總結–Exchange Report

回來了,從墨國交流回來了, 可要交Exchange Report. 困在房間一整天, 竟寫了接近2700字的報告, 原來我”吹水”的能力還是挺高的. 很長…

I did my exchange semester in the Tecnologico de Monterrey, i.e. the TEC (Campus Monterrey) Mexico during the first semester, 2010-2011. Despite the worsening security situation in Mexico due to the drag war, I have had a great exchange experience in Mexico. The report is dedicated to share insights, cultural and human touches I have had during the exchange.

Brief Introduction of the Host Institution and the City

The TEC (campus Monterrey) is regarded as the best private university in Mexico and even in Latin America. Its tuition fee is rather expensive. One semester costs about $50,000 HKD. Many students pay the tuition in full. Of course there are also students who depend on scholarship and credit from the University and Government to pay for the tuition. So you can find some fancy students, driving Mercedes to school, slacking on their school works. On the other hand, you can also find students who are down to the earth, work very hard and excel in their studies. It may be an over generalization, yet such materially-rich-yet-intellectually-poor phenomenon can be easily spotted in the campus, or vice versa.

Monterrey is situated northern part of Mexico. It is an industrialized city, where many American companies have their headquarters due to its proximity to the US, is also the richest city in Mexico. It used to be one of safest cities in Mexico. Since the government declared drug war with drug cartels, Monterrey is gradually turning into the second most dangerous city in Mexico. During my stay, shootings occurred near the campus. On one occasion, a grenade was even thrown right in front of the campus.

Academic Culture

The TEC adopts a very paternalistic teaching method.
First, it counts students’ attendance. Lecturers take roll call at the beginning of the lecture. There is a limit for absence. Exceeding the quota will automatically result in failing the course. Being 10 minutes late for the lecture is counted as an absence.

Besides, it emphasizes on role learning with heavy workload imposed. Students are expected to remember all the facts taught in the textbooks, such as dates, causes for event occurred; exams are held monthly, something comparable to the A-Level examination in Hong Kong. Students keep doing work. It takes quantity at the expense of quality.

According to Mexican students, two rationales can be accounted for such teaching methodology.

First, Mexicans are known for being lazy, they need to be pushed externally. Somehow, I concur. Party culture is strong in Mexico. Mexicans like going clubbing, drinking, dancing, chill-out a lot. To them, enjoying life, spending time with friends, family matters more than other things, which have both pros and cons. On the one hand, Mexicans are happy people, despite hardship in life, as long as there is a party, beer, music, treasured people around, life is still worth living. A quote from Oscar Wilde tells the gist of Mexican optimism— “We are all in the Gutter, but some of us look at the stars.” The cost of life quality will be low work efficiency and productivity. “mañana, mañana” which is a favorite phrase of Mexican, meaning “tomorrow, tomorrow, let’s leave it tomorrow.” Underlying message will be “I will do it whenever I feel like to.”

Second, the TEC graduates will usually hold high positions in companies, government and other institutions. So the TEC need to train them in handling such pressure and workload. Such elitism has its ground. With its expensive tuition fee, those who can pay must come from well-established family without rich social networks and resources, so they will usually go into big corporations or governmental agencies. For those depend on credit and scholarship, their academic excellence will gain them a place in those places.

Courses recommended taking

Despite heavy workload in this institution, there are few classes that I found inspiring and interesting.
I really like my Spanish classes. Learning a language will necessarily touch its culture and history. My Spanish teacher is really of knowledge of Mexican culture, when she teaches, she is not only teaching Spanish, but also provides culture context of the language. Students are not only learning Latin America Spanish but also Mexican culture. For example, Spanish phase, “No me gusta”, (I don’t like it), according to the Spanish teacher that, Mexicans don’t express their negative opinions directly, they tend to package it in a nice way.

Besides, I have also taken a politics course, called International Negotiation. Through different case studies, I not only got to know the context of hot issues that still linger in the arena of international politics, but also get to know what makes a good negotiator. Such as Israel-Palestine negotiation, North Korea nuclear disarmament, it gives me a context to comprehend the news nowadays. The professor is really knowledgeable about international politics. He has also worked in different international organizations. It is one of few classes that don’t stress on workload but quality of work.

