Sometimes, as an EFL teacher, you miss being a student, having the freedom to voice opinions unabashedly, to let decorum fly out the window in the name of truth, justice, and what you think. A private professionalism comes along with the work. You choose a country that interests you, one that piques curiosity enough to travel there to live for a year or so, but often the very things that brought you there are taboo subjects for you to voice opinions.
You can, will, and must talk about the weather, public holidays, people’s daily routine, hobbies, traditional foods, and family so many times. In more advanced classes, you can hypothesize on what you’d buy if you had a million dollars, which places you’d choose if you go anywhere you wanted, or who you’d hang out with if history, location, and language weren’t an issue. These topics suffice for a while, long enough to get you acclimated to each other, but, from day one…
Students want to know about why you, a foreigner, have chosen their country as your temporary home. At first, as you would for any stranger, you list the guidebook highlights: the local cuisine, the historical sites, the particular cultural icon, the author/artist. After a few classes, they want to know what you think of their country now, and the answers, respectfully, come out: how friendly and interesting the people are, beautiful those sites are, and delicious the food is.
Then, as weeks pass, your students know that you know the truth, that life wherever isn’t one big walking dreamscape of lush berries and smog-free air. Like all places, there are prejudices, past injustices, economic problems, religious/political tensions, corruption, crime, and people who hate foreigners. Of course, we all knew this all along, but for the sake of learning English amicably, we’ve avoided these topics in class. Schools tend to prefer it that way.
But, it’s difficult. You don’t volunteer in Palestine because you aren’t interested in the political/religious scene, but you sidestep these issues in class discussions. You claim to be of monotheistic supernatural leanings because it’s better to be Christian than heathen, better to lie than opine. You don’t go to Russia because communism, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War are topics you’d rather not discuss. Eventually, the taboo themes tiptoe into class time.
If you are lucky, students have fervor behind them, a lively discussion ensues, and some real dirt gets ground into the chalkboard. If you’re lucky, a lot of questions about people’s real opinions come out, create calm discord amongst classmates, who explain to each other, and you, the finer points of their side of local debates. In reality, if you are lucky, no one gauges a classmate’s eye out, and no one is dumb enough to want to know what you think.
It’s not fun to have a discussion over the use of burcas with a true believer of the system. It’s not fun because, generally, opinions are unwaveringly strong on both sides of the issue and, as a teacher, as a guest, you must backpedal to stay on even ground. It’s not fun to hear people’s honest beliefs about Josef Stalin committing “necessary atrocities” for making a powerful nation, when by some, he, even in today’s Russia, is remembered as a hero rather than a villain.
You want to say it isn’t right, but you remember the discussion isn’t for you. It’s for students to practice English. All the truth you’ve discovered outside the classroom has usually verified why you’ve wisely used the complimentary twists of reality to keep the peace: No one wants an honestly though displeasing answer or an unflattering opinion. Somehow, the schools had it right. To stay friends, language mentor and student, some things are better left unsaid.