Margie Hord

Expat by Default

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What’s your Word of the Year? Mine is “Brave”

It seemed to happen all of a sudden, that on social media people were talking about choosing their word of the year, to guide them as they faced the near future. That clicked with me, simpler than going for resolutions or goals that ended up in the dust.

Then I came across a short online quiz to help you decide on “your word of truth” after asking you several questions. There were multiple-choice answers, which didn’t excite me, but in the end the word I chose was “Brave”.

Continue reading

Understanding Mexican Courtesy or “Buena Educación”


When I was in Spain a few years ago, it shocked me to find a server treating us somewhat rudely, until I remembered a friend once telling us “you almost have to use swear words to get a waiter’s attention in Spain!” What?  Then other contacts have confirmed that Spaniards tend to be very direct and in-your-face, often appearing offensive to courteous Latin Americans.

It has occurred to me that, as Mexican culture is a fusion of Spanish and indigenous influence, perhaps its emphasis on extreme politeness and “doing the right thing” is more related to its indigenous roots after all! It is commonly called “buena educación”, which is a bit more all-encompassing than “good manners”. It has to do with being a decent person, or as Paul Yeatman says, having “good upbringing”. Among other things, he says, “Personal hygiene and courtesy are of primary importance, from the look of the fingernails to table manners to the rituals of politeness”. Continue reading

Learning from the Grandkids

Image may contain: 1 person, shoes, child and outdoorImage may contain: 1 person, shoes, child and outdoorImage may contain: 1 person, shoes, child and outdoorImage may contain: 1 person, shoes, child and outdoorImage may contain: 1 person, shoes, child and outdoorImage may contain: 1 person, shoes, child and outdoor

Folding up the hide-a-bed, I find a Nerf bullet or two,. The other day there was one in my purse. No doubt about it, I’m visiting the grandkids! Evenings, there is likely to be a Nerf-gun battle, sometimes with special masks and all. It’s quite a turnabout from my normal, solitary life. Time to learn…

Living at a distance from both sets of grandkids (after once having them all in the same city as me), I’ve adapted to a “kidless” life It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in my activities, my reading, my writing and social media. A visit to one set of grands has meant exercising a degree of self-control to avoid being overly wrapped up in those habits. Time to set aside the phone, the laptop, the book… and interact with those entertaining little “teachers”.

Just as parenting is a constant learning curve as we adapt to children and seek to be sensitive to their needs and intuition, grandparenting is as well… perhaps relearning some lessons after years of dormancy.

Seize the Moment

I’m constantly needing to learn this one. Yesterday, the rains made me feel like hunkering down in our “cave” for the day. No, I was in charge, and the grandkids needed more stimulation that that. So, time to hit the library! The one nearby is quite small, just one big room, but it has a variety of reading items, even some in other languages. There’s even coloring materials for those who are so inclined. There are computers, some of them marked for kids only, but we needed to get away from screens for a while!

Today, the sky has cleared unexpectedly after a rainy day. California spring is around the corner. A few of the leafless trees are showing signs of new life, one even showing forth red leaves, a gay contrast against the oh-so-blue sky. Not to be wasted spending too much time inside. What’s there to do? Easy… hit the trail to enjoy nature and more!

Sometimes we hike down the trail that runs by our department complex in several directions; today the kids grabbed their scooters for a change. There are several parks within walking distance. It’s always a learning experience as we observe the flora and fauna that cross our path. It’s bonding time too, whether chatting or enjoying a playground together.

A child lying on the ground under a thick layer of autumn leaves

Break the Sameness

Middle-age adults find it especially easy to fall into the rut of habit. Grandchildren motivate us to try something new, or at least break out of “life as usual” for a while.

When I’m with the grandkids, one of them is bound to want to do some baking with me, and I’ve more inspiration to do so than when I’m on my own.

Not much time goes by without someone wanting to play a board game; we even started to learn a new one this week.

Today we “lost an hour” with Daylight Savings Time arriving, so it was harder to get to church on time. That’s okay! I suggested we “do church” at home and everyone participated a bit. My granddaughter even thought of a craft to end with, based on the day’s lesson… which was inspired by last night’s movie, The Prince of Egypt.

