The Freedom Country

IMG_1647I have noticed that international students refer to the U.S. as “freedom country,” not a free country.  Often they have created a picture in their heads based on the Hollywood films they have seen.  There is a certain mixture of sadness and hope, especially if they have just arrived.  In constructing conditional sentences, many ESL students write, “If I had been born in the U.S., my life would have been better.”  This is especially true for Chinese students.  And yet, I question whether I am setting up my students for failure.  Failure here if they come to believe that they can say or do whatever they want without consequences.  “Can we really say anything we want because of Freedom of Speech?”  Failure at home when they go back to societies, where they may no longer fit in.  Teaching language is also teaching culture.  The cultural content given in textbooks (even grammar books), the articles and pictures I choose to present in class, and the films and film clips I show in class are all from a personal perspective and contribute to the impression that the students develop of American culture.  I have become hypersensitive to this fact, and yet I may not always be aware of the impact such decisions have.

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3 thoughts on “The Freedom Country

  1. Teaching language is teaching culture, so true. Also true without the word, “language,” which is sometimes a leap for those of us in math and science. Every choice I make of what to share with students, what not to share, and when reflects (presents, teaches, embodies) our culture. I share your hyperawareness of the fact and your uncertainty over the impact. Thanks for expressing them so well.

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  2. Richard, this reminds me of something I experienced when I lived in Taiwan for a year, and then later in Mainland China. I was there with a group called Volunteers in Asia, and as part of the program, we had all undergone extensive training in cultural awareness and sensitivity. The idea was that as we were living in a different culture, we needed to be respectful of that culture, to be aware of the specifics of their etiquette, modes of expression, etc.

    There were several instances when I was expected to do something (or to not do something) because it was the way thing were done (or not done) in that culture. It would be disrespectful not to adhere to those cultural codes. To complicate things, I’m ethnically Chinese, so I didn’t appear to be a foreigner. So my behavior would often be judged through the lens of cultural expectation for a Taiwanese woman. I found myself often conflicted between wanting to respect a culture but not wanting to go against my own (feminist) values.

    I don’t think it’s ever a “failure” for any of us to learn about the culture of another country. I think your discomfort may be that you are teaching your students values – values that, in another cultural/national context, may not be accepted. We can learn to code-switch culturally; it’s harder (if not impossible) to code-switch our values. Having said that, I do think it’s possible to express certain values in ways that work within certain cultural contexts. I’m thinking about the “Umbrella Revolution” in HK. When we compare it to “Occupy” protests here in the States, didn’t those student protests seem particularly *Chinese*?

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  3. I’m glad you posted this. Something fascinating happens when international students and local students read the texts we assign; it’s a contact zone. The difference in interpretation is too interesting. Last quarter I had a preponderance of F1 students in a single class, like, 2/3rds. I gave everyone “Plato’s Allegory of the Cave,” a piece often assigned in first year composition (perhaps too often). My American students mostly said it applied to their parents, or religion, or the media. But my international students almost unanimously said it was a metaphor showing the tyranny of their home governments.

    One student came to my office hour to tell me how much he loved this text by Plato – he had never read “Western Books.” He then told me about a troubling news story in his home country. A man had been wrongfully accused of a crime and imprisoned for over a decade. He was exonerated by new evidence but upon his release, his government did not compensate him in any way. He had to fend for himself. Because of this, the man came out and publically criticized the government, speaking of the injustice. Within a week he was found dead.

    We often assign a text hoping our students will learn this or that important lesson. It’s not often that we realize we’re actually the ones who will learn the lesson from them.

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