Moreover, I have also taken a course in Latin America history. The course offered me with history of the origin of America, of the intrusion of Spanish conquest, of their struggle for independence, to their modern development, to their search of self-identity and self-pride, all these somehow resonates with what Africans, even lots of Chinese are facing now. Through reading others, I came to know more of my very own identity and culture root.

Contacts with locals

Learning Mexican culture and Mexican way of being has been one of my exchange goals. So I chose to live with a host family, which has given me a closer contact with the locals. I lived with a 63-year-old widowed lady. She gives me a lot personal space. Through her, I get to know Mexican family values; I learn life philosophy from her. She has a son and a daughter. Both of them are married and have their own family. My host mom told me that Mexicans value family a lot; they treat the gender of the child equally. Before marriage, children need to live with their parents. Usually when children grow up and get married, they will move out the family. If they could not afford to buy a house, both girls and boys can stay with parents with their family. Every Wednesday is my host mom’s family lunch. By that time, both the daughter’s family and the son’s family will gather together.
Catholic is the national religion for Mexicans since its introduction by Spanish conquerors. Many Mexican are born as a catholic, and stick to Catholic teaching. My host mom’s daughter got married when she was 19 years old, still studying the university, and right after the university, she gave a birth a boy. All of them never question why they are born to be catholic, but accept this is the way it is.
Because of her age—being old meaning being experienced, having a lot of wisdom to tell, I also learn a lot from my host mom in terms of life. She told me that as long as today is better than yesterday, that’s good; she told me that it didn’t hurt so much when her husband died, that’s life. She also told me that there is a slight difference between her love to her grandchild and her child. She would say life should be enjoyed, just live for today because tomorrow itself will have its own worries.

Apart from my host family, I also get a profile of Mexicans from local students and ordinary citizens. Mexicans like to party a lot. When it comes to weekends, students will go clubbing, drinking, dancing and talking until the dusk, until they are all drunk. To most of them, it is a way of life; it is a way to relax themselves from the pressing life. That is a momentary escape.

Mexicans are very welcoming, friendly and helpful.

When I arrived in Monterrey at the first day, I was buying an adaptor. I didn’t know how to speak Spanish at all. After searching shop by shop, I still could not find one. A Mexican middle-aged man drove me around the town to find an adapter; he even paid for me when the shop keeper could not give change for my $500 peso note.
On the other hand, Mexicans are notorious for being lack of time concept, especially when it comes to social meetings, such as parties, eating out. 10 pm meeting will get started at 11 pm. Sometimes, even you have set the strict time and kept reminding your Mexican partners about the meeting, they can still fail to show up, simply because they forget. When showing up late, they will say, “Well, you know, it is Mexican time.”

Religious, optimistic, family-oriented, friendly, helpful, without time-concept, they are some Mexicans’ personal traits I have observed during my exchange.

Contacts with international Students

It will be hard to avoid contacts with international students, when there are over 1000 exchange students from different parts of the world in the campus.
Not being a party animal, I did not get to know as many exchange students as I should/could. But still, I have made a few good friends out of 1,000 of them.
The first one will be a Singaporean girl. Due to Asian affinity, we soon became good friends. She is the fourth Indian generation in Singapore. Through her, I also get to know her Singaporean counterparts. We shared lot first-times with each other: first time to try bungee jump, first time to do couch-surfing during traveling, first time to borrow uniform from convenience shop owners to attend Halloween party… By hanging out with her, I get to know Singaporean history, its social divisions. Through her eyes, I also see the world from different perspective. Being intelligent, sensitive, reflective, she can tell a world, a person even from a small gesture.

I also make good friends with a group of students from Czech Public. They are independent, know what they want, live life according to their own pace. They are counted as mature students because most of them are 24 years old. They have lived different parts of the world. Instead of academic studies, they live in a particular place just in the name of discovering life calling and self-refinement. That’s pretty a perspective-shattering experience for me. In Hong Kong, or maybe in Asia, people tend to be age-driven—gradate from the university at the age of 21; get promoted as a senior in the company at 25; get married before 30… people live according to the social expectations. It creates pressure if one fails to meet the timeline. Getting to know these Czech students, I realize that there are many possible ways for life to be, just be who we are, no matter what form it takes, it is still our own life.

