Archive for the 'Language' category

More Titillating than the Movie

A while back, we were desperately searching for an English-language film at the cinema that was suitable for the whole family. At the time, there were only adult options in English available and they had a minimum rating of PG-13 back in the States. (Here in Buenos Aires, most foreign fare aimed at the junior set is dubbed, but adult films are subtitled.) Since we didn’t know anything about the movies in question, we began searching online for information about content for the Zs, who are not horribly media savvy.

As we were doing our pelicula fact finding, Tom stumbled upon the site Kids in Mind.

Wow — we had no idea that there were people who sat down and watched a movie and literally cataloged every female hard nipple covered by a shirt, every mention of the Lord’s name in vain (check out the profanity glossary), substance abuse references, and of course, moments of actual nudity and graphic violence.

Tom and I quickly abandoned our original reason for being on the site and randomly began entering in recent summer films. What was our favorite discovery? Well, if you should happen to take a family outing to the cinema for a viewing of “The Hangover”, you might want to take advantage of their list of suggested “discussion topics“:

Bachelor parties, marriage, dating, relationships, trust, love, counting cards, spousal abuse, lying, Ruffelin, the Holocaust, Holocaust survivors, sexually transmitted diseases, recklessness, drug dealing, gambling.

In the end, their unique reviews were somewhat useful, but good Lord, I really did feel like a prude!

What’s Next, Temper Tantrums?

One of the nice things about aging is that I have gained perspective and am able to handle stressful situations with more ease and less passion.

So why does all of that hard earned experience go out the window when I have to express myself in a foreign language? It is very disconcerting to have my emotions bubble to the surface so quickly when facing a challenge with my more limited vocabulary in Spanish.

I believe it has something to do with the level of fluency I have become used to in English when it comes to translating my feelings succinctly into language. As an adult, when dealing with a difficult business or social situation, I have the intellectual deftness to truly express (in my mother tongue) what I believe and can navigate successfully through the eddies and turbulence of emotions.

However, when speaking in Castellano at an intermediate level, I wear my sentiments on my sleeve as a result of my inept attempts to give true voice to my feelings.

It has given me pause, and has also helped me to have more empathy with how my daughters must feel, and why they sometimes get so frustrated. I suppose in Latin America, when speaking Spanish, I really am a 9-year old kid running around in a 43-year old body!

A Very Chinese Wednesday

Wednesday was a hyper-errand day which required an exhausting amount of both Spanish and Mandarin! (Yes, from the kids’ perspective, it was another death march day.)

We picked up the girls at 12:15 from school and proceeded to eat lunch, buy birthday presents for Zelda’s upcoming parties, and visit Barrio Chino (Chinatown) to find Yugioh cards, visit the Chinese Cultural Center to inquire about lessons for the girls, and dip in for a little Chinatown grocery store action to snag some spices/oils/vinegars. Next, we went to a pharmacy and then headed back up to Cabildo, where we bought white tennis shoes for the girls’ field day uniforms and visited the shoe store where we purchased the girls’ brown school shoes for an exchange because Zoe’s shoe sole was coming unlaminated on only her third day of classes. We wrapped up our errand day with a trip to the art supply store for the weird random stuff we need to begin Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain, as a part of home school.

If I hadn’t taxed my Mandarin enough on our Yugioh/Chinese Cultural Center treasure hunt, I got a reprise when I went to pick up our laundered clothes from the lavandería around the corner, which is staffed by a Chinese woman from the Fujian province. She said, “your Mandarin in pretty good, but one time a gentleman came in from India, and his was even better than yours!”

I’m now motivated to retrieve more of my waning Mandarin so that I can compare favorably to the mystery man from India floating around Buenos Aires speaking perfect Mandarin.

Living with Kids in BA — It’s Not Easy

Now that our family unit is back in BA, I thought I would share some of the challenges we have been facing living la vida expat with kids, as well as some of our crazy plans to address those challenges!


  1. School hours are long. We appreciate that the Zs don’t have as much homework as they had in the US. But, they attend school from 8 am to 5 pm, which we are finding is just too long. By the time we pick them up, get home, cook dinner, eat, and clean up, it’s time for bed. It leaves little time for them to have any extracurricular activities or hang out with their parents and still get to bed at a reasonable hour.
  2. The English half of the school day is underutilized time. We thought that sending them to a Spanish/English bilingual school might be a good idea so they could have some time in English to balance out having to learn Spanish from scratch. In truth, the English level of their peers is well below a native-speaker’s level, so the class time is less than engaging.
  3. The Zs are losing some of their Mandarin. We try to speak Chinese as much as possible (it’s our secret language when we’re out and about in the city), but there’s little we can do for their writing since I can only reproduce a few characters. And, with their current school schedule, it’s hard to find time for additional tutoring.
  4. We are always working against the Argentine schedule. I call the kids here “Coca-Cola Powered” because it’s gotta be the caffeine that keeps ’em going. Wee Argentinians are up about three hours later than my kids but seem very perky in the morning. Unfortunately, my stodgy American kids need a lot of sleep to feel decent and not be growley all day long. It’s tough to maintain a reasonable sleeping schedule when you are fighting an entire nation’s predilection to stay up late. (Yes, there is a theme here — getting our kids to bed at a decent hour is nigh on impossible.)
  5. Healthy eating is a struggle. Argentina does wine, ice cream, and beef really really well, but fruits and vegetables…not so much. Of course, we are incredibly spoiled coming from the Pacific Northwest. It’s hard to adjust to having only two types of apples available (Granny Smith and Red Delicious), no heirloom tomatoes, no multiple varieties of locally-grown cherries, no amazing berries, no farmer’s markets… . But aside from lamenting the loss of PNW produce, the lack of produce variety as well as the poor quality makes it very hard to feed our children in a matter that we consider to be healthy, even when we are doing our own cooking. (Luckily, the girls are able to choke down less-than-tasty produce because they understand the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, even if they don’t taste as good as they did back home.) This was not a challenge we anticipated before moving here.

