The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Friday, February 17, 2006

It's Like the UN Over Here

One of the really interesting things about this job is the international character of this place. We have English, Chinese, Arabic, French, Portugese, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Thai, Khmer, Malay, Swahili, and Indonesian teachers all working in the same building. Walk down the halls, and students will say "Hi" or "Es salaam aleikom" or "Nihao" or whatever their target language is. I must admit that I feel a little bit lame when a student says good morning in their language and I don't even know for sure what language it is, much less how to respond.

And I even admit that I felt a little bit (just a little bit!) of rancour when students say their greetings in Arabic. It's a reflex reaction that shows I still have some deep-seated resentment toward the Arab world. Why? It boils down to prejudice ... and yet, the Arabic teachers here are incredibly kind people. It's confusing to feel this general hostility towards the Arab world and a sense of affection towards some individual Arabs ... but it's a good thing. It clarifies in my mind just how stupid prejudice is, and how dangerous it is to think of people en masse. As it turns out, everybody is an individual. Imagine that! I think it has been very valuable to me, in general, to meet people from other cultures. That sounds really obvious, but when I think back on life in Canada, my friends and acquaintances are pretty uniformly caucasian. But here ... It's kind of like a mini-UN here.

I'm always telling my students what a great, multi-cultural country Canada is. We're so lucky that we can walk down the street in Toronto and meet people from any country in the world. The problem is ... do we? Do we have a lot of friends who are recent immigrants? Do we actually make the effort to learn a couple of words in Korean from the Korean grocer, or how to say "Good morning" in Hindi from the guy down the hall? Usually, no. And I think it would make a huge difference to that person to know that we care enough about their culture to at least acknowledge their language to the tune of 1 or 2 words. I certainly know how happy the teachers are here when I ask them about their home countries.

By default, the common language of communication here is English. It's completely an issue of practicality ... but it also enforces a kind of "status quo" whereby the native English speakers work comfortably in an environment that everybody else has to struggle in. And we English speakers rarely even have to think about it. It's "fair" but it's also completely unfair, as we are the minority. And it seems to me that the world is like this too. We're lucky that we were born in an English speaking country, but that's all it is: sheer luck.

Of course, I've been studying Japanese pretty hard, but hearing all these languages around me has really made me want to study other languages ... starting first with French. I studied it for 13 years and I've forgotten 99% of what I learned ... but actually, I think most of it is just buried. I only need to start digging a little bit...

Au revoir, mina san!


At 6:49 PM, Blogger Zambo said...

Hey Buddy.

Hopefully you will be a cunning linguist in no time!

Your Pal,



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