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I teach ESL to adult learners, pretty much all of whom are refugees, although our classes are open to everyone. This week, I introduced the concept of Show & Tell. Sure it’s a kindergarten concept, but I knew my students would not bring in stuffed animals. It was supposed to get them to speak English uninterrupted, express their thoughts, use idioms and practice fluency. And I think it was a success. I was careful to explain the things didn’t have to be emotionally weighty, because I didn’t want my students to feel coerced. I used as an example a ticket stub from a play we went to with friends a few weeks ago* But everyone brought in things from their original home. And to see what things refugees have carried with them on their long journeys to safety is, I think, a privilege.

Student #1: H slowly unfolded a scarf and held it up for everyone to see. It rippled in many colors–shades of brown and pink arranged geometrically. “This scarf belonged to my mother,” she said, and kissed it. “She used to wear it when she lived in the village.” H draped it around her own black hair. Then she took it off and held it up to her face. She has never washed it, she told the class, and it still smells of her mother. Everyone passed it around reverentially. Mothers are highly esteemed in Arab culture, and of course the bond between older mother and adult daughter is universal. At the next class, she brought in a picture of her mother, her hair tied back in a scarf. H is from a Christian background, so her mother wore the scarf differently than Muslim women do and I had had a hard time picturing it. She also brought in baby pictures of herself with her sisters. Again, she kissed their faces.

Student #2: S took out of her purse a plain brown envelope, the kind that official documents come in, but it was empty and held no interesting marks. “This envelope changed my life!” she announced dramatically, waving it in the air. S is from Iran, and 5 years ago her husband won the lottery for a green card, and brought her and her youngest daughter to America. The announcement arrived in this very plain brown envelope.

They first lived in Texas, she told us. A fellow immigrant told them they needed to go to the Social Security office, so they looked the address up online but ended up at a building that looked like a house to them, but was flying a big American flag. That confused them. Many people from other countries don’t understand Americans’ propensity to fly flags at all times from all types of buildings, not to mention turn them into jewelry, t-shirts, hats, bumperstickers. etc. The flag, plus the fact that the address on the house matched that of Google maps…this had to be the place, right? So they went up to the door. They were greeted with the sound of a deep, throaty barking. Why would Social Security have a large dog? They stepped back in alarm. The door opened, and a woman appeared. They showed her the piece of paper on which they had scribbled the address and tried to explain what they were looking for, but it was too late–she had already called the police, alarmed by the mere presence of a middle-aged couple on her front walkway.

S started to cry when the policeman questioned her. He was very gentle, she tells us now, but he told her not to walk up to private people’s houses. I think this is terrible advice. What kind of world do we live in? When I lived overseas, I only had to look sort of lost and people would help me find my way. (Sure they might expect payment, but they didn’t threaten me) I told her that I was glad she had found her way to Oregon, and to my class in particular.

Student #3: A brings his marriage license, showing he’s been married to his wife for 37 years. We talk a little bit about marriages. I’ve been to a few Iraqi weddings now, here in the US, and they can be summed up best in one word: LOUD. So loud. We compare Iraqi wedding customs to Mauritanian ones. As always, I’m amazed at how many similarities there are between the 2, separated by thousands of miles and in many ways very different.

*in part because I forgot to bring anything even though it was on my lesson plans, and I found that stub in my purse. The best teachers are good at improv, right?

The other day in class, we were working on putting sentences in order to tell a story. This was the basic story: Wilma and Carl met at a party. They talked for a long time. They fell in love. They kissed. (The teacher’s book put these in the opposite order) She met his parents. They got engaged. They got married. They had two children.

Without exception, all my students (Iraqi and Korean) put the kiss after the marriage.

Donn and I were having fun with that later. “She met his parents. They got married. They met at a party.” We laughed, but the humor stems from the fact that this is typically how it’s done in Iraq, although of course there are exceptions. Back in class, we found out how everybody met their spouse or, if not married, how their parents met. The stories contained a lot of similarities. Some were married to first cousins, or second cousins. Some first saw their spouse at their own house, where their future spouse was friends with their sibling. Several met their spouse for the first time at the engagement. But no one met their spouse completely on their own, at university or at work or online.

When you spend a lot of time in one particular culture that is not your own, you will begin to take on characteristics, add things in, to create your own hybrid of culture. This happens gradually over time, and certain moments will cause past events to suddenly make sense. I remember planning a movie night at Oasis Books in Nouakchott, years ago, and asking a friend for movie suggestions. “Anything is fine,” he said, “but no kissing.” Donn and I were mystified, as we knew our friends watched all kinds of movies, and got French stations on their TVs. And of course kissing is very innocuous in our culture and shows up in even kid movies. But somehow, realizing that everyone put “kissing” after “marriage” helped me to understand this, and suddenly I felt embarrassed at all the kissing that takes place in movies, which is not a reaction I’ve had since I was about 10.

As it is, I move uneasily back and forth. The best part is when you mistrust yourself. Which culture is this rude in again? I’ll be sitting pointing my feet at an American friend, or eating with my left hand, and I think, “this is okay in American culture. It’s not rude,” and then I’ll think, “right?” Usually I just stop, just in case. I have written before of getting confused about whether or not I can acceptably double-dip my samosa or my chips, of whether I can use my own private spoon to eat from the common bowl. (Rule of thumb: fine with Arabs; not fine with Americans or Canadians; certain exceptions apply) It took me ages after we moved back to America to remember that the stores don’t close for lunch here, that the bank is open at noon (although even as I type that I’m not 100% certain. Right?) The twins’ pediatrician closes for the noon hour, which has only confused me further. But Fred Meyer is open. (Right?) (No, that one I’m sure of)

Kissing, however, is fine in American culture. Even the teacher’s book thinks you typically kiss before you fall in love. Right?

December 2022

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