Monday, June 25, 2012

First Day as a Student Again

Classes started today and they reminded me a lot of high school, and college classes to some extent. My first class was Composition 2, in which we made acrostics of our names and played a simple game using the articles el, la, los, and las. We spent a lot of time introducing ourselves using acrostics, though I do appreciate the fact that it wasn’t so boring that I fell asleep on the first day (after waking up at 6:30 A.M.). In addition, the professor made a reference to the TV show “Combate,” and I recognized her allusion to Team Blue, which always dances when they win to their theme song: “A-a-azul, a-a-azul, cúal es el equipo que..." I am already immersed in the culture enough to catch pop culture references :)

The second class was much more interesting and at the level of Spanish electives at Carnegie Mellon, though I had the same professor for both classes; the difference between them was night and day, "summer" in Costa Rica and the super-rainy "winter." We introduced ourselves with the meanings of our names, which was pretty interesting. I told the story of how my parents named me after Vivien Leigh, and how my mom says I was lucky that they mispelled it since Vivien Leigh actually plays a super-crazy person in the movie “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I also gave the translation of my Chinese middle name (“Liang” = jade); my name has a lot of meaning behind it, and that exercise really showed me that names carry a lot of power and significant history for each person (if they care about it).

In the second part of class, we focused on what “culture” is. One student said that my description of "cultura" was like a thesis; I wrote an outline of the important facets of a culture and placed them in categories, just like a good sociologist, haha. But, I’m not sure of what I’m missing from the big picture, because I didn’t mention art, music, or food in my overview of what constitutes culture. Also, I’m losing mastery of the gender of words in Spanish…

We also discussed the characteristics of “culture” that one author assigned to it. We had a grand discussion about what he meant in certain sentences, although it was frustrating in some aspects. There was a vast divide in interpretations between another person in my group and me, but I stayed optimistic about it the whole time. I appreciated the class’s focus on the philosophical basis for what “culture” is, and in addition the opportunity to share and encounter different perspectives (shaped by different backgrounds). We didn’t come to an agreement on mucho except that culture 1) is comunal (formed by a community of people in coordination), 2) is learned (it’s not something you’re born with), and 3) it helps form the conception of an “us” and an “other.” Good job, indeed. 

The acrostic I made for my name:

Nuevas experiencias

I live
New experiences.

Poetry in motion.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Notes for my Project

Places I need/want to visit:
1.      UNED (State University at a Distance—I think a better translation would be “Long-Distance Learning University of Costa Rica, but this is their own, direct translation). They’ve done some studies on sex work, and maybe they can help me with my project, advise me, or direct me to a project they’re already working on that I can help with.
2.      The National Institute of Women
3.      International Organization for Migration (OIM), Unit Against the Sale of People
4.      Alliance for Your Rights
5.      Council of Ministries for Women in Central America (COMMCA)
6.      (related to sex work) La Sala, an organization for sex workers’ rights organized by sex workers
7.      RedTraSex (Network for Sex Work)
8.      Other organizations that I don’t remember right now without my e-mail

If I have time:
The Ministry of Governing and the Police
Sistem of Central American Integration (SICA)
The offices of the newspapers The Nation, Tico Times, maybe El País (“The Country”)

Places for fun:
“The ruins” (no one knows what civilization these “ruins” belong to, but some people are going tomorrow when I’ll be at the Poas Volcano and the Peace Waterfalls)
The beach (one without a riptide, because “It grabs you and people completely disappear!” according to my mom, who doesn’t want me to swim while I’m here…)
Museums that I won’t visit with my program

I should buy a tourist’s book…

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Startling Things the Genial Guide Told Us

I need to find or ask about an equivalent word for “OK.” It doesn’t seem to work the same here (i.e. my host mom is insistent that I eat huge dinners and always have a "refresco" when I get back from school)…

While in Costa Rica, I have eaten:
Salad with fried plantains and rice, and lots of fruits (pineapple, papaya, strawberries, and watermelon)
Spaghetti with thin tomato sauce (thinner than in the U.S., but it spread out the flavor more) and salad
Gallo pinto (rice with black beans) and pineapples and mangos
Cheese burrito (that’s what my house mom called it, hehe) and a salad with lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado!
Manicotti with white cheese and a salad with super-sour lemon juice
My host mom makes such an awesome mix of food!