Above all, much as we complain about how young ‘uns are overly connected to cell phones, videos and such, I realize it’s often up to us adults to offer options. As long as we’re busy with our stuff, they are likely to get bored. If I suggest an activity, there may be someone who groans, but as a rule they are perfectly willing to break out of the sameness and join me for something different.

Learn Interesting Facts

Children are bombarded with information these days, but it’s not all entertainment. The six-year-old just informed me that wolves have 42 teeth. Asked where he learned that, he replied simply: “Researching!” He goes to a Montessori school where he finds information on his own and writes answers to questions. Another day I was astounded at how much he knew about the location of certain states, more than his older siblings.

Kids (and of course grandkids) are “sponges”, always learning. Their curiosity and discovery of new  facts can spark in us that freshness, too.

A young woman smiling while looking at a smartphone

Learn New Skills

Nowadays, there are so many gadgets that weren’t around when we were growing up. Many of them have to do with technology. I’m certainly not the only grandparent who gets the younger generation to teach her to use apps on the cellphone, or ask “Alexa” for information or even a favorite song. My grandkids have more time than adults to show me something, patiently.

A person holding two donuts outside.


Be Generous

Little kids are famous for being selfish, but even they can surprise us at times. As they grow up, some show more generosity than others. One of my grandsons is good at checking out bargains, and found donuts on sale for 79 cents a box. He bought two boxes and shared with the rest of us, no problem. This is no exception, but happens a lot. A young teen, he even invited me to have something at Starbucks when he got a gift card! I’m sure I’m not the only adult who sometimes hides goodies to keep them from the kids, so that’s one kid who has something to teach me.

Share Good Grief

Being with the grandkids has helped me to grieve in a healthy way, remembering those little details about their granddad, whoe passed away just months ago. One day we were crossing the street and one of them bunched up some of his brother’s sweatshirt to cross the street. “That’s the way Pa used to do it.” When we were in a park, I picked up an empty can of soda to discard later, and was reminded, “Pa used to pick up garbage, too.” Hardly a day goes by without some memory coming up,.

A proper life is one where we are constantly learning, and having grandchildren be among those who teach us is a blessing!

Adjusting to Life in the US (Again)

Green details on the Statue of Liberty's head and crown

Most of my life has been spent in Latin America, although I did attend boarding school in Massachusetts eons ago, which involved considerable adjustment. Much has changed since then. These impressions are based especially on a recent visit to Southern California, so my observations might not be the same in other areas. If you already live in the US or Canada, most of these “facts of life” may seem obvious, but this is a chance to see your country through the eyes of newcomers. Then again, perhaps some of my readers are adjusting, too!

Diverse group of friends smile and post in a line outside

Ethnic and Racial Diversity

Back in the 70’s, it wasn’t as common to see much ethnic or racial diversity in the US. Of course there were more Afro-Americans and Hispanics in some areas, and in larger cities or international airports one could see more variety.

Now, however, it is a major change for me to see a wide range of racial and ethnic groups represented wherever I go, some even easily differentiated by saris, turbans or burkas. In fact, only 26% of students in the public schools of California identify themselves as “white”.  Wikipedia says: “No single ethnic group forms a majority  of California’s population”.

Interracial families are much more common than in the past, as well. Continue reading

Why I Love Language and Languages

Why I Love Language and Languages

Basic to human communication, words and language captivate me. I grew up knowing English and Spanish, and took Latin in high school. After taking a linguistics course (both challenging and fascinating) in my B.A. classes for Anthropology, I decided it was worth learning more, and my later studies focused on descriptive and applied linguistics.

When I say I studied linguistics, some have asked me how many languages I know, as if they expect me to be a polyglot. Not so, by any means. At school we practiced pronouncing words from a wide range of languages. We analyzed the phonology (sound systems) and structure of dozens of them, as well, including a number of indigenous languages and others from all around the world. I have studied a little French, and spent a summer learning Koiné Greek.

In southern Mexico for a few months, I learned some basics of the Tzeltal language, of the Mayan family, and loved its glottalized sounds (such as those similar to p, t, and k), a bit difficult to learn. These consonants sound somewhat explosive, producing a sort of popping noise. I once even read a story in Tzeltal to a family, and they understood it! Decades later, I barely remember a few words and phrases, and a little song.

