Talkin` Isms With the Guys
Despite my overwhelmingly positive experiences since moving to the Czech Republic, I have of course come up against unpleasant things, imperfections, problems and, on occasion, downright ugliness. As for ugliness, some of the communist era high-rises look like the inhuman housing projects built in the 60`s and 70`s in the U.S. I once wondered aloud who lived in the lovely old homes and spacious looking structures in the heart of the city before 1989. I was told that people who were successful and powerful in the Communist Party were given those homes. Mmm, elitism, eh? Things can change though, can`t they? New homes are being built, attractive condos constructed and even a few of the gray monoliths are being gussied up with bright paint.
Some other things that I believe are changing, but are perhaps harder to „see“ sometimes, are the Czech versions of „isms“ seen around the world. For example, some people here hold racist attitudes about the Romany (Gypsy) population. I have been shocked on more than one occasion by comments about Romanies from Czech people who are well educated, as well as otherwise, warm, kind, and considerate.
Many of the stereotypes they espouse are similar to those heard from American bigots about minority populations there -- dirty, dishonest, unintelligent, resistant to education, blah, blah, blah. As one of my students put it the other day, „They can`t help it. It`s their mentality -- it`s different from ours.“ I try to address „isms“ with my English language students during lessons, as part of the culture of language. Sexism is relatively easy to bring up, for example, by teaching the salutation „Ms.“ as opposed to „Miss“ or „Mrs.“ Most -- I believe all of my students, so far -- have never heard of it. I explain that just as there is no need to know a man`s marital status automatically, there is no need to know a woman`s. Additionally, I mention that if they want to speak and write correct business English, they must drop the other forms unless specifically requested otherwise by a woman they are communicating with. I believe the majority of my students see the value of this and, therefore, it often leads to discussions about sexism.
Actually, the word „sexism“ itself is something I usually have to teach. I do so by writing the word „racism“ on the board. Most students invariably know it because of media reports about Czech racism -- and American racism, and South African racism, and British racism, and Japanese racism, and Central American racism... human racism, that is. After eliciting the definition, I take off the suffix and ask them to guess what the meaning is when I add various prefixes: sex, class, age... This is part of the process of teaching new words through elicitation. Rather than just having them look it up in a dictionary, if they can understand the meaning in an experiential sense, they are much more likely to retain it. They „know“ the meaning, rather than just knowing what it means. Students seem to get sexism -- the meaning, if not the problem with such an „ism.“
After they learn the definition of the word, we usually have a discussion of related terms and aspects, such as:
Feminism - Of my male students who are familiar with the term, many seem to think of it as something „horrible.“ Female students are usually rather quiet on the subject. Also, many students, male and female, quite astutely challenge the word „feminism“ as a positive term, when „ism“ is used in a negative way in the other examples I provide. This usually leads to a productive discussion of prefixes and suffixes -- how they are used in different ways in different words and how with many English words, one has to learn to understand the way the it is used. Other non-negative terms I give as examples of „isms“ are Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, patriotism...
- >Discrimination - Classified ads here usually ask for someone unmarried, between 25 years and 40 years old... I have not seen one asking for a man or woman yet, but I can only read the ones printed in English.
Affirmative Action - Czech`s often know of it as „positive discrimination,“ since apparently there was some discussion in Parliament of implementing such a program to address discrimination against Romanies. One of my students told me he heard that the only small business people in the States who get government assistance are black, female or homosexual. I attempted to explain how very wrong he was about that, including the fact that it is legal to discriminate against lesbians and gays in most of the U.S. and that private homosexual acts between consenting adults are criminal in about half of the states. (Even the most narrow minded among my students are usually shocked by this last piece of information, having heard so much about America as the home of the free.)
Equal Pay for Equal Work - Most of my students seem to agree with this basic tenet, but admit it does not exist between men and women in the Czech Republic.
Traditions - An abundance to choose from here.
Socialization - This term I reserve for upper intermediate and advanced students. The rest have to get by with an enhanced discussion of tradition.