We went to the Poas Volcano today and I left the house at six. We waited for a student who was running on Tico Time (same thing as Asian Time, or CMU Time--i.e., late), so we ended up setting out for the volcano at 7. The fog cloud cover at the top of the volcano gets heavy pretty fast, so we had to get there as early as posible. Our tour guide talked about random things in Costa Rica, but he really surprised me with the problematic and strongly expressed opinions that he said (not only because Costa Ricans are famous for not being confrontational, according to Los Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica).
I want to address the most salient issues, and I’ll let my photos do the talking about the trip itself.

1.   1. Ninety percent of Costa Rica’s electricity is generated by hydropower plants, with some “experiments” in wind power, geothermal, solar panels, etc.

I did a project on the integration of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in Central America, specifically projects in  Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua (hence one can see how I formulated my class projects in preparation for this summer). The CDM oversees green energy or conservation projects in developing countries, and partners the "developing" countries (non-Annex I) with developed (Annex I) countries. I believe the division into the categories is based somewhat on level of industrialization, but China is a non-Annex I country, so the delineation seems a little strange. Bringing it back to Costa Rica, it is true that 99.2% of the electricity in Costa Rica comes from renewable sources, but if 90% really comes from hydropower, then the Guanacaste Wind Farm CDM has had almost no effect, despite what it seemed to promise or currently be doing. It’s posible that the general population doesn’t know about the existence of the CDM, especially because many of my classmates and I didn’t know about the CDM before we talked about it in Energy & Climate. I wanted to ask the guide more about what happens with electricity during the “summer” in Costa Rica (the hotter, dry season), because the Guanacaste CDM was supposed to combat the drop in electricity generation when there’s less available wáter. However, the things he said disturbed me too much, and I still have to get used to using people’s names to get their attention.

2.      Nicaraguans are “illegal immigrants”in Costa Rica, they cause many social problems (like theft and threats to security), and they have babies here to get citizenship for them and get Access to benefits like medical assistance, education, etc.

Some news articles in Costa Rica that have mentioned Nicaraguan immigrants are hugely reminiscent of the insults, denunciations,and just plain shit that people in the United States say against Mexican immigrants. There’s news about the police capturing a truck that was carrying Nicaraguans across the border, and the need to strengthen the border. There are news that say Costa Rica is full of too many immigrants and that they cause social problems. The tour guide confirmed the presence of this attitude among some Costa Ricans: he said that “Costa Rica has a problema with security (you can see this because a lot of houses have iron gates), and this is because of immigrants. They increase many social problems, especially theft, because they don’t have money because their country is very poor.”

There was so much superiority in his attitude toward Nicaraguans: “We [Costa Ricans] are not rich, but we are less poor than the Nicaraguans.” And he said in his English translation that, “There are many ‘illegals’ in Costa Rica who come and work for mínimum-wage jobs.” It is so sad that the rhetoric here is identical to what we suffer from in the U.S. There isn’t a solidarity among Central Americans (though the guide did say that “Everything is America, not just the United States” and so, he might not believe in a unity among Latin Americans versus the U.S.). People here have come to use the same dirty word for undocumented immigrants; BUT, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN “ILLEGAL” PERSON. Listen to the words of Jorge Ramos!,9171,2107507,00.html
The guide said that the Nicaraguan immigrants work in mínimum-wage jobs (USD2 per hour) in agricultura or housework, and that Costa Ricans “look for jobs that pay more than the mínimum.” The similarity in descriptions—or the echoes in the wording—of immigrants’ circumstances in the U.S. and in Costa Rica are terrible and frightening.

3.      That the justice system is “contaminated by a philosophy that says that the criminal is a victim of society (not an individual acting with his own behavior and given the correlating consequences)

He said these words verbatim: “Our system of justice is contaminated by the philosophy that the criminal is a victim of society.” He said that many judiciaries in the world suffer from this… and that the criminal is treated better than the victim.I wonder what he would say about victims of rape and sexual assault, having grown up in such a machisto culture and being indoctrinated so much. The tour guide blamed many people as if they didn’t suffer from social injustices or obstacles placed before them by society, all much bigger than one person being a criminal because of a personal failing. The only redemptive thing was when he said that there are Ticos who hire Nicaraguan immigrants illegaly and exploit them: “It’s a shame when humans are exploiting other humans.” I want him to see the situation of all immigrants in the same light, instead of kicking back and denouncing “the illegals” as an evil other that threatens his beautiful way of life.