Language Sounds

The world’s languages have a considerable variety of sounds, and confusing similar sounds (especially when our own language doesn’t include them) can make a major difference in meaning. In descriptive phonetics, one learns how sounds are produced and how to write transcriptions with technical symbols. In Canada, I once met a Laotian refugee family that our church was helping to get established. It was fun for me to learn a few words from their language, and try to pronounce their names correctly. The woman’s name sounded, to many English speakers, like “phew!” and made them laugh. She seemed delighted when, with my phonetics training, I was able to pronounce it correctly.

Making an effort to learn people’s languages shows you care and value them; it crosses barriers.

Tonal languages add another dimension to their phonology (sound system), where the tone in which a word is pronounced being essential to the meaning. Perhaps most famous in this aspect is Chinese, but in Mexico there are a number of tonal languages, including Mixtec. My father-in-law, a native speaker, got a kick out of saying a list of similar words that had totally different meanings, depending on their tone, nasalization, and the presence of sounds known as glottal stops. (To understand what that means, listen to the sound at the beginning and in the middle of “uh-oh”).

Resultado de imagen para aztec

Words and Word Structure

Later on, the organization where I worked asked me to check out the progress made by another linguist on a dictionary in one of the variants of Náhuatl, sometimes known as Aztec. There was a great deal still to be done, but I spent some time adding words and definitions; however, a number of complications came up and the dictionary was never published. All the same, I grew to appreciate some of the complexities of the language; the way it adds on countless prefixes and suffixes is hard to master and creates some surprisingly long words.

By the way, Mexican Spanish has a great deal of loan words from Náhuatl, but even English has adopted several. For example, there’s tomato, avocado, chocolate, chile, taco, and coyote. Usually several changes have occurred, as in coyote coming from “coyotl”.


Especially intriguing was the variety of onomatopoeic words in Náhuatl. In English, this type of words would include those like “pop”, “crash”, and “cock-a-doodle-do”, which imitate an actual sound. When I’d try to write a definition for some of those terms, it would be hard to find an English or Spanish equivalent. One word, for example, meant approximately “a sound like a horse galloping across a wooden bridge”. The way each language has unique words with very specific meanings is another of the facets that delight me.

Grammar and Syntax

Another feature of each language is its unique structure and rules (both syntax and grammar), whether or not a linguist has analyzed them. In Mexico, however, one often hears people refer erroneously to the indigenous languages as “dialects”, considering them somehow inferior, merely oral languages “without a grammar”. A speaker of the complex Otomí tongue was once told his language “didn’t have a grammar”; he ran to get the recently-published, voluminous book on the grammar of his language, proudly showing it off.


Before I sign off, let me touch briefly on sociolinguistics, which deals with how language and society are intertwined. The way we speak depends on the context, from informal to formal, which is more important in some languages than in others. One Náhuatl group has a specific, ultra-formal way of speaking that is only used in ceremonies among godparents and godchildren! Then there are ways of expressing ourselves such as slang and jargon, spoken solely by those belonging to an in-group.


Bilinguals and multilinguals may use the languages they speak differently. Sociolinguists study this, as well. In Haiti, for instance, Creole is almost exclusively spoken at home and with friends, whereas French is reserved for formal contexts such as school, church, and government. (If you want the fancy word for that, it’s called diglossia.) In many countries, speakers of indigenous languages do not tend to use them for reading or writing, just orally, and schools tend to focus on the national language.

Although I’ve only flown over the surface of some aspects of language,  it’s a very complex subject, but one which offers much to learn.

Just as each human group can be identified by its particular culture, its language is an essential part of its identity. Each of the world’s tongues has value, as do those who speak them!

The Blessings and Woes of Teaching

Woman wearing watch and green dress, holding green apple with sunlight streaming in

I just “retired” after a quarter century of part-time teaching, mostly at the university level. That’s in quotes because it was not an option with any severance pay or benefits, but it’s time to move on.

When I was a student, someone suggested I might become a teacher someday. My answer? “I don’t have the patience!”

It was not my plan to become a teacher, but that’s where a job opened up; then finishing my M.A. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) opened up other doors. There was more of a demand in that area than in that of descriptive linguistics, where I had taken initial Master’s courses.

