We’ve been doing a lot of comparing and contrasting in second grade lately, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about some of the similarities and differences (mainly differences) that I’ve noticed between the people I worked/lived with Nicaragua and China.
One thing that immediately struck me is the difference in opportunities that people have here. Teaching will never be the highest paying profession, but for the most part, people in Nicaragua are born, grow up, work, and grow old within like a 10-mile radius. The people I knew in Matiguas had lived there their whole lives, taught at a school either in their town or in one of the local rural communities, and didn’t necessarily have any plans to go anywhere else, even within their small country. There were exceptions to that of course, but that was largely the norm.
When I moved to China, one of the first questions I asked most of my Chinese colleagues was if they were from this area. Almost all of them said no. We’re living in the very southern part of China, and my co-teacher is from way up north. Most people have similar stories. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, and one of them is technology. People in Nicaragua may have internet access, but it certainly isn’t easy to search for and apply for jobs online. I’m not even sure that most schools have an email address, or not one that is checked regularly. The few times that I tried to email someone at my school, I didn’t get a response.
I’m sure this isn’t universally true, because I recognize that I’m mostly interacting with people who have some position of privilege, but the people I’ve met have had so many opportunities to travel, at least compared to people in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is a country about the size of New York state, and most of the people I knew hadn’t traveled far outside their own communities, much less gotten on a plane. Many of the Nicaraguans I talked to would never stay overnight outside of their house, so they were limited to places they could travel to and from in a day. Keep in mind, my town was a 2.5-hour bus ride from the department capital, and about 3.5-4 hours from the country’s capital. Trying to do either one of those round-trips in a day would be taxing. (I think in two years, I only took one day trip to Matagalpa, the very first time I went.) My host family would, I think once a year, take a paseo to the beach (in León, like 6 hours away). They would leave on the earliest bus at about 3 a.m, spend the day at the beach, and then come back that same night. My counterparts dreamed of being able to go to Costa Rica or the U.S. to study English for a few months, but they haven’t had the opportunity to go yet.
Here, the country is gigantic, and people I work with were born and raised all over it. Many of them have worked, studied, or lived abroad. The kids we teach go on vacations to Australia, Paris, Japan. Some of them have houses abroad. Even some of the more privileged Nicaraguans I met didn’t have that level of access to the world.
Marriage and children
Similarly, while young women in Nicaragua were often married with children, most of the Chinese immersion teachers I know are single and childless. Based on my observation, it seems a lot more common for women to marry and have children later than they do in Nicaragua.
My Nicaraguan counterpart and second-best Nicaraguan friend in the whole world had her daughter (my first best Nicaraguan friend) at age 31, which was far far later than most. Teenage pregnancy is incredibly common in Nicaragua (I read that the mean age of a first birth is 19 years old), and just about everyone I talked to in Nicaragua was shocked that I didn’t have children. To be 25 or 26 years old like I was, and not have children? It was unfathomable. And to not even be married? Not have a boyfriend? The ship must have sailed for me.
I guess that brings me to another difference. You may remember that I (and every other woman in Nicaragua) dealt with street harassment on a regular basis. Men hollering at us in the street, giving “compliments,” and generally feeling like they were entitled to our time and attention. Men in the park, men on the bus, men everywhere were constantly trying to strike up a conversation with me, and that conversation would always center on my marital status. Even when I started lying and saying I was married, men would still try to suggest that it’s totally natural for married people to have affairs, as if I’m going to say, “yes, bus stranger, great point. Let me just exchange some details with you so we can arrange a day to cheat on our spouses.”
Anyway, that doesn’t happen here. Are there gross men? Absolutely, as evidenced by the man on the metro who was trying to take pictures up a woman’s skirt. The difference is that the gross men are more secretive about their grossness, they don’t holler at me on the street or try to talk to me on public transportation. You may assume that it’s partially because they look at me and think, “There’s no way that woman speaks Mandarin,” but I don’t think that’s the whole story. In Nicaragua, men would yell out cars and across the street. It didn’t seem to matter if you could understand or respond to them, the point was that they felt entitled to speak to us however they wanted. Here, people talk to each other and they leave me out of it. It’s magical.
I realize that so far all I’ve done is talk about differences, so this isn’t much of a compare and contrast, but it is very difficult to think of any worthwhile similarities. I still line dry my clothes, I still can’t flush toilet paper. Just about every other part of this experience is different.
I’ll keep thinking about this and build on this list if I have any more revelations.