I Don’t Want To Say It, Sir!

My story comes from about twenty-two years ago…

I was about eight when my family decided to move to Greece from Canada. I remember not taking it very well, but there was nothing I could do about it. When I first saw the school I was going to attend, I saw this old, gray, stone-built construction. “This is your new school!” my mom said enthusiastically. I thought it was an old church the way it looked.

So school started and apart from the occasional teasing I got from classmates about my broken Greek accent (which has been rectified now, even though some friends of mine say that there still are English sounds in my Greek!), I liked school. I remember having a wonderful teacher, a very open-minded gentleman who taught us not only to the subjects but also values which would accompany us later as well.

When there were national days, our school (and all Greek schools) organized celebrations during which students recited poems, performed skits which were about the respective historical event that had happened on that day in the past and some teachers made long-winded speeches about how the Greeks had resisted any invaders and come out unscathed through the centuries. So, the 25th of March which is a national day in Greece arrived. Our class was to stage a performance of the women of the period who had helped that day. My teacher thought it would be a good idea for me to have the starring role in the play, as he thought it would also give me confidence in my spoken Greek.

The Entrance to The University of Istanbul

So the teacher gave us our scripts. Reading through it the first time at home, I found something very disturbing. I did not tell my parents but decided to directly tell the teacher. There was a line in my script which I thought (and was really) quite offensive to Turkish people (and in a children’s play!). I remember it to this day and it is not worth remembering, or mentioning, for that matter.

The first rehearsal came. When I had to deliver the horrible line, I got a lump in my throat and stopped. My teacher thought I had forgotten what I wanted to say and whispered it out. I still did not say it. The teacher, a very kind and caring gentleman as I said earlier, took me aside and thought I had a case of stage-fright. “Don’t worry”, he said. “You are doing very well and your Greek has improved a lot!” The moment of truth had arrived. “Well sir…” I said a bit hesitantly. “It is about that line.” “What line?” he said. “The one that says something bad about the Turks”, I answered and I remember how frightened I was that he would scold me or even throw me out of the play; I was quite proud to be the star, I must admit and was happy about the confidence he had in me to perform in front of other people in Greek! In addition to that, I felt terrible about delivering such a line. “Well”, he said, “don’t worry. It is an expression they used to use back then and we all know you do not mean it. Let’s try it again tomorrow.”

I went home crying after that (scaring the daylights out of my mom who thought who knows what happened at school). After my parents coaxed me into telling them what had happened, I finally told them: “I don’t want to go back to that school again.” They were still asking me why, because I was not telling them. Finally I blurted out: “Because they are making fun of the Turks at that school!” (It took them a lot of persuasion to get me to go back the next day, telling me not to worry and always to remember that everyone is equal no matter where they are from.) Next day: rehearsal number two. The time of the dreaded line arrives again and this time I break into tears in front of everyone and I remember raising my hand and saying: “I don’t want to say it!” (This time certain that my teacher would be furious with me and tell me to leave the school play. But I was determined not to let this pass – a tough little eight-year-old!). My (very patient and kind) teacher took me aside again and told me he would leave out that line altogether and I would just say the rest. My first little victory against negative comments against other countries!

Thankfully incidents like this have disappeared from schools today. Or so I hope.

Ataküle Tower in Ankara (Taken from flickr.com)

I see this now in my teaching. No child is too young to grasp notions like this. Kids understand and they know what is fair and unfair. For this reason, to all teachers, please do not hesitate talking to children about issues of multiculturalism and racism and diversity and so on. Please do not think that they might not understand. Their minds are fresh to accept new ideas and to understand that people are different and it is okay to be different. They will both accept other people and will feel more comfortable about who they are at the same time. The classroom is a place where this can be implemented but first of all children’s primary education must be based on these humanitarian notions. It is the best kind of education they can get.

Note: When I wrote this post, I was not out to criticise the specific system, as I think that unfortunately in many educational systems in the world notions like these are perpetuated. It is just an example of such notions. My teacher demonstrated that he chose not to do so. We can all do the same and show our students the beauty of being different – the beauty of all cultures.

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Dealing with Challenges in Another Culture

 

A great view of Zurich

 

When working or traveling abroad, we should take into consideration that every country has its own cultural elements, differences and diversity. We should stand from an objective view to look at all these newly found things and get rid of any ethnocentric behavior we may have, that our country is superior to others that are not similar to ours. Every country has its own beauty, which is reflected through its culture and mentality.

Of course, we may all have our challenging moments when abroad. For instance, three years ago when I was traveling to Canada, I had to get off on an in-between stop in Frankfurt. As I do not speak any German, except for very basic words, I said Good morning in German to the airport official and then I switched to English, in order to ask for the restrooms. As soon as he heard me speak English, he made a sweeping movement with his hand as to brush me away and sent me to somebody else, speaking to me abruptly in German at the same time. I felt very frustrated at the moment and rather upset. Just then I remembered what my Greek-German aunt had told me: that a lot of German people refuse to speak in another language apart from their own. (Well, the specific official could have been a little more polite – but that was a matter of personality and not a generalization about all German people!) Even though I felt rather perplexed and uncomfortable at the time of the incident, later on contemplating on it I thought that Germans feel very proud of their culture, which is a positive thing. However, it would be good on everybody’s behalf, regardless of where they are, to be a bit more flexible with people who have no knowledge of their language.

To tell the truth, I mostly felt disappointed with myself for not having learned some more useful phrases beforehand which might have been of some assistance to me then and shown respect to the people of the country I was in. This is something I did before visiting a German-speaking part of Switzerland (specifically Zürich) for the first time and the locals appreciated it deeply. Now that I live in Switzerland, I am trying to learn German (and Swiss German as well!). I consider it as a sign of respect to the people who have welcomed me and additionally it helps give me an understanding of the people and the culture.

In fact, this would be a good preparation in order for someone to adjust more easily in a new country when going there to work and live. Considering learning the language of the country you are about to spend a period of time in is a great decision which also shows your respect to the people and their culture. The people will appreciate it very much as well. Another good step would be to learn about the cuisine of the country and what alternatives one can eat daily, in case the food is too spicy or too heavy in contrast with one’s own cuisine. Reading up on the history of the country we are about to visit is great in order to understand the people’s origins and mentality, as well as communicating with people who have lived there or visited the specific country to share experiences.

Concerning our own origin and our countries, it is great to know the history of our country, speak the language properly and know about the culture. All this is good, as long as we do not become ethnocentric. It is negative towards other people and their cultures to think that our own countries are superior to others, for the reason that first of all, there is no such thing as the best country in the world and the richest culture. Each country is uniquely beautiful, with its language and culture. People with ethnocentric behaviors have difficulty relating to other cultures, as they are so negative towards learning about them. In addition, people with an ethnocentric behavior create negative impressions to others and the country they come from as well. It is good to know who we are and where we come from, but when we come into contact with other cultures it is nice to have an open mind and tolerance to diversity.