I’ve never had an extended “teaching abroad” experience myself, though I know several who have. I love just hearing their stories of the culture shock, challenge, and humanity they’ve encountered.
The book Watermelon is Life by Wes Weston is like having one of these discussions with the author over a drink sometime. It’s even better, perhaps– in book form, the author’s had the time to sort and thoroughly reflect upon his stories.
Wes spent a year teaching English in Namibia, and he covers everything I’d hoped he would in the span of about 200 pages, divided into a series of pithy anecdotes combining personal experience with research-based context.
Even for someone like me who hasn’t taught English, it was really interesting to read his examples of the most common linguistic mistakes his learners would make. Things like confusing the words “lend” and “borrow” because they were the same word in the native language, or how they wrote using SMS language (“doing gr8 2day”) on tests.
He also gives the humorous example of an assignment to write a 200-word article about a day at the market, and receiving papers full of filler sentences in the form of prayers wishing for God to help them write this assignment for 175 words, followed by two short sentences of relevance at the very end.
Other humorous highlights include:
* The dilemma of the teaching staff: should they buy their engaged colleague a goat or a washing machine for her wedding present? Debate ensues.
* The reliable wordiness of the principal, causing the parents-and-teachers assembly to last literally all day.
* An account of a staggeringly nonsensical speaker at the school award ceremony who shifts from rambling about Hitler to a made-up story about Bill Gates to a generic parable about a lion.
The book has its balanced share of research and reflection, too:
* He details the vast income inequality in Namibia, which leaves many poor and without access to basic needs and opportunities.
* He compares the Namibian cultural perception of time and punctuality to the American one.
* He honestly confesses how hard it was to keep pushing the students to improve, when some of them had given up already.
* He mentions the ongoing debate about aid effectiveness, and wonders how we readers, from such priviliged backgrounds, can truly best help those with fewer opportunities (like his learners).
A particularly interesting section to me was when he reflected on the unfortunate endangerment of native languages around the world, as well as the possibility of his role in teaching a common language to the detriment of Oshikwanyama, the native language in the region where he lived.
I have a worry in the back of my mind at all times about travel stories– that they’re more for the benefit of the person going on the trip and that the trip’s actual effectiveness is questionable. And I don’t think that healthy skepticism should ever go away.
But then also think of all the benefits if travelers effectively share their honest accounts with others. A more personal touch to a call to charity would be one, and the always-important reminder to think about cultures and experiences outside our comfort zone would be another.
But even more important would be the stirring of political energy to support international aid, the UN Millennium Development Goals, and a more equitable global economy.
That’s all big, world-scale stuff. And I’m no expert on any of it. But as far as I can tell, real changes happen person-by-person, and start with honest and insightful accounts.
In the end, that’s exactly what this was. Throughout the book, each moment is dissected for its maximum possible humor and insight. An enjoyable, and even inspiring, book!