4.      The new soccer stadium was a “poisoned” gift from the Chinese
            Costa Rica had to cut off relations with Taiwan and couldn’t allow the Dalai Lama to visit

There is a Taiwanese church (“from Formosa”) near my house, and someone told me that Costa Rica has many Asians. I’ve seen more Chinese and Japanese restaurants here than I expected, especially the “hibachi” restaurant near the university. I wonder how extensive the limitations on economic (and possibly immigration) relations with Taiwan were. I haven’t heard about local perspectives on Asians yet. But, we did meet a Canadian ping-pong champion who was Chinese or Taiwanese.

Update: One of the program directors said today that there’s a sizeable Chinese population in Costa Rica, and that there was a wave of immigration in which many people settled in the coastal towns. Sweet. I shall learn more soon.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Silly Discoveries

Marianela (another daughter) likes to listen to reggae music in both Spanish and English. That reminds me: there’s Cartoon Network in Spanish here, and more hilariously, there’s a TV show on which the participants are spun around in a chair 30 times (and the announcer keeps track by counting every turn--“Uno, dos, tres…”) and afterwards they wrestle with a man dressed up in a cape and a mask a la Nacho Libre. The show is called “Combate” (possibly “Combat”) and it’s cuter than programs like Wipeout or MXC: Most Extreme Challenge, but they’re of a similar kind.

To return to other interesting things and introduce other students: we took the placement exam today. It was like Spanish class in high school: everyone was asking one another, “How do you say ‘rainforest’ in Spanish?” and “What’s the past tense form of ‘ir’?” It created an atmosphere of collaboration and wasn’t too much of a problem (since it was mostly vocabulary questions), except for two people (possibly more in other classrooms). There was a guy using his electronic translator for the whole exam. But the goal of this program is to learn more Spanish, not struggle with it in the clases! Geez… But there are many bright spots in the program: two roommates named Brandon and Will are really fun: Brandon’s at an advanced level (though he always underestimates his Spanish skills so people don’t get too-high expectations) and he was in a Spanish club in high school. The latter fact I know because he wore a T-shirt from it today that said, “¡Haz tu vida más picante!” ("Make your life more spicy!) How cute. 

Will and I bantered a lot during the campus tour, but he was confused that I hadn’t asked my host mom yet if I could stay in her house for the second month… Haha, not everyone is as scared of being proactive as I am. After we finished the exam, I went with three other students to the mall to exchange their dollars for colones. They (Wendy, Megan, and Jenna) live in Sabanilla, but another neighborood, so hopefully we'll figure out how to  walk to school together soon.


Oops, my host mom just came home and told me that she was worried I would be in the house alone, so she called the house multiple times… I thought someone was calling for Marianela and she was avoiding them, but it was actually my host mom… :P She’s like a real mom to me; she worries as much as my mom, hehe. Okay, I should finish my blogging for today and be a social person and hang out with her friends!

Transcontinental Observations and Updates

I went to sleep at 9 P.M.; it was a huge improvement over the other night when I passed out at 7:30, haha. I slept after reading some poems from Sierra DeMulder in The Bones Below and some by Maria Jose Boyero in Caprichos de Ceniza, whose title I still have to figure out how to translate… Capricces of Ash. 

For breakfast I ate gallo pinto (rice with black beans) for the first time, with eggs, mangos, pineapple slices, and crackers with strawberry spread and lemonade. Every meal is so big, as corroborated by my fellow program-mates, but I’m lucky because I’m vegetarian (so I don’t have to eat a lot of meat) and I think my hostess (house mom) is used to serving only a few people, although there are a lot of people in her life. Most of the people in the household eat at different times: Sofi’s mom and dad are together for a few hours in the afternoon because he watches Sofi during the day when her mom’s in class, and he leaves before she gets back from her English-teaching classes at the university. My hostess’s other daughter works from 5 P.M. to 2 A.M. in the airport, and so she comes back after 2 A.M. (miraculously surviving the dangers of late-night San Jose). As for Jorge, the son who still lives in the house, he eats… probably at very late hours or maybe the few hours when I haven’t been home.