CRAZY (and mundane) SOLUTIONS

  1. We are going to begin “Worldschooling” (a phrase coined by my friend Mel and also by some other traveling home schoolers). We approached the Z’s academic institution to ask them if they would allow us to enroll the girls in the school for only the morning portion of the day (which is Spanish) and one afternoon a week (which is field day). For four afternoons a week, we want to bring them home for some learnin’, Michele and Tom style. (Yes, I know…never say never!) To make a long story even longer, we met with the various functionaries at the primary and administrative levels yesterday (biting our nails) and they gave us the green light! (All the while stressing that this has never been done before and that they are only approving it on a provisional basis which will not be extended to any other families.) So the great experiment begins.

    We want to use the afternoons for private Chinese tutoring (the girls and I will take classes together); English, math, and geography homeschooling; and, extracurricular sporting activities (we may take up some family horseback riding lessons and family time at a tennis center). Crap, writing this makes me realize how much freaking work we have to do!

  2. Try alternative produce options. Please see my thread on BA Expats about possible produce procurement options. A lot of contributors had great ideas and we will be trying some of these. Also, we are going to attempt to integrate food shopping into school pick up time in Belgrano, since it will be in the middle of the day, and incorporate meal planning and prep into the home school curricula.

Flowing Flowery Farewells

Although Spanish and English are both Latin-based languages, you realize when you are living in a Spanish-speaking culture that we Americans use about 1% of our available vocabulary and we use that vocabulary in the least poetic and lyrical fashion possible.

I notice this most at social events when we are saying goodbye. Farewells are a lengthy event here in Baires and they involve a lot of cheek bussing and lovely words of parting…well, at least on the part of Porteños and very fluent expats.

For me…not so much.

When leaving a parent event, for instance, you will hear, “A thousand kisses, I was enchanted to spend this time getting to know you.” Your family is so lovely, your daughters so beautiful….” “Please, I am here to help you in the event you should require any assistance, you have all of my telephone numbers.” You get the picture.

To all of this we say a lot of “gracias,” and “adios!”

Not really in the same league. I think Spanish classes should begin with how to say an appropriately poetic and lyrical goodbye. Now that would be practical.

Un Pago?

Our experiences with store credit illustrate that context is king when it comes to language comprehension.

For instance, Tom and I were buying a USB cable for around $15-$20 US when the store clerks asked us something that I didn’t understand. After a big group discussion, with nearly everyone in the store participating, we finally realized that they were asking us if we wanted to use store credit to buy the cables on a payment plan.

Without the context of knowing that a payment plan was available for such a small purchase, it made it hard to understand what they were proposing!

Shortly after the USB cable incident, we were at the Disco buying groceries, obviously not that many because we have to carry them, and the check out guy asked, “Un pago?” I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about…it turns out that you can buy your groceries on a payment plan. Who knew?

I’ve got to get the hang of this store credit thing!!! I figure that the next time I buy empanadas on the street, they’ll ask if I want them on a payment plan and I’ll be as unprepared as ever. *sigh*

Me Llamo Tomás

[Even though my name is in the title of this blog, I realize that this is quickly becoming the show around here. I’ll have to work on making regular appearances, though keeping up with my wife’s torrid blogging pace may be out of the question.]

We’re off to Argentina for a year, and I don’t speak a word of Spanish.

Well, that’s not quite true. I can say: “Una cerveza, por favor.” It’s an admittedly handy phrase, but I don’t think it will be sufficient for the entire trip.  (Though I did manage to get through a week-long trip to Paris simply by asking for a favorite pastry over and over: “Un mille-feuilles, s’il vous plaît.”)

Since the girls don’t speak Spanish either, we all began Spanish lessons today. We got the Pimsleur method CDs out from the library, and now we gather around the stereo for half hour sessions:

Repeat after me:

“Perdón, no hablo español.”

“No entiendo español.”

“Hablo español un poco.”

The girls are delighted to be learning Spanish at the same time as me, since they are convinced, quite rightly, that they will quickly leave me in the dust. Not only do they have the natural advantage of youth, but they currently go to school in a Mandarin immersion program, and so are used to assimilating a foreign language.

Plus, they have a secret weapon. They can roll their “r”s. Naturally. Beautifully. “Arriba” comes out “arrrrrrrrrrrrrrriba!” when they say it.

As for me, I can’t make that sound. Can’t even come close to approximating it.

“It’s easy Daddy. Why can’t you do it?”

“It must be my German heritage. It’s the same reason my hips don’t move when I try to dance.”

“Try! Try!”

Then I try, and what comes out is a guttural, back-of-the-throat, phlegm-clearing kind of noise that sends my daughters into fits of laughter. Nothing could be funnier.

I expect that learning Spanish will provide me with plenty more opportunities to amuse them.