Monday, June 14, 2010

Our Shared Pursuit of Happiness

Beginning last fall, I became involved in an English as a Second Language experience. I am hesitant to say that I taught, since teaching is such a vast and important job, and I would insult teachers everywhere by calling what I did teaching. I showed up once a week, sometimes with a snack, and wrote things on a chalkboard. I sometimes remembered to assign homework, and when I reviewed the homework, I would make notations in a red pen. “Teacher” in the loosest sense.

I learned a lot during my teaching tenure, of which the prominent discovery was: teaching is REALLY SCARY (although I have to wonder if knowing what you’re doing makes it any less so). I also discovered how maddeningly frustrating the English language can be. Having grown up speaking English, I was completely ignorant of how inconsistent it is. It is made up of equal parts rules and exceptions, which are only annoying when you’re trying to teach it (and, surely, when you’re trying to learn it as a second language). I also quickly realized how little grammar I’ve retained during all the years I’ve been out of school (discovering how much you don’t know about your native language is a good dose of humility). And yet, somehow, I was the resident expert. Yikes.

Once I realized how much I didn’t know, I shifted the focus of the class from me doing the talking to letting them do the talking. I’d ask questions that I thought would promote discussion, and that’s usually what happened. They got conversation practice and I got to learn about their homeland, culture, ideas and beliefs.

Interesting revelations: we have “pigs in a blanket,” Czechs have “sausages in pajamas” (lest you wonder what kind of questions I was asking these women, this one came up in a discussion of the Super Bowl). Everyone in the class had seen – and loved – Titanic in their native countries, and many students flocked to the movies to see Avatar when it was released (perhaps James Cameron really is king of the world). A student from Taiwan had her wedding reception at a place called the New York, New York hotel (this was, of course, in Taipei, Taiwan). The weddings discussion yielded several wedding photo albums (American brides take note: many Asian brides wear several dresses on their wedding day) showcasing weddings both steeped in tradition, and others that were startlingly American. Some even managed to be both.

One student sparked a lively discussion about in-laws after telling of a visit to a tarot card reader and the reader’s revelation that there was a witch present in the student’s life. The student informed us that she believed the witch in question was her mother-in-law. After the knowing laughs subsided, another student from a different continent then chimed in with her own mother-in-law problems (not a witch, but a packrat who had never met a garbage can).

More fun discoveries occurred as a result of the homework assignments. When asked to write about how they and their husbands met, one student, from an Islamic country, wrote a couple of very touching paragraphs about the “love-at-first-sight” experienced by her and her husband. Another student wrote an homage to the beloved family dog, Silver, she had growing up. In a “What do you think is weird about America?” assignment, one student asked about Halloween, “Why do Americans like to put fake graves on the lawn?” Good question.

I heard students express surprise at what living in America was really like, what Americans are really like. They had watched American movies in their native lands and formed a lot of opinions. They thought we never stayed married, always cheated on our spouses, and were all criminals, or victims of crime. Although they had stereotypes about America and Americans, I also (though I hate to admit it) harbored some stereotypes. Some of these women were from countries, or certainly parts of the world, that make headlines for their lack of modernity. Yet most or all of these women had attended college, held jobs, drove cars, had opinions, and chose and loved their husbands.

Though I was frequently surprised at the reach of American culture (from movies to music to celebrity to fashion), what surprised me more were the commonalities in love, marriage, parenthood, and every day life, whether it encompassed in-law woes or kids who don’t listen or a love of yard sales. I have believed for a long time that we are all pretty similar, regardless of our differences. More often than not, experience proves me right. The women in my class didn’t appear to have a lot in common. Some were from cities, some from rural areas. Some were from wealthy nations, others from countries less so. Despite their widely varied backgrounds, they were women just like me. They took scrapbooking classes, enjoyed traveling and trying new foods, and loved their children. Though they shared no language other than broken and heavily accented English, these women forged great friendships with each other (for which I claim absolutely no credit, though I am thrilled to have been there to witness it, and join in).

I’ve thought a lot about their shared friendship and the things that unite us. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the cornerstones of American ideology, yet it is, perhaps, the pursuit of happiness that’s the cornerstone of human aspirations. Most of us exist to love our families, learn new things and enjoy the ride along the way. My role in the class was that of teacher, but I was really just another student, likely learning more from them than they ever learned from me.