One of the many problems with teaching in a foreign culture is that it’s so, well, foreign. It hardly increases my credibility in the classroom, or my control, that half the time I don’t have any clue what’s going on—“Where are you going? What did that announcement on the PA system just say? Why are you sitting on each other’s laps?” Moreover, most of my students lack either the English skills of the confidence—I’m not sure which—to explain to me precisely why they’ve pushed all their desks into a big group in the corner when they’ve got a whole giant empty classroom around them; the best they could give me was to nod vigorously when I asked, I thought sarcastically, if they just really liked each other. (Though, come to think of it, that may be the real answer.) Thus, I am mostly reduced, in these situations, to nodding, still confused, and saying, by way of changing the subject, “you kids are weird, you know that?”
It’s not very culturally sensitive of me, I know. But they are weird, though I can never figure out what is Indonesian culture and what is just 15-year-old culture; at this point, they are equally foreign to me. In one of my tenth grade classes, for example, the students have all ganged up to mock one of their peers: every sample sentence, every dialogue, and every writing assignment they produce is focused on the unfortunate Jono; when, for example, they were asked to write newspaper articles for the headline “Disaster Strikes Semarang,” a good half of the articles, I swear, were about Jono escaping from prison and kidnapping babies; Jono, through his family’s restaurant, poisoning everyone; and, perhaps most creatively of all, Jono growing to giant size and stomping on the city, Godzilla-style. Trying to be a good teacher, sensitive to the feelings of my students, and trying to combat what I thought was simply 15-year-old culture, I heavily censored the articles I chose to be read out loud for the class, and, as the kids wrote sample sentences on the board, I assiduously followed them, erasing “Jono” and substituting the ever-classic “Bob.”
But I constantly second-guess myself: is this because they are fifteen and cruel, or is this because they are Indonesian? My American sensibilities tell me to encourage everyone to “play nice” and not get their feelings hurt, but Indonesia has, I’ve noticed, a much stronger culture of teasing, and I, clueless as I am, never know when comments have crossed the line. When I came to class last week, there was a new decoration in the classroom: a collage of pictures of Jono, along with a song someone had written about him and his family’s restaurant, and then a list of comments solicited from each member of the class. I didn’t understand all the lyrics—something about how spicy his meatballs are—but I definitely understood the comments below: “Jono is so hot!” and “This makes me love him more!” and “His meatballs are delicious!” I spent a good ten minutes of the class period reading though this, thinking, basically, “Huh?” It all seemed to be highly sarcastic, but it’s hard to tell in a foreign language--I mean, maybe his meatballs are the best in town.
So I sidled over to my partner teacher, hoping she could shed some light on this. “Look,” I asked, “in America this would probably be considered over the line and hurtful to Jono. I mean, do they like him or not? Does Jono mind? Are teachers here expected to stop this behavior? Is this okay????”
“Oh,” she said, “Yeah, they don’t really like him. They say he smells bad. But he’s kind of a class mascot now! It’s funny, right?”
I wasn’t so sure. “How does Jono feel about it?”
“I asked him last week,” she said, which reassured me that an adult figure has tried to take responsibility. “He said he doesn’t mind. He just imagines that it’s all happening to someone else. So, see? It’s okay!”
Ouch. I find that more heartbreaking than “okay,” but the other teacher just smiled cheerfully and went back to grading. For me, though, reluctant to just ignore things like this but equally reluctant to interfere, what with my surface-only understanding of this culture, I have a hard time figuring out my responsibility, both as a teacher and as a person. This goes for everything, not just this class—every time a student misbehaves, every time they say something strange, every time I walk into class to find them choreographing disco dances, I face the questions again: stop it? Ignore it? Join in? For now, I just shake my head and sigh. These kids are weird, you know.