During my recent trip to Australia, I traveled on the train quite often between Mittagong (where Byongchan is doing a three-month residency) and Sydney. This poem was inspired by my time on those platforms. I was struck by the different speeds at which people walked, the choice of winter or summer clothing people wore, and the various languages people spoke. Amidst all the differences, life seemed to flow smoothly. I feel lucky to take part in such flow.
Dear people of the world who are scared of other people of the world,
I get it. It’s weird. It doesn’t make much sense. Why don’t they hold the door open for you? Why do they sit on the floor instead of on the couch? Why don’t they clean their homes the same way? Why don’t they laugh at your jokes? Why do they behave so differently? Why do they believe something you’ve never heard of? Why do they say this instead of that?
It’s weird. I get it.
I get how much you want to feel safe. I get how much you want to be part of a community that understands who you are and why you do the things you do. It’s understandable. It’s uncomfortable to have to do things differently.
You want to wake up in the morning, have your cup of coffee or tea – the way you like it – and enjoy the day as it unfolds. You hope people will hold the door open for you. You hope people will feel comfortable in your home. You hope people will laugh at your jokes. You hope people will behave the same way and share the same ideals.
I get it.
The thing is, everyone in the world wants this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in another country it’s that we all want to be understood.
I’ve also learned there are others who wonder why you hold the door open. They wonder why you can’t sit on the floor. They wonder why you clean your home the way you do. They wonder why you don’t laugh at their jokes. They wonder why you don’t believe what they believe. They wonder why you behave so differently. They wonder why you say that instead of this.
It’s weird. I get it.
We all want people to treat us in a way that’s normal. We all want to live in familiar surroundings. It just feels safer, and so much more comfortable. There’s no denying this. And there’s no shame in this either.
But here’s a question: how do you feel when you don’t think people get you? I’ll tell you what happens to me. When I feel like others don’t get me, I don’t feel safe. And when I don’t feel safe, I get defensive. And when I get defensive, I make bad decisions. I say and do things, that in hindsight, I’m not proud of.
You know what? I get why I react this way.
But you know what else? That doesn’t make it right.
We’re human. We make bad decisions everyday. But when we constantly judge someone for reacting exactly the same way we would, it’s time to check in with ourselves.
Because now I understand why we hold the door and they don’t. Now, I sometimes prefer to sit on the floor instead of on the couch. Now, I wonder why I used to clean my home the way I did. And now, I wonder why I used to laugh at those jokes.
But I still wonder about our collective beliefs. I still wonder about our collective behaviour. I still wonder why we both say this and that.
And now I almost get it: the “we” and the “they” are not so weird after all.
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by looking on We
As only a sort of They!
-Rudyard Kipling, “We and They”
We/They aren’t weird at all. In fact, we/they are all just living the life we/they know how to live, hoping that someone will understand us/them so that we/they can feel safe.
We all have our own versions of rebellion. Some of us rebelled against our parents; some of us will rebel against society’s norms until the end of our days. In each of these rebellions, there is a conscious choice to push against the grain. Something doesn’t feel quite right about following the rules the way they have been laid out.
Rebellion occurs because something deep inside requires us to look at the situation from a different perspective. This feeling demands that we find our own way, and maybe even try to convince others that we’re on to something.
So what about rebellions against language? Have you been subversive about syntax or pronunciation? Have you ever questioned your grammar to the point you realized that using a certain pronoun was a complete contradiction of your values? I’m searching for stories of linguistic rebellion. This could be with the languages you grew up with, or the languages you adopted later in life. To give you an idea, I’ll share two of my rebel stories.
Like many other bloggers posting in the last few weeks, I responded to the “11 things about you” challenge. One part of the challenge asks that you share 11 random facts about yourself. This is one of the facts I chose:
In 5th grade, I had my first run-in with linguistic rebellion. For French class we had to write a diary and hand it in to our teacher. In French, diary (journal) carries the masculine form and so you should address it, “Dear diary” with its rightful masculine greeting, “Cher journal.” This made no sense to me. There was no way I would share my deep thoughts with a male journal, and so I addressed it as, “Chère journal.” When my teacher approached me about the grammatical error, I had my theory to back it up. He didn’t buy it.
I shared this because I was writing to an audience of language learners and teachers, and I thought it might be interesting to them. I also shared it because it’s one of my favourite pre-teen rebellion stories. I know. I was a wild child.
As the week went on, this little fact kept popping up in my thoughts, particularly the first sentence:
In the 5th grade, I had my first run-in with linguistic rebellion.
I wrote this so confidently, but reading it again, I was forced to ask myself:
Weren’t there other run-ins? And was this really my first story?
The resounding answer was that yes there were other moments, and no this wasn’t my first. I have a strong memory of my mother trying to correct the way I said the number one in french — un — when I counted: un, deux, trois…. I think I was between 5 – 7 years old. In our Acadian dialect, un sounds like yeon. My mother wanted me to learn the standard way to pronounce one, but I didn’t like the way it made me feel. It felt too unfamiliar. Yeon felt right, so I refused to use the standard pronunciation. Looking back, maybe I was actually trying to conform here. Everyone else in the neighbourhood used yeon, why should I stand out? This was clearly a case of early parental linguistic-rebellion.
