Discover the meanings and values that define the cultural context. Recognize their order of importance. These make up a culture’s distinctive character. Study of a group’s history explains why a culture transmits only certain meanings and cherishes particular values more than others. This understanding will indicate how one might dialogue with the culture.
— notes on Cardinal George’s The Difference God Makes, p. 31
As our friend Janet reminded us, among the benefits of living in a different culture are the contrasts that can jar one’s thinking out of well-worn ruts. Life in a school serves as well as anything to expose and explore these different meanings and values.
Rory forgot to tell me that this past Monday was the appointed day for the school celebration of St. Magdalene, the foundress of the Canossian order. I was all set for a intense review day in preparation for next week’s final exam. Instead, the entire morning and beyond was pre-empted, beginning with a community-wide Mass. The school’s locally renowned drum corps followed up (resplendent uniforms, the melody of the school song overwhelmed by the drums). The schools divided into their separate venues and we were then entertained by our homegrown musical talent. This hugely reminded us of large-scale karaoke, but there actually were keyboard players who managed the effects and took occasional riffs. There were choreographed dance acts that were intriguing, with simple, understated moves, a degree of cultural refinement that is generally hidden by Dili’s noise and chaos. Some of the dancing was spontaneous, inviting participation by the students (mostly guys!), staff (Rory!) and the sisters (Sr. Zinya!) It was all quite stirring, all in all a fine celebration. It was good, too, to see our students outside of English class
Watching them gave me a more complete picture of who they are. They are quite appealing, so much more friendly and respectful than their American counterparts. It makes the hard slog of teaching them all the more puzzling.
Some of the difficulty can be blamed on my lack of Tetum or Indonesian. This is usually my first point in discussions with Rory. How much are they actually understanding? I know from experience that comprehending a foreign language requires lots of effort, that it’s easy to tune out. We know from dictations that they aren’t connecting what they hear with recognizable English words. I know, too, that I am frequently met with a roomful of noncommital looks when I give instructions or ask questions. Most take their cues not from me but from someone who seems to be getting it.
But that doesn’t explain everything we see, as Rory will tell you. There is an incredible passivity that can successfully absorb even the most impassioned Italian-American’s efforts at communication. This may be characteristic of Asian cultures in general. At its worst, it feels like a conflict in which I am the foreign aggressor and they are engaged in passive resistance, stone-walling, and looking to each other for a way through the myriad exercises, quizzes, and assignments I present them with.
For an explanation, Cardinal George advises a look at their past. This generation was born in the late eighties and early nineties and would have been in school during the “Indonesian time” as it is phrased here. It would have been dangerous to draw attention to oneself. You would naturally suspect the malae who insists that you learn their language. You would look to your fellow Timorese for support to get through the hard times.
We see this especially with quizzes and written assignments. The amount of overt “cheating” that occurs lends credibility to the idea that it is a cultural virtue, “collaboration” in the good sense. I can prevent it only by a ruthless watchfulness that is quite wearying. I’ve done up to four versions of a quiz so that neighboring students can’t do straight copying. It doesn’t seem to matter. Any student at any time is capable of doing it, too, both good students and weak students. They are united in their efforts to get something down on every student’s paper. It is quite remarkable. We’re told that it happens in other schools, as well.
This social cohesion works against our idea of education. We focus on individual effort, individual results. A major challenge is to get students to take responsibility and actively learn the material. Do they know what it means to memorize the vocabulary list? We sometimes wonder if they even think about English between classes, if they have any study skills whatever. Is it magical thinking on their part or is it your garden-variety minimal effort? We don’t know. Maybe our methods are so alien that they don’t connect with them at all. That definitely seemed the case early on.
This seems a bleak report. Admittedly, it is easy to become disheartened or totally exasperated and walk out as Rory did earlier this week. But with the right perspective (and Claire says that it is all about perspective) we can see the successes that are there, cases of student effort and student turn-arounds their participation at a school-wide Mass or celebration. We can see them more from God’s perspective as we learn more about them, trying to see the truth with loving eyes. [posted by David]