What I Didn’t Know About Bichos and Chicle

You can hardly keep from learning something new every week when you’re really interacting with Mexicans. They have a rich culture and just as vast and interesting backgrounds as anyone else does. I certainly learned a lot yesterday as I was teaching my Intermediate English students.

Manuel is an interesting man in the church. He works in a factory and he brings his teenage son, Luis, to class with him each afternoon. Yesterday, we worked on some simple conversation…and I mean VERY simple…the class is called “Intermediate” but that’s mostly indicative of the fact that their book says Level 2 rather than Level 1. They’re all very basic in their comprehension and usage of English.

ANYWAY, I asked the five students to think of something they like about the beach and they couldn’t use something that anyone else said first. When I got to Manuel, he said he didn’t like the beach. He was the only one who couldn’t come up with something nice to say about the beach. That begged the question…why not? He replied that it was full of biting “bichos” (bugs) and flies and the water is dirty. That was interesting.

I have only been to one beach in Mexico and it didn’t have anything other than mosquitoes at sunset. What beach was this, I asked him. “Tampico.” Oh Tampico. That explains it. I looked this beach up one time. It is on the Gulf Coast about halfway to Texas from here. The city has a web page that tries to point out how attractive the place is but after checking that out with Google Earth and Expedia I discovered there didn’t seem to be very many hotels there. I saw pictures of people all over the beach but then none looked like tourists. I also recall that no one was in the water in the photos. And there’s a large port there…big ships and nice beaches usually don’t go together. Things that make you go…hmmm.

Sure enough, as far as Manuel is concerned, it’s a lousy beach but I think this is what he thinks about “the beach” period. His son Luis is about 16 or 17 years old (I guess) and he commented that he has never been to a beach before. Never! Wow…I guess Manuel is serious about this beach bug experience.

We moved on to another topic. The mountains around here aren’t terribly exciting…mostly rock, dirt, sand and cactus. So we decided to say what we like about Mexico City. Everyone in the class had been to Mexico City and everyone had something nice to say about Mexico City, except…you’ll never guess who?! OK…I guess this is a bit too obvious.

Manuel said, “I don’t like anything about Mexico City.”

“Really?!? Nothing?”

“Not one of the great museums?” (“…with kids it’s not so fun.”)

“Not Chapultapec Park?” (“nope”)

“Not Xochimilco?” (“nope”)

“Not the Fine Arts Palace?” (“not really”)

“Not the Metro (subway)?” (ha-ha…that’s a joke I think…he replied that he once got his hand stuck in the door! another bad memory!)

Well…what about Luis the son? Oh he struggled a bit and came up with the “Children’s City.” I didn’t know exactly what that was but he liked it and it sounded likable.

So…Manuel…”You don’t like the ‘Children’s City?” Manuel replied, “Oh yes, I liked the ‘Children’s City.'”

Ah-ha! “So, you do like something about Mexico City after all, don’t you?!?”

“Oh no, not for me, but for my family. I don’t like it for me.” ARGGHHH!

We had a lot of fun with this topic for quite awhile. Finally, I had to blurt out with a smile and teasingly, “You know Manuel, I think you’re a negative person! You need to work on being more positive!”

We had a good laugh and class was closing on a humorous note. Always nice to see them leave with a smile on their faces.

As Manuel turned to leave I ribbed him a little bit more and said…”…not even the Fine Arts Palace…hard to believe.”

He turned to me and said…”I lived in Mexico City for 18 years. I never went in to the Fine Arts Palace. I sold ‘chicle’ (chewing gum) on the street in front of it to make a living.”

Well…what do you say? All that laughter wasn’t so funny anymore. Me and my big mouth. That explains a lot. Manuel has obviously lived a difficult life. Selling gum on the street is about the bottom of the bottom. A task often reserved for young children in bare feet or Indian mothers carrying babies and waving down cars at street lights hoping to make a buck a day. It isn’t funny at all. Maybe if I’d spent a few years (or maybe just one day or even one hour) selling gum on the streets of Mexico City, I wouldn’t have anything nice to say about that city either.

Manuel doesn’t make a lot of money. He drives a car that is maybe 25 years old and looks it. He has several kids. Luis is the oldest. Well…no wonder why Luis has never been to a beach in his lifetime. It costs a lot of money to travel to the beach and stay there, even if the hotel is cheap by my standards.

Yeah…my students are learning some English. Without a doubt, I’m still learning too and sometimes in the worst way.

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