Wayne Furlong, former teacher, education consultant, author
The ball rolled out of play and Ying blew her whistle. The players took their positions and waited to restart. Ying’s mother, Mei, watched from her car. She did not understand her daughter’s love of this strange game, Australian Rules Football. However, she was proud to see her umpiring, proud that grown men obeyed when she blew her whistle.
There was a knock at the car window.
“Hello,” said a rotund middle aged man.
“Are you Ying’s mother?”
“I’m Paul. I see you here every week. Would you like to earn some money while you’re here?”
“Sorry. I don’t understand.”
“Umpire. Like your daughter.”
“No. I cannot run.”
“Goal umpire…..just watch and see if it’s a goal or not. No worries.”
So began Mei’s immersion in Australian culture, via a game she had no idea existed six months earlier. The players loved that the goal umpire couldn’t speak English very well. They loved that she took her job seriously.
They loved that she wanted to be part of their game.
Language and culture were no barrier to Mei’s belonging. Her life was more interesting because of the fact that she danced between and together with two cultures. It made the footballers’ lives more interesting as well.
In Melbourne, over a twenty five year career, I taught secondary students from over 80 nationalities. Then I went to Hong Kong and taught for twelve years in a vastly different culture.
That very difference taught me the same lesson that teaching all those nationalities in Melbourne had taught me. We all want to belong, to be helpful, to be valued members of a community. It is this fundamental human urge that attaches us to a culture in the first place. The cause of our differences is our sameness.
Early in my book “Buddha is a Punk Skater” I tell a simple story, set in Shenzhen:
A group of seven-year-old girls runs up to me, very excited.
“Mr Furlong..…we are very happy today.”
“That’s nice. Why?”
“We have ten minute more lunch time.”
“Two student miss the test yesterday so have to do it now. We are so happy. Bye bye!”
Those children are no different to Australian, Ethiopian or Fijian children. They love to belong through play, they love a sudden gift of ten minutes, and they love to share their joy. They are not, as I was led to believe in my childhood, “inscrutable Chinese.” They are completely scrutable.
The teacher’s job is essentially to help each fun loving, sharing student find a way to belong through learning. This means helping them to find their place within the culture they live in.
Not always. For students moving to a new culture there are barriers, both external and internal, to belonging. In my book I tell the story of Sahra, a Somali refugee, who had to study the novel “Night”. The book touched her and in doing so challenged cultural beliefs instilled in her as a child.
Sahra was torn. Family and religion were her strongest points of belonging yet she also wanted to belong to the world of her teacher and classmates.
All cultures sometimes cultivate beliefs and norms that can be problematic in a new setting. Australian culture, for example, often values independent thought and “speaking your mind” but these things do not always sit well in the Confucian cultures of Hong Kong and China. What is intended as a helpful suggestion may be felt as criticism.
In contrast, Hong Kong students may follow a cultural norm of not making eye contact when being chastised, believing this to be respectful. To the western teacher- “look at me when I am talking to you”- this behaviour can have the appearance of insolence.
Such differences are fluid. Not every Hong Kong person is reserved and not every Australian is outgoing. It is often said that the Chinese ethos is collective while the Australian one is individualistic. Yet Chinese have a saying about “shoveling the snow onto your neighbour’s roof” and Australians idealise “mateship” and “lending a hand.” Everything human is in every culture. Even as individuals we are sometimes this and sometimes that.
This and that aside, cultural beliefs and norms of behaviour do differ and they do sometimes clash. I have noticed a general (not universal) tendency in Chinese students in Australia toward reticence and wariness of the new.
The beginning for the teacher, however, is not the student’s reticence and wariness. The beginning is the student’s urge to belong. This urge can take them past wariness but they will need to be brave. Bravery is much easier when we feel safe. Here is a short list of ways the teacher can help provide a safe place for such a student:
- Respect the student’s need to belong in their own culture first. Respect their family, their name and their story. Ying and Mei did not make their way into the football community despite being Chinese. Their Chineseness was integral to how they came to belong.
- Watch for uncertainty. Maybe what you are asking is culturally confusing. (Shared laughter is powerfully safe and misunderstandings are often funny).
- Assume the student wants to belong. If they do something that seems rude or unco-operative check with them. Ask why. Find out.
- Support them in reaching out to others. Aziz, a seventeen-year-old student from Eritrea, wanted to share something of his culture with the class. He brought home cooked Eritrean food for the class to enjoy.
The Vietnamese, Timorese and Iranian students all took a plate of food. The six Chinese students refused to do so. I could see the hurt in Aziz’s face. To Aziz it looked like something worse than wariness of the new to Aziz.
We had a class meeting and all aired their views about how the action of the Chinese students made them feel. The class then agreed that each group would put on a lunch, that all would eat, and that Chinese would be next. The Chinese students then ate the food but I don’t think they liked it. Maybe a door opened and they do now. I hope so.
- Support them against bullying. I tell the story in my book of a Vietnamese boy who was assaulted by an Australian -born student. There are in all societies those who are unwelcoming of the newcomer. There is every chance the Chinese student coming to a new culture may be vilified, dehumanized, bullied. Be in no doubt of the effect of this on his or her learning. This is a traumatic event and, like most trauma, will isolate, demoralize and depress. It will lead to hypervigilance and a subsequent fall off in learning.
The teacher cannot eradicate xenophobia or intolerance in a society. He or she can, however, make a classroom that is an antidote to this, a place of acceptance and belonging, a place of safety where we always see the sameness that our differences reflect.
From this place is born the courage to take the risk of welcoming and joining.
Good on you Mei.
Hen bang Paul.
Wayne Furlong taught for 25 years in state secondary schools in Melbourne, Australia, where he held positions of responsibility for English, ESL, Curriculum, and Discipline and Welfare. He then taught for eight years in the public school system in Hong Kong before working as an Educational Consultant for four years. He knows what it is like to help the newcomer adjust to a new culture and he knows what it is to be the newcomer himself.
His first book, “Buddha is a Punk Skater“, is a collection of short stories, about the people he met in his teaching career and what they taught him. It is an honest and thoughtful book, but it is also a playful book.