Saturday, July 28, 2012

Starbucks, La Vega, and the IATEFL Conference

This past few months I've been spending a good amount of time at Starbucks.    Those of you that know me well understand this, but those of you that don't might be puzzled since I don't drink coffee.

So if I don't drink coffee why have I been spending so much time there?  Well, there are a few reasons.  The first reason is that I have a private class that meets at a Starbucks two mornings a week.  At first I was a bit apprehensive to have class there since it would require me to buy something during class, but it has actually worked out nicely.  I arrive when they open right at 7:30, and that way I miss most of the rush hour traffic.  The class only starts at 8:30, but it's a nice time to sit and read, write in my journal, or do some lesson planning.  The free wireless is also very convenient, and the fact that you can sit in a comfortable couch, sip on tea, and do work for a few hours is something very relaxing and appealing.

At the same time, there are some things I don't like about Starbucks.  If there are alternatives I usually prefer to support smaller and family-owned businesses or independent coffee shops, but here in Chile those options that have free wireless are rather limited.  Another thing is that I don't care for is the crowds at peak times.  I used to go to a Starbucks to kill an hour of time before an evening class, but I spent 10 minutes in line waiting to order, up to 10 minutes waiting for my drink, and then sometimes it was so crowded I couldn't even find a seat.  Last but not least, Starbucks employees are not treated well here in Chile at all.  I remember seeing a report in the news that they are paid something like $3 or $4 an hour, and there have been multiple reports of employees being forced to work through their legally required breaks.  It came down to a faceoff between Starbucks and the union, and I believe they ruled in favor of the union.

I've also noticed some rather disturbing behavior at Starbucks.  It's fairly common that employees go through the store and clear the tables of any empty drinks and plates.  In a situation like that it appears to me that etiquette would dictate that you thank or at least acknowledge the person that is taking care of this for you, but I've noticed quite often that people don't even acknowledge the person that is essentially cleaning up for them.

On another occasion I saw a man actually throw his napkins onto the floor, and then he started reading his newspaper.  The employee then had to bend down and pick up his napkins off the floor while he read his paper.

These sitautions affect me personally for a few reasons.  First off, I really believe that all people deserve to be able to earn a living wage and that they are entitled to breaks from their work.  I also believe that if a company has a contract or legalities that they need to honor them and shouldn't cut corners to earn more money at the expense of its employees.  Situations like these also reinforce the stratification that is evident in Chile: those with money are very distinct from those without it.

The most fundamental issue at hand, however, is respect and treating others with dignity.  The people that are making my tea and making their rounds to pick up empty cups and plates are people just like me and you.  They have hopes, dreams, ambitions, fears, and insecurities like everyone else.  The idea that people don't acknowledge these people or haven't given thought to their actions is something that I'm very sensitive to, perhaps too much so.

Whenever I'm at Starbucks I am reminded of these inequalities, and the stratification bothers me a bit.

On the other side of the spectrum is La Vega.  I've been going there sporadically during my time in Chile, and I'd buy some things here and there.  I don't know why it took me so long to realize it, but it dawned on me that I can stock up on food there and freeze it until I need it.  So during my last trip I got 12 pork chops (3 bags of 4 in each bag) and 2 bags of chicken (a little less than a kilo per bag), and what I'm not using now is in my freezer.  That way I maximize my savings.  I also found some household products I needed for cheaper than what I'd pay at the grocery store.  I like going there to support the people that are directly working with the produce and products that they sell.  The only challenge is the distance from my apartment, so I try to go less often but stock up on what I need.

One a different note, last weekend I attended the International Association for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) Conference in Santiago.  Based on my experience there two years ago I knew that it wasn't going to be like the conferences I had been to in the States before, and it proved to  be a mixed bag.  Some presenters were very well organized and articulate, presenting effective teaching strategies and ways to adapt and use materials to engage learners.  Penny Ur and Herbert Puchta were amazing, and I feel fortunate to have heard them speak.  Other people presented research papers or were trying to sell products in their session, and since there were no descriptions or abstracts you had no way of knowing beforehand.  A lot of presentations were geared towards teaching children or university students in a classroom setting, so people like me had a challenging time finding workshops that were geared towards our needs.

There's another teaching conference coming up at the end of August/beginning of September sponsored by Teaching of English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) Chile.  I actually submitted a proposal to present some teaching strategies, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.  If accepted it will be my first time presenting at an international conference, so if you can please keep your fingers crossed for me too!

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