I didn’t want to write about this. Really. I would have much preferred to break my rather long silence with a whimisical piece about trams or clocks or a funny picture of a man eating an unfeasibly large sausage. The problem is, people keep coming out with things that as a self-confessed Guardian-reading lefty liberal, I find, well, shocking. Let me give you a couple of examples and then we’ll see what you think.
Last week I as teaching ‘if clauses’ to one of my groups of business students. They range in age from early thirties to mid-fifties. I gave them halves of sentences which they were supposed to come up with their own creative endings too. Fellow TEFL teachers will be well-acquainted with the kind of thing I mean: ‘If I won the lottery…’, ‘If cars ran on milk…’ ‘If everyone had eyes in the backs of their heads…’. One of the sentences my students had to complete was the seemingly innocuous, ‘If everyone had to learn Chinese instead of English..’
“I’m afraid of the Chinese,’ announced Jitka.
“Why?’ I find myself obliged to inquire.
“They are like ‘mravenci’.”
Oh God. I know this Czech word. “You think the Chinese are like ants?”
“Yes. There are just so many of them. It makes me afraid.”
I had a one-to-one student at a multinational company. She was in her late fifties. Let’s call her Ludmilla. Like many students, Ludmilla liked to use her English class as a kind of pseudo-therapy session so I know all about her difficult elderly mother-in-law who is too infirm to live by herself but refuses to go into a home, her concerns about restructuring in the department which means she will probably be made redundant and her sadness that the revolution happened too late for her to really do something with her life. Every time the class ends I feel faintly depressed and resolve not to police my boundaries better in future, which I of course then fail to do.
Anyway, one day we wander off onto the topic of previous teachers Ludmilla has had.
“I had someone from South Africa once but she was not a nigger.”
I burst out laughing; I don’t think I’ve heard a real person – i.e not a rapper or someone in a Spike Lee film – say this word out loud for years.
“No, you can’t say that in English”.
She pauses, reformulating the sentence in her mind. “She was not a nigger. She was normal.”
“No, you can’t say that either,” I told her. “In fact, what you just said is even worse.”
It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that Ludmilla greatly admires Brigitte Bardot for the work she did later in life to promote animal rights.
I taught a new group somewhere in the bowels of a huge glass corporate headquarters somewhere on the edge of Prague. We are doing icebreakers. One of the icebreakers involves the students finding out something the others in the group really object to. All of them are in their late twenties to early thirties.
“What does it mean, ‘object to’?”
“It’s when you really, really don’t like something. When you are against it.”
“Can I say, ‘I object to the rain?'”
“No, it must be stronger. For example, ‘I object to racism.”
Lenka looks at me, genuinely puzzled. “Why?”
I didn’t want to write about this topic as I really don’t want my Czech readers to think that I’m coming over here claiming that everyone in Britain lives in multiracial harmony and that no-one would ever utter a non-politicially correct word. I don’t. In case you doubt me, I refer you to my entry where I talk about my own father’s racist comments.
What I do find surprising is that there is more casual racism here in than in Britain: for example, when I mentioned I was going on holiday to Berlin to a group of students, one of them quipped that it was the second biggest Turkish city in the world, knowing he would get a laugh. In Britain, that kind of comment would be rewarded with an embarrased silence. It’s probably just a symptom of the fact that the country was closed off from the outside world for so long but I’m still irked by the fact that youngish people who have probably travelled and had that contact with outside can still make these kinds of comments. Anyway. Enough attempts at serious analysis. Next time expect photos of mushrooms and statues and mannequins.
I look forward to your comments. I have a feeling they’ll be plenty.