If you work abroad, the chances are you’ll be invited to local schools, celebrations and other special events.
You might be asked to give prizes at an English competition, to give a model lesson at a high school, to open a shiny, new building or even help launch a local TV station. These can be great opportunities to meet people and see otherwise inaccessible areas of the country; they also require us to be wary of being utilized or exploited for someone else’s benefit. Some challenging experiences while working in rural China taught me how to react in these situations so that I retained both important relationships and my own dignity. Well, most of the time...
Be Ready for Extracurricular Activities While Teaching Abroad
It may seem a dreadfully cynical place to start, but ask yourself who it is that is inviting you, and why they are doing so. If they’re a friend, or a trusted teaching colleague, then you might be able to rely on them not to put you in an embarrassing situation. By this I mean those impromptu classes for the 150 middle school students who just happened to be crowded into the school’s lecture theater when you arrived to ‘meet the principal for lunch’. Or the radio station crew who are there to interview you, in their own language, with no notice or preparation. Ask as many questions about the event as you want to; after all, you’re doing your friend a favor.
If a complete stranger has invited you to attend an event – and this will often be through a ‘middle-man’ intermediary who you already know – then accept from the outset that you may have very little control over what happens. Which leads us to...
Expect the Unexpected
All of my worst hijackings came out of the clear blue sky. I finished the planned model lesson and then it was announced that, as a musician, I would now perform a song for the class. You might love doing this, but not me! An agreed photo opportunity became, upon the unexpected arrival of a minivan, a surprise visit to the local factory, or a new arch celebrating a historic victory, or the preserved home of a noted poet. These can be terrific occasions; I’ll never forget my spontaneous visit to the famed Mao Tai rice wine distillery in Guizhou province. Some can be excruciating, as when a 45-minute model lesson turned into leading soccer training for a hundred eight year-olds, followed by a gigantic second lunch and then a non-negotiable, private English lesson for the Party chairman’s daughter. A VSO colleague put it well: “Imagine the strangest thing that might happen, and then double it”.
I’ve always felt that learning to laugh at the unplanned weirdness is the best reaction. In any event, you’ll have a good story to tell later.
Prepare to Be Flexible with the Truth
Honesty is a great virtue, but let’s just accept it: white lies elegantly solve problems. Lavish group dining was an essential part of my visits to schools and towns in China, but begging off a massive banquet because of ‘stomach trouble’ is perfectly fine. Explaining that you can’t drink due to ‘doctor’s advice’ will also generally be taken seriously. Claiming to be a vegetarian for religious purposes, especially when you’re presented with a meat you can’t even name, is a neat evasion which won’t truly offend anyone. The reverse – tucking into the plate of cow’s larynxes or jellied pig’s blood and exclaiming its deliciousness, or downing a dozen glasses of the local brew – will quickly make you plenty of friends, but don’t break your own rules, or compromise your health, just to please others.
Time is another factor. Try to build agreed-upon parameters from the outset, so that the day doesn’t become an open-ended affair. Expecting a phone call from home is a good reason; tiredness is an elegant way to side-step events in the later evening; if nothing else comes to mind, it often helped to simply explain that I had ‘an arrangement’, and had to get home in time. Even the most ardently exploitative host will relent if you glance at your watch every few moments. If you’ve had a great time, be sure to say so. If you haven’t, choose something you didn’t mind so much, and praise it unequivocally. For me, the best way to make friends was to thank people for their thoughtfulness in helping me understand my new environment.
It’s easier to wriggle free of odious expectations if your hosts are instantly fond of you. Arrive armed with a little local knowledge, if at all possible. For our visits to rural schools in China, I tried to find mention of the place in Chinese history – a stop on the Long March in the 1930s, for example – or a famous artist who was born there. These events and people can act as great icebreakers, a little like a tourist arriving here in Boston and showing an enthusiasm for Ted Williams (‘Did you know he flew combat missions in Korea with John Glenn?’) or an interest in old warships like the USS Constitution.
If there’s a chance you’ll be dragged into a lecture hall full of expectant teenagers, have a couple of activity ideas in your back pocket. For massive groups, consider drilling some pronunciation, setting up a simple pairwork activity to build and perform a conversation, or try a team game. One of my favorites, best for groups of 6-12, is to write the word ORCHESTRA on the board and begin a competition whereby the teams must make words from only those letters (e.g. ‘tea’, ‘chest’ and ‘star’ would be OK, but ‘chord’ needs a missing ‘D’ and ‘heroes’ needs a second ‘E’). Our record was 99 words; see if they can beat that!
Another way to react is by arranging an impromptu ‘English Corner’. Stick topics on the wall in the four corners of the classroom, and invite the students to rotate around, discussing each one with new people. The topic page could include suggested questions or points to consider. For example, if the topic is ‘Home and Family’ (a perennial favorite in China), the questions could include:
- How many brothers and sisters do you have? (elementary)
- Is it better to be the oldest or the youngest sibling? (intermediate)
- Do you think people will still get married in the 22nd Century? (advanced)
Grab Some Lingo
Finally, in my experience, nothing broke the ice like speaking a few words of the local language. The fifty words of Chinese I had during my first weeks there opened all manner of doors. Showing an enthusiasm for the language, and trying to say the very simplest things (particularly on TV or radio) was uniquely nerve-wracking, but boosted my nascent reputation and broke down an important barrier; suddenly, I wasn’t quite so alien and my presence in a very remote region became more comprehendible. It might ultimately be something of a joke at your expense, but I can’t recommend it enough.
Sensitivity and anticipation serve us well when invited to a special event.
Some will be strange and even unpleasant – the speech-giving contest where every student loudly denounced the US and UK was ‘peak weird’ for me – but others will be elevating, informative events which add meaningfully to your time abroad.