During our academic orientation today, I found Wi-Fi on the floor where are clases are going to be, and… I wasn’t saved, but it was a strong connection to the old country. I had lots of replies to my e-mails inquiring about working with organizations here. Now the problem is choosing whih organization to work with: there’s:
ProGAI (Program for the Integral Management of the Environment)
Red de Mujeres para el Desarrollo (Women's Development Network)
ProDUS (Program for Sustainable Urban Development)
and the general volunteer program at the university. 

All three of the official Programs are associated with the university, and RedMujeres is an outside organization. What I want to do most is work with an NGO or other organization for social justice, and work on conservation or the environment. So, I should probably just choose ProGAI and RedMujeres (I'm also leaning toward them because they gave me the most positive responses), but maybe I can do something small with the general volunteer program. I think ProDUS does more projects involving science, and they want to interview me (during my class at 8:30 A.M.)… I have so many options! The only problem remaining is that I won’t hang out with the other people in MLSA as much because I need to work in the afternoons (before it gets dark), and I have to arrange my schedule tightly do give the maximum time to each activity/work. I also need to figure out how I will interview sex workers (and other people) about sex work, the sale of humans, and possibly human trafficking.

Friday, May 25, 2012

El Primer Día (The First Day)

I slept for twelve hours last night, until 7:30 A.M. mountain time. I move really slowly here and I think my host thinks the same. She always takes a walk at 5 A.M. because the cars aren’t on the road at that time; no one is. I need to change many of my hesitations to really make an impression, and also, I need some Internets.

Her granddaughter Sofia watches me a lot, but I don’t know if she’s doing what babies do normally because I’m a stranger. She’s probably used to the embraces of random adults because Costa Rica is a high-contact culture, and maybe it’s weird for her to meet someone who doesn’t immediately grab her and lift her up to play. Maybe she thinks I’m unfriendly.


We went to the University of Costa Rica for the first orientation, in which the director of the program and other coordinators described the schedule, gave us tips about life in Costa Rica. One example: people don't keep personal space between them and others, or, as one of the directors put it in English, “We touch ourselves here!”

I met a lot of students at the orientation, and we’re spread out over a bunch of districts in San Jose. One guy (Brandon) said he’ll remember my name because he thought I was “Vivian Lee” when I told him my name. I told him no, but my parents did name me after the actress Vivien Leigh (although they misspelled it, which helped me avoid the curse of Vivien Leigh being crazy in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” according to my mom after she watched that movie). Que casualidad! (What a coincicdence!)

According to the program directors, we aren’t supposed to go outside after 5 P.M., don’t take the “pirate taxis,” etc… Many restrictions that make San Jose seem more like Managua, Nicaragua, haha. 

I still need to form my plan more completely for my research project, and I need to work on volunteering with the university. I have an interview with ProDUS (Project for Sustainable Urban Development), but I haven’t been able to contact them without access to the Internet… And I still don’t have a calling card or a cell phone. I'm so lazy when there are obstacles in the way :P

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The First Afternoon

I said good-bye to Columbus at 9 A.M., one hour after I arrived at the airport. The attendant at the counter was surprised that I had arrived “so late,” but there wasn’t much security and I was only a little hurried because my mom had to pass me a few hundred dollars outside of the TSA checkpoint. Houston had signs in English and Spanish, and lots of signs encouraging people to volunteer, which was an interesting and welcoming difference.

My immigration form, shortly before I lost it…

I arrived at 2:30 P.M. en San Jose, Costa Rica. I experienced many things for the first time: seeing signs in Spanish first, then English:

Exchanging money for pretty colones:

And going through Customs and the immigration checkpoint:

It wasn’t my first time overtipping someone, though it my first time doing it with such nice-looking money :P

We arrived by van at the hotel on Avenue of Paradise and I met my hostess, Olga Marta Vega Chinchilla, there. We took her husband’s car—an old Toyota Corolla—through a lot of traffic, which was atypical for the area. There were a lot of newer cars on the road, though, so I think it’s personal choice that dictates the difference in vehicles. Olga has four children (two daughters and two sons), and two grandchildren, Sofia (Sofi) and Aaron. Sophie’s mom is named Vivian, so I will forever be introduced as “the other Vivian,” such as when my hostess said multiple times today, “I have another Vivian here!” But I shall strike out on my own and be a unique Vivian!