I have other stories, but I’d like to hear more about yours. What’s your story of linguistic rebellion?
*Here are a few fantastic blog posts in response to my question:
Looking back on most of my blog entries, I realize that I rarely write explicitly about my cultural experience in relation to teaching Korean teachers. It may be because I’ve been here for a while, and I take our cultural roles for granted. Maybe I’ve become so comfortable with “the Korean way” that I have forgotten a bit of what “the Canadian way” used to mean for me. I tale for granted the little details about what it means to teach in Korea.
However, after having spent last night with my Korean family-in-law — it was my husband’s uncle’s 70th birthday (cultural-linguistic note: my adopted “Korean way” is now naturally prompting me to say “our uncle”.) – I remembered what makes many interactions in Korea so specifically Korean; it’s their need to try to make everyone feel comfortable in a social situation. Of course this will vary from group to group, but in my experience when it comes to hanging out with family or instructing a group of teachers, the moment will run much more smoothly if everyone feels comfortable.
So what does this cultural comfort look like? In Korea it’s all about knowing your position in a group, and behaving according to the rules if that position. I have to say this is one of the biggest challenges when I’m with a bunch of elder family members. Although they may have thought I was comfortable last night, I was a tad ill at ease. My Canadianess naturally inhibits me to know how I stack up on the totem pole, especially when it comes to Korean table manners. But I digress.
When it comes to meeting people in a closer circle of interest or age, the rules may seem uncomfortable to the unknowing Westerner (linguistic note: in Korea the foreign English teacher’s nationality is quickly replaced by the status of our perceived hemisphere; therefore, we simply become known as Westerner instead of Canadian or Australian.) Questions about age, marital status, and your personal experience of Korean culture can come within the hour of your first meeting. I know the Canadian in me used to be shocked by the seemingly personal invasion.
This kind of probing doesn’t stop in my classroom. Within the first week the teachers find out if I’m married. Then they ask if my husband is Korean. When I say yes, there is a hush over the crowd. They quickly want to know how we met. I must admit that my “love story” gets better with each semester. Each semester it is dubbed as our “love story”. Throughout the next five months, similar questions persist, but they usually connect to my experiences in Korea and Canada. I hardly bat an eyelid to these kind of questions anymore.
Most of my colleagues follow the same disclosure rules. They have lived in Korea for much longer than me, and probably have also realized that this is one of the ways we can create a comfortable atmosphere in our classrooms. By accepting the questions instead of opposing them, we become part of their way of doing. This is how we have adapted to the “Korean way”.
I have heard of “Western” teachers refusing to talk about their personal lives. They exclaim that it isn’t professional. They say students/trainees don’t need to know this kind of information since they are here to learn, and not to become friends. I don’t connect with this reasoning. However, I also realize that some Korean teachers are not ready to hear about the “unique” lifestyles of their Western colleagues. For this reason I can understand their need to protect their privacy. Maybe part of cultural dance is knowing what to disclose and how to disclose it.
I don’t share my stories to become friends, although I welcome such an evolution in our relationship. I have become close with many of my past trainees, would feel sad to miss out on such connections.
From my perspective, by refusing to open up about myself, trainees will feel less inclined to do the same. I know how important this kind of connection is when it comes to learning in general, but more specifically when it comes to learning language. When we communicate, we express who we are and what is important to us. If we feel that we aren’t among instructors that can take gentle care of our story, then we clam up. We feel more apt to learn and share when we feel that we are in a safe environment.
Within each culture the boundaries of safety and comfort will vary. I doubt Canadian teachers would feel the need to know about my “love story” in order to learn something from my classroom. When I juxtapose my experience with training teachers in Korea, to my own experience in teacher training at SIT, I shudder at the thought of asking for such information from my professors. I can just imagine myself asking Pat Moran during Approaches to Teaching Second Languages, “So Pat, how did you and the Mrs. Moran meet?” Not cool.
But we aren’t in the same context. The teachers I teach value this kind of information because it helps them connect to me on an intimate level. When they come to our program, they feel extremely vulnerable. They have huge doubts about their language ability and how that reflects on their ability to teach English. They lack confidence, and I believe it is my job to do what I can to connect with their fears in order to improve their confidence. When I see and empathize with their fears, they learn that it’s okay to expose them because they are in a safe environment. Sharing tidbits about myself is part of this process, because that’s part of the “Korean way”. It offers them some familiarity in an environment that can feel so foreign.
There are other ways that I work with the concept of safety and comfort in the classroom, but I’ll save that for another posting. For the moment I have explored this cultural reflection to the fullest. I now leave the debate up to you:
What are your boundaries of personal disclosure in Korea? Why do you, or don’t you expose your personal life to your students/trainees/participants? How have you learned to disclose your personal stories to your Korean students/trainees/participants?