Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Politics and Religion

When I first started thinking about becoming an ESL teacher, I had the opportunity to observe an actual class (taught by a very kick in the butt blogger). It was a very interesting experience. The students wanted to know who I was, so the teacher had them ask me questions. Right off the bat they asked "How old are you?", "Are you married?", "What's your job?", "Where do you live?" and "Do you have children?"

It was a bit shocking because in normal situations, we don't generally ask those kinds of personal questions five seconds after meeting someone. But those are the first statements & questions we tend to teach English language learners (present simple with the verb "to be" is lesson #1). I'm so glad I had the experience of being peppered with personal questions way back in that first observed lesson, because it prepared me (somewhat) for what it's really like in the classroom.

I've gotten very used to telling my age, marital status, nationality, and familial affiliations to complete strangers. In my more advanced classes, the questions have gotten even more personal "Do you have any boyfriends?" was from my Dirty Old Men Business English Class and they've subsequently teased me about it. "What kind of boyfriend do you like?" etc etc. In my other Business English class one of the guys asked me "Where were you on 9/11?*" Which...god even 8 years later, holds enough emotional trauma to stop me in my tracks. I managed to get out "I was in Oregon" and "I don't really want to talk about it." without crying. (I wasn't quite sure I heard the question right at first so they were clarifying "You know... when the planes crashed into the buildings..." not my favorite moment from that class.)

The thing is, none of these questions are meant to be personal. I mean, they want to get to know their teacher, but they want a yes or no, or two word answer. They may have the language skills to ask the question and get an answer... but not to get into a long, involved, discussion on the subject. Nor do they care to in most cases... they're just practicing the language.

For the past month we've been talking Politics. In all but my most basic classes I've been asked who I was going to vote for. I felt comfortable telling them, you know while qualifying that it was my opinion and that plenty of Americans wanted to vote for the other guy too. I know better than to say word one about Thai politics... when that subject comes up I never say more than "What do you think?" or "Yes, I saw that in the news." Today, my pre-intermediate class was learning about future predictions with "will" and there was an activity with questions about what they thought would happen in one year or five years or ten years. Under the "World" category, the question was "Do you think the USA will have a black President in five years?" The book was published in 2003, so that was a bit prescient I think. =) So we talked a bit about that.

For my next activity I wanted them to make predictions/fortunes for each other, and I introduced the topic by asking if fortune telling was popular in Thailand. It is, and that's another post entirely. They all set to work, writing out each other's fortunes (there are going to be a shit-load of millionaires in Rayong next year if these students have anything to say about it. ;)).

One of my more advanced students finished early and started chatting with me. He told me in order to do the fortune properly he would need to see the hand of the person he was making predictions for. I asked if he really could read palms - if he wanted to read my palm. But he said 'no no' he was just joking around. I told him I needed to know my fortune, if good things were going to happen for me. And then he asked me "Are you Christian?"

Not for the first time in this class, I was caught off guard and had no idea what to say. Fortunately, my teacher brain clicked in and I just said "Yes." because, well, I am. I was raised in a Christian family, in a Christian country. I celebrate Christian holidays and am *well* familiar with the cult & culture of Christianity. So in any and all respects that he could be referring to, the answer is yes. But to me, the question "Are you a Christian?" means a lot more than that. Due to the years of indoctrination I've had, it means something more like "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord & savior, confessed your sins, forgiven your enemies, been born again & gotten baptized?" and if the answer is "No." well, then, obviously - you're going to straight to hell.

I've been thinking a lot about spirituality lately. My mom took me to church all growing up, just you know church. But in High School and College I participated in some rather cult-like Christian organizations. It was not my finest hour. It was not my happiest hour either. Eventually I realized that trying to keep up with all the shoulds & shouldn'ts (and trying to make everyone else live up to them too) was making me miserable. And the fact that I was miserable about it just made me feel guilt that I wasn't being a good Christian. I came to a point where I actually forbade myself from going to church, and forbade myself from feeling guilty about it.

This is so crazy, while I was in the church they were always trying to teach us to tell our testimonies - how we 'came to Christ', and I never felt comfortable about it. It was a personal thing I didn't feel the need to share with anyone. But now here I am telling my anti-testimony to anyone in cyberspace who decides to drop in. Crazy.

In any case, it's only been recently that I've let myself start thinking about religion and spirituality again. I've come to believe that there's more in the universe than I can wrap my little brain around. I believe that whatever is out there is probably too big for any one person, or any one religion to get completely right. I think there's probably wisdom in all religious texts... if you approach them with an open mind. I've figured out that if you try to look at the world as though everything is black and white... you miss all the colors. And most of all I've learned that I really don't have the answers... I just have to do the best I can. Believe it or not, I did try to articulate some of this to my student...I'm not sure how much he understood.

As far as my current spiritual journey - I'm just getting my toes wet. I'm fascinated by the Temples and Buddha images I see everywhere... but have thus far been too scared to talk to a monk, or actually try to attend a temple service (partly because I'm afraid of doing something offensive... but also because there's a tiny part of me that still thinks I'll end up in hell for worshiping a false idol). I'm not, however afraid to read, so I've been reading a book called Peace is Every Step, and trying to practice mindfullness in small ways. I've been trying to pay attention to my breathing or my walking when I think of it, and trying to come back to the current moment if I get stressed out. I'm not particularly interested in sitting around meditating for an hour, but I still think mindfullness is a skill I want to cultivate.

You know, so I can stay grounded the next time one of my students throws me a curve-ball question in the middle of class!

*Later, when going through the text book, I saw that "Where were you on 9/11" was an example question they used in to teach the past simple. So really, they were just parroting a question they'd been taught...they were not especially interested in my personal reaction to the attacks.


Exuberant Color said...

It sounds like you had a good upbringing in the church, a good basis for life situations. Most of us wandered away from the church at times. My most vivid memory from childhood was the minister telling us that God would strike us dead if we didn't do the right thing. That thought came back many times in my life as I contemplated doing things. Maybe your solitary situation is for a purpose, for contemplating.

Michael5000 said...

Reb, you are teh cool. Just sayin'.

Sarah Nopp said...

That is a tough place to be- having to address your own cultural perceptions on the fly and translate to a student. You have come a LONG way from those early posts- I just read one :)

Victoria said...

The monks are the nicest people in the world! Don't be scared of them. They are completely understanding and happy to speak with foreigners. Most of them are eager to practice their English and are quite talkative. I recommend going into any temple and just observing others. I went into one, and a monk asked me if I had any questions and then he just started chatting with me. Also if there is anything like a monk chat Do not fear - the monks I've met have been quite funny and down to earth. Most Thai men are a monk at some point, so you've probably already spoken with former monks.

Rebel said...

exuberant.. yeah, I think it's good to be brought up with some kind of belief/value system - it gives you something to walk away from, rather than just wandering around not knowing what to rebel against.

M5K...you're not going to take away my dork badge are you?

Sarah... it's so true. Some parts of me are very much the same, but other parts could not be more different.

Victoria - thanks for the reassurance. I do just need to go. I don't know why I'm still so afraid of doing new things.