Working Out Our Differences

Not surprisingly, we spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about culture and the way that it shapes our experiences. It is most apparent in the classroom. Timorese students are like students everywhere in some ways, but in other ways they are distinctly Timorese. We have become part of a Sunday evening ecumenical Bible study that we quite enjoy. We are not only a healthy mix of young and old, rich and poor, Protestants and Catholics, but we are all expats from a variety of places: Australia, Korea, Austria, and America. Even though we are all independent, thinking people, the culture that we were formed by is easily recognized. Of course, it is most obvious in our language and the vocabulary that we use, but it is also there in our tastes, attitudes, and ways of being.

I’ve been reading a book by Cardinal George, The Difference God Makes, that I’ve found unexpectedly helpful in thinking through a range of issues related to culture. In it he quotes a definition of culture used by Cardinal Avery Dulles that seems to hit the nail on the head for me:

 “By a culture we normally understand a system of meanings and values, historically transmitted, embodied in symbols, and instilled into the members of a sociological group so that they are spontaneously inclined to feel, think, judge, and behave in certain characteristic ways.”

 OK, so how does knowing this help us in the classroom with our students? It doesn’t so much. These first weeks have been a time of mutual adjustments as we get used to these Timorese students and they get used to these American teachers. If we stop and reflect, sometimes our frustration is eased. They do school very differently here, and student habits and attitudes reflect that. Our American methods and expectations are probably equally confounding to them. Domingas, one of Rory’s best students, snottily asked her today why they have a quiz every week. For our part, we wonder why there is such a poor work ethic or effort to be in class on time. We struggle and fail to prevent them from copying each other’s work during quizzes or dictations.

 The whole system can seem baffling. Combining three one-hour classes into one two-and-a-half-hour class makes no sense at all to us, especially for a language class. We don’t feel singled out though, because the same thing is done for all subjects. Rory cynically characterizes their previous schooling as teachers pretending to teach, students pretending to learn. We’ve heard stories about teachers in other schools that cause us to wonder if they even pretend to teach. Then we are reminded that students of this generation went through two extended periods of violence in 1999 and 2006. As collateral damage, schools and education are among the first casualties of war.

 One of the fascinations of living overseas is that you live at close quarters with perfectly sane, rational people who do things so much differently than you do. This can be a rich experience. Or an ongoing frustration and annoyance. It depends on our day-to-day attitude.  [posted by David]

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