There are other encounters with the international students, small but have shaped me in one way or the other. By being an international student in a foreign land, it helps me connect with other international students easier, and hence being exposed to different cultures and mentalities.

Extra-curricular activities

I have participated two voluntary services in the TEC: one is called “English for Normalista”, which aims to provide English enhancement course for both future and working teachers. The other called Mexican Rural—dedicated to provide enhancement classes for primary students in community schools. They have offered me a glimpse of some weaknesses of Mexico education systems.

There are not enough resources to the educational system. Students of different levels need to squeeze in the same class. The teachers are not well trained, one teach needs to teach few subjects, sometimes even all subjects despite not being familiar with.

One incident occurred during the “English for Normalista” class, which shed light on Mexican inferior mentality.

Together with 3 other Mexican students, we designed and conducted the classes on our own. Due to heavy school workload, my teammates did not put lot of effort in the course preparation, I was upset about it , because some of students in the course have to drive for 2 hours to come to the university, for this 2-hour weekly class, I felt bad when we did not deliver a quality class. Then I wrote to my teammate, expressing my disappointment and asking them to uphold the responsibility as a teacher and a teammate. One of them felt offended by the email. He wrote back defensively, saying that foreigners in Mexico like to regard themselves as the savior for the country. He sarcastically apologized:
“Sorry we are not those great economies, which don’t have poor, problems, or these kind of issues, But we have great things, as Mexicans, we are happy, more than it seems, and great feelings, and hope, and desire to improve and get that our country.”

I was offended by this email in turn, replied:

“I don’t know by which way I behave makes me to fall into your ‘foreigner-self-regarded-savior’ stereotype. Anyway, hereby I want to clear out that, such stereotype doesn’t work for me. I absolutely agree with what you have pointed out, the positivity, the strength and element of ‘Hope’ have embedded into Mexicans. I am impressed, and salute for such life-fighter spirit.

Every country has its own problems, US, look at its slow discovery from the credit crunch, UK, just announced 50,000 job-cutting….By no means, Mexico has to demean itself in the face of so-called ‘great economies’. Sometimes, it is the self-demeaning mentality that generates victimization.”

After such email communication, all the teammates became more involved in the program. In the end of the program, I had a meal with them, reflecting what we have been through. They admitted that this program was fundamentally flawed as the student teachers were not passionate about teaching, not with an aim to help participants improve their English, but to fulfill their compulsory voluntary services hours. They also shared their ideas about how to improve the education system in Mexico. A sense of relief and comfort has crept in. The intercultural misunderstanding has been overcome by candid conversation, which has changed their perception of foreigners, the way they view the weaknesses of the country.
I am glad I have forsaken Saturdays for these two programs. I see another part of Mexico that even some Mexicans don’t get to know.

Personal Growth

Mexico has given me kisses and hugs, tequila, friends—lots of friends, and family, who keep reminding me to come back because ‘it is your home, Chaunog’; Mexico has showed me salsa– made my body move and shake. Mexico has given me a helpful hand whenever I needed one. I have taken so much from Mexico, all the memories in Mexico hold texture, smells,rhythm and history so it is in my body and in my mind.

This exchange has made me more culturally sensitive when it comes to intercultural communication.

It has also broadened my horizon. By meeting people around the world and learning Mexican beings, I get to know that different possibilities exist in life.
It has made me more independent and confident when it comes to express my opinions among the crowd.

Some reminders when doing exchange in Mexico

• Sharing an apartment with other students is the cheapest accommodation option. You can find it online.

• Mexicans greet each other with face kiss. Putting your right face against the other’s right face and give a symbolic kiss.

• Have basic Spanish knowledge before going there. Not many Mexicans can speak English. Communication problem will result if you don’t do so.
To sum up, Mexico is a good country to do exchange though the academic excellence is not comparable to HKU.

Locals are open-minded and welcoming to foreigners. They are also dignified persons, allowing an enriching cultural exchange.

Mexico is a country with diverse landscapes, cultures and histories. It has a user-friendly public transportation, which enables travelers to explore around the country and get to different Mexican spirits.

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