking words carefully was tougher than I thought.  Big government vs. small government? Pro-business vs. Pro-labor? Conservative vs. liberal (wait, the word liberal in the rest of the world means something else.)  I kept thinking of my friends (and my dad) who would argue with these either-or statements.  And I wasn’t about to get into social and religious issues in front of the group.  In the end, I felt like I was fair and balanced (ha!).  But any mental back-patting for my simple but nuanced answer was about to be over.

Next question: “Why are the Democrats a donkey and the Republicans an elephant.”

Come on. I know this! Ok, no, I don’t.  I said I thought it came from some political cartoon a hundred years ago or something.  And then I told them that actually I didn’t know and I had to look it up.

Ok, next question:  “I hear there is a third party in the United States, called the Tea Party.  Tell us about this new party.”

Taking it up a notch, now, aren’t we.

“Actually, it’s not a party, it’s a movement….”  Then I talked a bit about the Boston Tea Party, taxation by the British, and mobilizing Republican voters, all the while trying to avoid any mention of Palin and/or being snarky.

After a few more questions (i.e. Why do you vote on a Tuesday?) the topic was over, but the person who was supposed to speak after me still hadn’t arrived.  The woman coordinating the event suggested we talk about U.S. Holidays to kill time.  Perfect. This is easy.

I started with Thanksgiving, giving the elementary school version where everyone sits down to a big happy harvest meal.   I talked about turkey, and potatoes and pies, and watching American Football with a full belly.  I then moved on to Christmas, etc.

Then they asked me what’s the strangest holiday we celebrate.  Good question. My answer – Groundhog Day.  It doesn’t get more bizarre than that.  But the problem was no one in the room, including the teacher, knew what a groundhog was.  So I was trying to describe a big furry rat, no, small dog, yeah, dog that lives in the ground and makes tunnels.

“Like a marmot?” someone asked.

“Yes, exactly like a marmot.” (What the hell is a marmot?  Isn’t that a brand of fleece pullovers?”)

And things only got worse when I said that the holiday doesn’t celebrate marmot-like creatures in general, but one specific marmot named Phil from the town of Punxsutawney.  Phil the American-Marmot, comes up from his tunnel and if he sees his shadow then we will have a longer winter.  Or is it the other way around? Oh no. This isn’t going well.

And before the students could ask why this particular marmot could predict the upcoming seasons, or more to the point, why an entire country pretended he could, the speaker for the next section walked in the door.  Saved!

“Ok, everyone. You’ve been great! Thank you very much!”

I sat down amid the clapping and confused looks of the students.

When I got home, I looked up the word ‘’groundhog” in Spanish. Translation = marmota americana. Those were some pretty smart students!

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rebecca #

    I love it! Would have loved to be in the room to hear you explaining the Tea Party. 🙂

    November 5, 2010
  2. Jenny #

    One of my Chinese students wrote an essay this summer on how Americans celebrate the birth of George Washington on Easter by decorating Easter eggs. I was glad it was in writing and not during class b/c I was laughing!

    November 6, 2010
    • stmemory #

      Too funny!

      November 6, 2010

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