Sometimes, I think it was fairly easy to move to a refugee camp. In many ways I guess it was. The things that I expected to be hard weren’t at all – the living conditions are fine, drinking water’s easily accessible, it’s easy to buy anything I need from the market, and the people are friendly and welcoming. Teaching without a photocopier, a projector, a printer, constant internet access and other teachers to share ideas with is now completely normal. I expected to have a constant headache from the heat, but I seem to deal with humidity much better than with dry heat. All is good.
But, in terms of understanding the culture, I’m always going to be slightly out of my comfort zone here. That, too, is normal for me – I’ve been away from home the entire year and I’m just glad that my first time living as the only native speaker anywhere in sight was with Warsaw Kayak Club on a kayak trip to Slovenia. Thanks WAKK Habazie! I can’t imagine what it would have been like living here as the only volunteer around if I’d come directly from England.
Every day, about 10 times a day, I’m asked ‘do you have finished your breakfast, teacher?’ Or the same question with lunch and dinner. I’m asked at the weirdest times – like half way through an English class – and I never know what I’m supposed to say because it usually strikes me as a bit of a silly question.
I’ve been reading ‘Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour’ by Kate Fox. Written by an anthropologist for the ‘educated individual’, it offers a hilarious insight into the hidden rules of English etiquette. She points out that, in England, the question ‘how are you?’ is not actually intended to provoke an honest answer from anyone except closest friends and family. It’s just a polite formality that must be observed. And, as such, the answer rarely varies in anything except wording from ‘I’m fine, thanks’ or I’m very well, thank you.’ The same is true with the English ‘obsession’ about the weather. She points out that talking about the weather is like testing the ice with a stranger. You’re permitted to carry on and discuss the weather, or other things, at great length, or you can just mumble an agreement and leave it at that.
Maybe asking if I’ve finished my breakfast is just a polite conversation starter here. I mean, I get asked if I’ve finished my breakfast at 10:05, when I’ve just finished teaching first period. Clearly, I’ve finished my breakfast! If I have third period off, the period before lunch, I am inevitably asked if I’ve finished my lunch. This is despite the fact that two of my students cook for me every lunch time and, during third period they’re still in lessons. To me, it’s a stupid question, but to them maybe it’s something polite to say?
The other really common one, which I find really funny, is, ‘have you taken a shower, teacher?’ Asking that question in England or much of the Western world, people would assume that you’re applying that they smell and they need to take a shower. Luckily I’d be warned about this so I know that that’s not necessarily the case, but it still feels like a little invasion of privacy every time I’m asked. To us, showering’s a very private thing, but here, people shower outdoors in a longyi whilst talking to their friends, family or neighbours. It’s a very social part of the day, whereas back home it’s almost like a hidden part of life.
Phone conversations can also be challenging. Whilst the custom in England is to call and introduce yourself – ‘hi, it’s so and so speaking, are you free/ do you have ten minutes?’, here I’ll answer the phone and get ‘hi teacher, do you know who this is?’ NO! How would I? And sometimes, which is almost worse, I do know who it is but I can’t remember, or can’t pronounce their name anyway. I was asked by one teacher, with whom I was talking about cultural differences, if it’s rude for the caller to ask you to identify him. I said no, but it’s very strange, and then I thought about it a bit more. Deliberately putting someone out of their comfort zone, asking a question that’s generally not possible to answer would indeed be considered a little rude.
One Sunday a few weeks ago, I’d had a very busy day. In the morning, I went to one of my student’s houses for breakfast, and then we walked half-way across camp to get to church on time with another student. I’d agreed to go back to the first house after lunch, although I was tired and was starting to regret doing so. However, I wanted to speak to them as they’re a fascinating family and have excellent English. Just after lunch, however, I received a very strange phone call. ‘Teacher, you will be too tired to come so I think you should not come this afternoon. But of course you’re always welcome to come here’ OK, actually I was a little tired, but they didn’t know that and that wasn’t the point. What were they trying to tell me? Is this some polite way of telling me that they didn’t want me to come, that they were busy, or that they were actually genuinely concerned about me? Was I supposed to agree and say that yes, I was tired, or disagree and say that no, I’d love to go? I still have no idea. But, as I was actually tired, I decided not to argue and didn’t go.
Another day, two of my students said that I didn’t call them in the previous week and they’d been waiting for my call so that they could cook dinner for me. Well, how was I supposed to know that? Surely they could have just called me? I don’t get it! Probably, they were too shy to call me, like most of my students.
And something else that I’ll always hate is that, as a teacher I have a high status in what’s a very status-conscious society. Add to that the fact that I’m a volunteer, I’m not paid, I’ve come all the way from England and that I’ve chosen to come here, I get a ridiculous amount of respect. I’m treated, if it’s possible, too well. Everywhere I go, I’m offered food, food and more food. And this is from people who are refugees, have no real income and eat ration rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yet I get the best food anyone has to offer and it’s very rude to turn it down; food is an incredibly important part of culture here. On some days, I’ve been bought or made three different delicious lunches (enough for two people by themselves) by three different people and been expected to eat them all!
All of this is part of the experience, and the last two weeks, now I’m teaching again, have been great. I’ll be sad to leave in a couple of weeks, although glad to eat something that’s not rice.