My experiences are of course not universal to all teachers because I speak as one who worked part-time, in Mexico, mostly in universities and mainly teaching English as a Foreign Language. Let me begin with some of the woes, getting them out of the way before I speak of a few blessings.


A woman with a cup of tea working on a laptop

  • Homework… for Teachers Too

To make a twist on an old saying: The 9-to-5-ers work sun to sun, but a teacher’s work is never done! Whether part- or full-time, most of us arrive home to plan classes, check homework, design tests, and work on grades. This makes it very tricky to plan family time or leisure time, as the unpredictable often comes up, as well. Without interviewing my husband and kids, I’m sure they were often frustrated by this fact of life.

Resultado de imagen para bored

  • Teaching the Unmotivated

It is a delight to teach those who want to learn, which may happen most with those preschoolers who are like sponges, lapping it up. At times I’ve taught in language institutes where students have specific reasons and motivations for learning English: to pass an exam, to apply for a job, to travel. At colleges, in contrast, most kids are there simply because it’s a required subject. The fact that it’s a requirement for graduation is a type of motivation, but often that goal seems quite far off. Many see little relation of the topic to their majors.

Added to this is the lack of attention that has become rampant with the prevalence of cell phones, much as they are usually “forbidden” except for specific activities. Controlling their use is still a challenge at the college level.

At the same time, the apparent lack of motivation or interest can be seen as a challenge to teachers, to seek out ways to connect with students and what interests them.

Of course, some of my readers may teach courses where the majority of those in their classes are keen on the subject- lucky you! “Hands-on” activities would be an exception too, I’d expect.

  • Limited by the Syllabus

The syllabus for English courses tends to include the four skills of language (Writing, Reading, Speaking and Listening) as well as grammar structures and vocabulary. Exams tend to be based on the topics and structures covered in the textbook, so teachers often don’t dare to stray far from what’s required and what will be tested. I was often afraid to add other activities and get behind on what I “had to” cover. Could I finish the book? Was there anything I dared to skip over?

A smart phone displaying the Facebook page and scrabble tiles forming the words “social media”

  • Grading

Probably both teachers and students would agree that what they least like about school is grades. On the one hand, for teachers, there’s working out the formulas, percentages, spreadsheets, what have you. One decimal point missing and you panic before you figure out what’s wrong!

On the other hand are the results. “Oh dear, Marcela’s got a borderline grade, and her scholarship depends on a good average.” “What do I do? Francisco’s tried so hard, but he’s not going to make it!” Then there’s those who beg for “just another point” (or more), who think I can give them extra work to help their grade, who cry as they tell me their parents will kill them, who follow me around, hoping to wear down my resistance.


  • Loving the Topic

Ideally, we teach what we love, although this isn’t always a given. As I’ve written in another blog post, I love language. Even English, with its spelling quirks and tricky modals, is interesting as well as challenging. Sometimes I’ll find myself telling students why that unpronounced “gh” shows up in words like “light”: it used to be pronounced in Old English! It is even fascinating to me when I learn something about my own language, like a rule I didn’t know existed, much as I have always applied it “by ear” as native speakers do.

Water splashing against a lightbulb

  • Being Creative

Above I mentioned often feeling overwhelmed by covering textbook material and syllabus requirements. However, it’s always fun to think of something new, or find material that will help a topic come alive, and throw in a little creativity. That certainly is an antidote for unmotivated pupils! Creating games and quizzes on apps has been another fun, educational activity.

Once a class included a chapter related to children; I hunted down a few kids’ books that were still around my house and had students reading them and commenting in class. They had a great time! The girl who had The Velveteen Rabbit, the longest book of all, couldn’t put it down till she finished.

  • Working with Youth 

As a rule, my work has been with college students, in the transition between their teens and professional life. Being with them has helped keep me young, as I identify with their frustrations, their victories, and their dreams. They represent a great variety of majors. They are truly developing into unique individuals, and I’ve had rugby players, kids in national chess championships, a girl who does aerial dancing, another who’s spent a semester in Japan… They can be a fascinating bunch.

