difficult subjects

i’ve been trying to work through this idea for a couple of weeks (or many months, depending how you date its origins). as i said in the car to umm qais last weekend:

i feel that being an ex-pat carries a lot of responsibility. it’s weighty, it’s tiring, it’s difficult. here’s why.

living in a foreign country generally signifies privilege in this day and age. usually, for americans, it’s connected with higher socioeconomic status and education. you travel abroad during college, or your parents took you to France when you were younger, or your friends at your private school are from Switzerland or Zimbabwe or whatever. but probably, if you’re from a small working-class town in most places in the US, you didn’t have this access. maybe your parents have never been abroad, you’ve never met someone from Europe, and all you know about Africa is that there’s lions there. like a previous student of mine, you’re shocked to meet someone from Egypt and hear that they live in an apartment, drive on a highway, and eat at McDonald’s for lunch. i shouldn’t judge this ignorance, but i can be disappointed in its existence, especially with the information access that we all now take for granted via the Internet. there’s fewer and fewer excuses for not having a better understanding of the world around us, even if it is mitigated by media and popular images. obviously, parents and schools have a mandate to foster broader understanding as well. but if they themselves don’t have knowledge or experience, it is difficult.

so i think traveling abroad, and especially living abroad, are markers of privilege. but i also mean privilege in the Spiderman sense. because we are privileged to experience a different culture, we need to be responsible. being an ex-pat means that i need to be that much more cognizant of my own culture and the latent biases that i bring with me wherever i go. it means i need to be more sensitive to dress, to language, to the volume of my voice. i know my friends and previous colleagues are thinking, whoa, that must be hard for alli. yes yes! it is true. that’s why it’s such a relief to hang out with americans sometimes, to be loud and nonreligious and wear a tank top and compare the virtues of different fast food chains. but really, i don’t want to be one of the gang of boisterous ex-pats drinking cheap beer at the bar and taking turns slamming the culture they’re surrounded by. i find that offensive too. i don’t want to be entirely separate from the culture i am living in. i don’t want to live behind a wall or in a bubble.

but what about the other side of the continuum: should we seek to immerse ourselves completely? should we ‘go native’, change our presentation of self to fit in, attend services for a religion that’s not ours, change the way we speak or the music we listen to or the books we read to better fit in with the place we’re in? should we be so sensitive to issues of culture and viewpoint that we lose our own convictions and legitimize actions or ideas that we wouldn’t accept at home? this is the hard part to work out. there is a gradient here. obviously i am not going to enter an unfamiliar situation, guns blazing, to plant an american flag and make a grand speech about gay marriage or gender rights (even if i want to). i don’t want to force my viewpoint on anyone, just the same as i don’t want them to force a viewpoint on me. i do, when i can, seek to understand- i truly value the friendships i’ve developed with locals here, just as i value my friendships back home with ex-pats from various places; i am a sucker for stories of cultural surprise and startlingly different viewpoints. i really do want to learn, not to judge.

so where does my responsibility as an ex-pat lie? particularly as a teacher, it behooves me to answer this question. should my colleagues avoid talking about their religion because the kids have never knowingly met a Jew, and may react badly? is there danger in the school hosting a critic of American support for Israel? what about hosting a rabbi? what would the repercussions be if there was a dramatic production of ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly’? can a student making a speech about feminism use vulgar language to illustrate the slurs that she hears when she walks alone on the street? should my female advisee be allowed to dress as a man for the prom? what might the parents say? what would the newspapers say? what about our founders? our funders? our critics? how much should we care? whose job is it to consider this?

i have definitely been challenged by the viewpoints i’ve heard my students express: “Hitler was a great man;” “What’s wrong with fascism?”, “Why do we need free speech?” but, as an experienced educator, i can also recognize that these are students asking these questions, and they are asking for information and ideas. god knows i think we should always ask about ideas, even controversial ones, for the very reason that they are scary. we need to talk them out. but how should this be done? should we carefully plan the presentation of an unorthodox idea, moving forward only when we can feel confident that the students are ‘ready’ to hear it? should sensitivity guide our actions? or is there something to be gained by an honest, possibly provocative presentation, knowing that there might be strong reactions? which is the more responsible route to foster understanding?

i want to make sure kids get the real story. sometimes, i think, they might need to be challenged to hear it, even if it is strange or hurtful or different from what their parents say. and just as we, as adults, should be careful about how we present controversial ideas, we also need to train kids to hear them.

no right answer here. thoughts from the cloud?


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