Working as a teacher is filled with joys, challenges, lesson planning — and answering the same questions 9000 times a day. It’s even more extreme when you’re the only foreigner in a school filled with curious children, in a country where it’s socially acceptable to ask incredibly personal questions within about two minutes of meeting someone. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had enough time to adjust to the constant barrage of questions directed my way, but sometimes I can’t help but laugh at the frequency with which I get asked the exact same things, every day. At the least, I can say that if I ever end up on the wrong side of a press conference, I’m going to be totally prepared for any and all weird questions that people want to throw at me.
In the meantime, I’ve been perfecting my responses to these particular gems:
- Do you have kids? For some reason, this precedes my marital and/or relationship status. Not sure these kids understand the general order of events that typically lead to the having of children. As I tell them, I currently have about 850 children, and that is more than enough for me.
- Do you have a boyfriend? Even the ten-year-old kids here have boyfriends/girlfriends. Pretty much everyone I work with is married. I, on the other hand, am apparently that single weirdo that nobody will ever love. Despite my protestations, they have all decided I’m secretly here to find a Colombian boyfriend. Nothing I say can convince them otherwise. Any day now, I’m expecting to be set up with someone’s nephew/son’s friend/neighbor. In the meantime, I’m just going to keep batting my gringa eyelashes at all those attractive dudes on the TransMilenio.
- Are you married? The best instance of this question actually didn’t come from my kids, but rather from a guy who climbed aboard a buseta I was riding on (after I’d gotten on the wrong bus and ended up on a rather scary, very far-away side of Bogotá) and proceeded to tell jokes to the passengers in exchange for a few monedas. He saw me sitting in the back, looking bereft and somewhat frazzled (justified, given that I was in the midst of a harrowing 2-hour buseta journey around Bogotá) and decided that what I really needed was to be asked about my marital status. To be fair, it was actually pretty charming, although I might have been slightly biased because of his awesome ’60s hippie hair. Upon my admission that yes, I’m single, he proceeded to sing his own praises, which included (but are undoubtedly not limited to) cooking, telling funny stories, and ironing. He actually included ironing on his list of marrieageworthy skills. When I decide to go into the market for a husband, I may just have to try to track this guy down.
- Why did you come to Colombia? Plenty of people are genuinely baffled by the idea that an American would willingly leave our gold-lined streets to come spend a year hanging out in Colombia. Volunteerism isn’t a particularly popular endeavor here — certainly not to the extent it is at home — so it’s hard to get that concept across, too. People in developing countries aren’t exactly in a position to relate to the idea of having enough privilege to give up a year’s salary in the interest of doing something “different.”
- Do you like it here? On the other hand, they are also all genuinely interested in the fact that I did choose to come here, and all of them are anxious to make sure that I have a positive impression of the country. Colombians are their own tourism office, and they’re extremely good at it. They’re hyper-aware of the less-than-stellar image they have around the world, and they are determined to do whatever they can to make sure that image is changing.
- Do you speak Spanish? Officially, the policy is “no.” That is, I do my absolute best to speak only English with the kids at school, since it forces them to talk to me in English, even if they hate it. Obviously, I can’t do this with the smallest kids, but for third grade and up, it’s all English, all the time. They are hellbent on getting me to say something in Spanish, and a few of them have already caught me speaking to the other teachers (I can’t exactly force them to speak to me in English. My sponsored colonialism only goes so far). When they accuse me of bilingualism, I insist that I was really speaking English — they’re just so used to hearing Spanish that their brains automatically converted it. Honestly, though, most of them aren’t buying it.
- Don’t you miss your family? People here generally live with their families until they either get married or die. The idea of moving out after high school and living with complete strangers in an apartment is at the least strange and at the most horrifying to many Colombians. Because I’m not only not living in a house with my family, but actually choosing to live more than 2,000 miles away from them, most of the Colombians I’ve met assume this means I hate my family and don’t miss them at all. It’s hard to explain the deeply-ingrained concept of independence instilled in most of us in the States re: our residential situation as adults, or the fact that it isn’t weird for me to keep in touch with my family through Skype, considering that I haven’t technically lived at home for more than a few months since I was 17. So, not only am I a hopeless spinster destined to die alone, but I won’t even have my family to fall back on when I face the reality that nobody will ever marry me. Some reputation I have here, let me tell you.
- Do you like the food here? I’m convinced this question primarily comes up because most of the kids have more of a solid grasp on food vocabulary than anything else. Either way, I heartily enjoy talking about food, so I have no problem with this topic. However, the concept of vegetarianism is pretty strange to most Colombians — they understand it, but they certainly don’t do it. I get a lot of “But what do you eat?” from concerned adults. Considering that most Colombian meals consist of: meat, rice, some form of potatoes, plantains or yucca, and maybe another vegetable if you’re lucky, this isn’t a totally unreasonable question. On the other hand, there are cheap panaderias (bakeries) on every other block, you can buy avocados the size of your face for about 50 cents from little carts on street corners, and the fruit is cheaper and tastier than anywhere else I’ve ever been, so the truth is, I’m doing just fine.
- Have you ever been to New York/Miami/Los Angeles/Las Vegas/Disneyworld? These are apparently the only places in the U.S. that matter to Colombian kids. The first and last ones are of particular interest. I don’t have the heart to tell them that I couldn’t care less about any of these except New York, and even that is really only because my friends live there. So I’ve gotten really good at pretending to be excited about the Magic Kingdom, or whatever the hell kind of nonsense the Great Disney Overlords have built down there since I was nine.
- Do you like sandwiches? I have no explanation for this. Apparently middle-schoolers love sandwiches. Or maybe they just love to say “sandwich.” Either way, I think I may have set some kind of world record for repetition of the phrase, “It depends on the sandwich.”
But really. I think we can all agree that it does, in fact, depend entirely on the sandwich. And that is an international truth.