One “small world” experience occurred once when I was waiting with my son for a bus in the freezing cold outside the Montreal airport. The young man next to us asked where we were from, then after a bit identified me. Hadn’t I been his teacher years ago? At that time, he admitted, learning English wasn’t a priority. Now that he was working on a PhD at McGill, he realized that it had definitely been important!

Once in a while, there are special perks: students bringing cake on Teacher’s Day, a young woman giving me a scarf she’d knitted, encouraging comments on the anonymous evaluations I usually dreaded. Sometimes we sang Christmas carols accompanied by my autoharp at the end of fall semester. A couple of times I wrote a special poem for my class, one being for the group that lived through a scary earthquake with me on the fifth floor.

At the end of many a semester, as I grumbled about grading, my husband would joke, “Maybe you need to find another job!” Yet I hung in there for 25 years and am glad for all that I learned and the many wonderful people I met.

Raising Bilingual Kids as an Expat

Our son was three or so when he entered preschool. After a few days, his “miss”, as they often call female teachers in Mexico, asked, “Do you understand what he says?” Obviously, she didn’t. We had gotten used to his childish language, in which he mixed a bit of English and Spanish. Of course, before long he straightened things out.

When I took a course in bilingualism as part of my M.A. studies, I wondered if it was too late to help my children become as fully bilingual as possible. But looking back, we hadn’t done that badly, even when our actions were not necessarily the result of conscious decisions at all times. Continue reading

It Takes All Kinds: Variety Even in Tiny Honduras

Imagen relacionada

Every community, town, or city is a microcosm. True, some may seem more homogenous on the surface, but undoubtedly once one dives into it more deeply, the world becomes complex. Even a very small country like Honduras, where I spent my childhood, has a surprising variety of people and cultures.

Growing up, I was sheltered from much contact with the “outside world”, always living in neighborhoods inhabited solely by Standard Fruit Company employees, with a high percentage of expats. Some that I remember were of American, Dutch, Indian, British, and Cuban nationality. An occasional visit to the market or to the countryside gave me glimpses of those more representative of Hondurans in general, but I can’t remember visiting many homes or really getting to know how they lived.

Our international school, with mostly American teachers, had only a small percentage of non-Hondurans. I found myself trying to fit in by imitating the Spanish accent of my classmates when I spoke English in the recess yard. Was that the budding linguist in me?

Continue reading

Recordando los aniversarios… en el primer aniversario a solas

Woman wearing flannel stands over wooden post with dark lighting

Esta semana, cuando otros andan cursi-románticos por el día de San Valentín, yo ando nostálgica por una historia de amor que culminó hace 37 años.

Casi nunca soñaba llegar a los cincuenta años de casados, pero pensaba que fácilmente llegaríamos a cuarenta y pico. Es que Refugio ya tenía cuarenta años cuando ese simbólico lazo nos unió.

Unos siete años antes, él se había atrevido a pedir mi mano en matrimonio, y recibió un “no” contundente. A fin de cuentas su perseverancia tuvo fruto, pero ¡esa es otra historia!

Técnicamente no planeábamos una boda para el 14 de febrero, pero las vacaciones de un miembro de la familia así lo dictaron. La principal ventaja: ¡era casi imposible olvidar la fecha! La desventaja: los restaurantes siempre estaban llenos al tope, e idealmente había que hacer reservaciones.

Es difícil recordar cómo pasamos los primeros aniversarios, pero normalmente salíamos a cenar a algún lado. A veces preferíamos ir el día después del 14, para evitar restaurantes llenos.

Después de varios años de matrimonio, nuestra amiga Joy decidió que nos faltaba añadirle un poco de sabor. Aunque las finanzas eran limitadas y yo era ama de casa, iba a recibir un ingreso después de ser suplente para unas clases. Ella sugirió que planeara yo una salida sorpresa para nuestro aniversario. Me dio otras ideas también, como empacar una vela, una foto de bodas, algo romántico. Hasta nos dio un juego de tarjetas con preguntas para ponernos a platicar de cosas románticas, por ejemplo “¿Cuando fue tu ocasión favorita…?”


