|Shekhawati, Rajasthan, 2014|
That she'll end up as an ESL teacher, teaching adults in the Arabian Gulf, wouldn't have occurred to her in a million years.
Well, she did. Yes, it's me:) I wasn't a pleasant didi (older sister) at all--if memory serves me right.
Four plus years of teaching the language I love to students who've shown me the warmth, humour, charm and kindness of Qataris has fortified my belief that humans from different backgrounds, cultures, countries, religions, race and gender are all the same. We all have the same needs: to be loved, to be appreciated, to be understood and to live peacefully.
I may have taught them what an adjective is and that in English we put it before the noun, unlike Arabic, where it follows the noun (so old airport becomes Matar Qadeem - airport old) but they opened my heart to a culture I'd only heard of (second or third hand) from friends and visitors.
Unless we talk and exchange ideas, our understanding of another culture is based on our preconceived notions, media images and the news. I've been pleasantly surprised by my students- men dressed in pristine white thobs and women clad in black abayas.
My female students showed me how independent they are. Many choose to stay single and wait for the right life partner instead of settling for the sake of it. Divorce is not taboo. Married women rule at home, just like they do in India and in England. Married men complain about how much their wives spend on shopping, just like the rest of the married men in the rest of the world. Single men have to save money to be able to find a bride (not like in some families in India, where the parents of a baby girl start mustering together dowry from the day she's born). Single girls sometimes spend an entire month's salary on ONE handbag and then wait for the next pay day!
The topic was food. The students were learning new food vocabulary-- we were looking at 'dairy'. A student put his hand up and asked,
'Cheesus, teacher...What food cheesus? Say cheesus...cheesus...in Hollywood film...many, many times.'
'Cheesus?'I asked, puzzled and perplexed.
Moments of pondering and wondering later, it dawned, 'Do you mean Jesus?'
Lessons are peppered with funny moments like this one. Humour comes easily to the Qataris.
A friend of mine was teaching an intro level class; these students know only the alphabet and just a few words of English.
"It's odd, he keeps saying moustache in class. Apart from 'my name is...', and 'good morning', that's the only word he says." shared my friend in the staff room one day.
Both of us did a quick upper lip check for each other to be sure. No, nothing there.
Almost a month later, she found out that one of her stronger students had taught this gentleman that the English word for an 'eraser' is 'moustache'.
I quit my job this year to focus on my writing. I miss the energy and warmth of my students. I miss how some of them would tell me proudly that they were now able to help their children with their English homework or order their meal in a restaurant and not use any Arabic. I miss the pride in their eyes when they scored an 'Excellent' grade. I miss how a thirty-three year old police officer would show the smiley face I'd drawn on his writing practice to his classmate sitting next to him and how his twenty year old coast guard partner would then ask me for one, too. I miss that. ESL games brought out the innocent child in these men of rank. They fought, tripped each other, cheated, laughed, made fun of the losing team and talked about their win in extremely loud voices over cups of karak at break-time. Lieutenants and Warrant Officers became like any other learners and students I've come across in my teaching career -- willing to give it their best shot.
I miss the hugs my female students gave me. I miss the teasing, the sharing and the learning.
But most of all, I miss my unlearning -- unlearning the notions I'd grown up with about men in thobs and women in abayas.
Thank you ESL for this unlearning. One day, Inshallah! I may go back to teach and unlearn some more.
My last batch of students -- on a field trip.
I'm wearing an abaya and my students are all in thobs.
|A birthday surprise organized by a class of ladies:|
the letters on the right are their initials.