The effect of self-loathing on the language learner

Right now I feel frustrated because I can’t be understood when I speak Spanish. I feel totally useless, like a canoe that won’t float or an opera singer who can’t sing. I really do suck nuts.

This morning, I got up at five. I lit a candle as there was no electricity. I removed my clothes, which were horribly smelly from a hot and sweaty night of sleeping. I found my towel and went to bathe myself.

I placed the candle on a soapdish attached to a high point on the wall. Doña Ondina had brought water into the bathroom the night before. I filled a bucket to flush the toilet, hoping to eliminate some of the urine-stench.

I stepped into what would works for the shower and started to bathe. Water doesn’t come to the house because the house is on a hill. The water pressure, according to Papito, isn’t sufficient to push it all the way up the hill. Papito has to go to a neighbor’s house, hook up a hose to a spigot, put a pump on the line, and pump water up in to the house.

In the bathroom, there is a fifty gallon drum full of water. To bathe, I took the ladle, which is made from the bottom of a one gallon juice container, dipped it into the bucket, and dumped the cold water on my back and chest. I then ran the bar of honey-scented soap all along my body, concentrating especially on the stinky parts– like my armpits and testicles. I then rinsed off. All in all, I estimate I used five to eight gallons to bathe.

I went back to my room and put on my clothes except for my pants. In my boxers, I made my bed, taking down the required mosquito netting and folding the top sheet. It was 5:30 and for once everything was quiet in the barrio. I sat zazen for thirty minutes, the end of which was marked by the profoundly annoying hour chime of the neighbor’s clock.

The neighbor’s clock has twelve or so digital “tunes” recorded, and on the hour, it bleats these out-of-key attempts at classical and American folk music. These are immediately followed by an ugly series of electric tones. It is likely that the “tunes” used to be on key, and probably would have stayed that way if nothing had gone pathetically wrong at some point. If that was what happened, the clock would possibly have stayed “cute” or something. But in fact, in the process of manufacturing this clock, the engineers turned the volume up so high that distortion and damage were inevitable. This is the famous “High Class Quartz Clock” which many image conscious Dominicans seem to have. It has no volume control, and while the noise could be turned off, Dominicans do not do so.

I chanted the metta sutta and then set to do my homework. This consisted of a map of the neighborhood. I became engrossed in the details of drawing to scale. It’s the sort of detail-oriented perfection that I find all-consuming. In the process of measuring things and going in and out of the house, I woke Ondina up. She seemed confused, and asked what time it was. I yelled the time and kept working on the porch, where there was light in spite of the apagón.

At seven or so, Ondina called me to eat my rolls with cheese and to drink my juice and coffee. We discussed her plans to get a knee brace today. She works three days a week and she chooses which days these are.

I went to the main drag, the Autopista Duarte, and caught a carro público to the training center. Another trainee, John, shared the car with me and several other people, all Dominicans. We arrived at Entrena a few minutes after five. Nothing was happening. People were hanging out, shooting the shit. A note on the chalkboard said “Spanish class at 8:00.”

I went to the “classroom” where we usually have class. I sat down and waited. And waited. Then I figured out that I had fucked up. I was supposed to have met up with my classmates at another student’s home. So I started to write this instead.

Things from this point started to get worse. After writing for a while, I went and took an amazing shit (light coffee color, very long turd, medium well-done, normal). When I was leaving the crapper, my Spanish teacher, Milagro, saw me. Immediately she asked what was up. She then insisted upon giving me my very oh-so-very-special Spanish lesson. I got really annoyed at some point here, and that was that.

I started to listen to what I was saying. My Spanish sounded like absolute shit. And what was more was that even Milagros didn’t understand what I was saying. So on top of being really angry with myself for not doing or understanding what I was supposed to do, I figured out that my Spanish is about as useful as a car without wheels.

There were several instances where I tried to explain myself in Spanish and people laughed at me. I became increasingly unhappy until I just became sullen and wanted to run away. When people don’t understand me, it makes me mad. I don’t want others to think of me as stupid, but moreover, I don’t want evidence that maybe I really am stupid. Maybe what they told me for so many years in school is true— how would I know otherwise?

Lunch was this tasty pasta served with fried plantains. And then it was back to Spanish class for a long lecture about things about the present subjunctive I already knew. But Milagro didn’t understand our questions, or else she was trying to mislead us. She also didn’t understand it when I really insisted I had spent years studying how to conjugate subjunctive verbs. I just got really mad.

In the afternoon, I went to see the woman in Los Alcarizos who owns an Internet access space. She moved to the US when she was thirteen, and now she’s back managing a family business in the barrio. Perhaps she wants her teenage son to get to know the DR and his family. I checked my email for the first time in country. I wrote several people. R____ seems to have freaked out, but everyone else is cool.

Note to readers: This is a review of my personal journal from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic more than a decade ago. I have done my best not to change what I wrote, even if I feel differently now. Part of the joy of reading old journals is seeing a story arc where I’ve learned new things.

The previous entry in this series is Things I want from the Peace Corps. You can see the journal entries as I post them hereIf you’re just starting, here’s the first entry.