A bearded man beside a lake holds his hands in a triangle, the sun shining through

En los años siguientes, casi siempre fui la encargada de idear nuestro escape de aniversario, y ya no era sorpresa. Una vez hasta llevamos a los niños, porque ¿cómo podían perderse de esa cabaña en una barranca, con una chimenea incluida? A veces íbamos a pueblos que no conocíamos bien o que queríamos explorar más. Disfrutamos viajes a museos y cascadas, comidas típicas y más. Una vez nos quedamos en una cabaña ecológica muy en el campo; al otro día fuimos a la sierra a comer truchas en un local rústico. Muchas veces solo estábamos fuera de casa por una noche, pero aun esos viajes cortos y económicos eran todo un deleite.

Para el aniversario número 30, eso sí, gastamos más. Se pospuso ¡cuando la aerolínea en que íbamos desapareció! Afortunadamente pudimos transferir las reservaciones y salir en otra fecha, para visitar el Cañón del Cobre en el norte de México, que había sido uno de mis sueños por mucho tiempo, y tomar el famoso tren que va por las montañas hasta la costa.

Hubo un par de veces cuando cumplimos treinta y tantos, que añadí unos detalles cursis como cortar corazones de fresas para adornar los hot cakes, o corazones de betabel para la ensalada. Hasta llené el parabrisas de corazones adheribles, color rosa, con mensajes románticos.

Nuestro último viaje de aniversario fue para los 35 años y otra vez se pospuso, esta vez para el funeral de mi cuñada. Yo había hecho reservaciones en un balneario de Hidalgo, con aguas termales. Me habían informado que no se aceptaban cambios ni había reembolsos, pero a la mera hora pedí que reconsideraran; al fin, ¡la muerte era impredecible! No quisieron, y preferimos ir a otras fuentes termales, más cerca de casa, donde disfrutamos unos buffets excelentes. Aunque mi esposo ya tomaba medicamentos para la presión alta, poco imaginábamos que dentro de un mes estaría hospitalizado por varios días.

Así que la vida trajo sus propias sorpresas, con una condición de salud que a la larga significó cambios considerables. Refugio ya no podía dar un paseo corto en nuestra calle, y mucho menos hacer una de esas caminatas largas en el campo que le encantaban. Durante buena parte del día estaba enchufado al oxígeno, así que sospechábamos que ya se habían acabado nuestros viajes.

El año pasado, para nuestro aniversario 36, ni fue posible salir a comer. Refugio estaba débil y tenía poco apetito. Aparecieron corazones adheribles en el espejo del baño. Nuestros hijos hablaron para felicitarnos.

Ahora, han pasado casi seis meses desde que mi compañero decidió que era hora de descansar, y ya va a ser el 14 de febrero. ¿Qué haré? Tal vez me anime a dar una vuelta a un restaurante que no conozco, para celebrar de todas maneras.

¿Cómo ves, podré derrochar y comprar unas flores también?

'14 feb. 1981, hace 35 años.
Feb. 14, 1981, 35 years ago. (The cut-outs are not really from our wedding pics, as Cuco gave me this gift previously)'

Remembering Anniversaries… on My First Anniversary Alone

This week, when others are getting mushy over Valentine’s Day, I’m waxing nostalgic over a love story that culminated 37 years ago. Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you can relate.

I hardly ever dared dream we’d make the big “five-oh”, but thought we could make it to forty or so. You see, Refugio was forty when we tied the knot. Almost literally, because Mexican weddings involve a big lasso that is placed around the shoulders of bride and groom!

Some seven years previously he had dared to ask for my hand in marriage, to receive a resounding no. His perseverance eventually paid off, but that’s another story for me to tell one day.

Technically it wasn’t our plan to get married on February 14th, but a family member’s spring break made it happen. The main advantage: it was virtually impossible to forget the date! The disadvantage: restaurants were sure to be chock-full, reservations only.

It’s hard to remember how we spent those first anniversaries, but usually we went out for a special meal. Sometimes we would go the day afterwards, to beat the crowds.

After we’d been together for a few years, friend Joy decided we needed to spice things up. Though our finances were limited and I was a stay-at-home Mom, I was about to have a little income after a short-term subbing assignment. She suggested I set things up for a surprise get-away, and gave me other ideas too: pack a candle, a wedding picture, something romantic. She even gave us a set of cards with questions to get us talking with one another about “our favorite time when…” and so on. Continue reading

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