One challenge I face when doing this is to not be preachy, condescending or nationalist (another term many seem to know already). Recently, a student asked me why Americans always talk about how other societies need to change when we have many of the same problems and our own special ones (e.g., excessive violent crime). I had difficulty answering, but said that we had an ideal that we 4aimed for and that many Americans want to share that ideal with them.
Sometimes this process of addressing „isms“ is discouraging and sometimes it is energizing. Most of the time, it is a positive experience for me, and I hope for my students, too. Here are some examples of both. (Fortunately most of my students are like the latter group.)
I had an advanced English group of four male professionals, none of them Romany. Three are in their thirties, the other is his late twenties. The three older ones are married and two of those have children. One of them is the manager, but they have all known each other for a while, the three older ones since college. They followed the manager from one job to another. (I have to admit that the American term, „good ole` boy network“ comes to mind here.) They are intelligent and middle class, probably working towards upper middle class status.
At the first lesson I was asked if I was married? No. Had I ever been married? Yes. Any children? No. „Well at least none that you know of, eh?“ I did not answer (neither did I explain that I did not find that tired old joke funny.), but responded by saying, „Tell me about your children.“ Getting people to talk like this at a first lesson is a good way to break the ice and to assess their language ability. It is also very revealing.
Since that first lesson we have talked about various subjects. Here are some of them and some of their comments:
Yugoslavia "Belgrade should be nuked, because they`re all guilty."
Romanies "I`m not racist, but I hate Gypsies. I can take any other race, but not them. They just want to live off the government."
The U.S. "It`s a shame the CIA did away with it`s assassination teams."
Affirmative Action See the previous quote above about blacks, women and gays.
These particular guys do not seem too receptive to looking at these things in a cross cultural context. As a matter of fact, they seem to know Americans who hold similar beliefs.
I must admit that their continued comments along these lines led me to drop them as students. I thought about having another teacher come in to observe a class and give me pointers on working with them or offering them cultural sensitivity training, but I eventually realized that I just basically do not like these men and for that reason probably am not a good person to teach them.
My other example has turned out differently, however. This is another advanced group of four professional men. Two are in their early thirties, one in his late thirties and one in his seventies. The older man is a widow with an adult daughter, one of the others is married with no children, one is widowed with a teenage son, and the youngest is single. They are all intelligent and middle class. None are Romany, one is Slovak.
These guys suffer from as many negative „isms“ as most of us, maybe more than some, maybe less than others, but they are willing to listen, discuss, explore and, therefore, probably change. They are generally accepting of Romanies, but none of them really know any. They are proud of their country and culture, but critical of it also. We have fruitful, fun, heated and heavy discussions. Easter afforded us with a good topic focused on traditions and sexism.
One of Czech traditions on this holiday is for boys and men to switch girls and women on the rear, then for women to douse the men with water, give them a drink of a special liquor, and finally give them decorated eggs. Apparently, a young person`s popularity is measured by how many boys switch you if your a girl and by how many eggs you have if your a boy. I commented that this to me seemed like some sort of a fertility rite, that it had sexual connotations and seemed rather sexist. They seemed shocked at my observation.
„No, no, no“, they insisted. They made statements like, „My wife, mother, mother-in-law and sister would be insulted if I didn`t switch them! The young girls cry if they don`t have many boys switch them!“
I asked why a girl should be made to feel bad because she was not chased and switched by boys. What message did that give her about what is important in relations with men? About what is important in life? Did it say to them on some level that if you`re a girl you should strive to be chased by boys and then give them things in return? Why should a boy be made to feel bad if he had fewer eggs than other boys? Why should he hit a girl, even if it is in jest of some sort? What message did that send him? Was it saying to him in some sense, the more girls you „hit,“ the bigger a man you are? Why should women do all the giving in this ritual? Why should the men be made drunk by the women? Finally, I asked what they would think if a woman took the switch from them and hit their rears? Would they give them anything in return?
This was a lively discussion, with give, take, and willingness to listen. They had a great opportunity to debate, too, which is very good practice for advanced students of English. In the end, they agreed that this tradition probably began as some fertility rite and that it did have sexual connotations. While they did not concede it as sexist, they seemed to understand how I saw it that way. When I told them that a woman in one of my other groups said she did not like the practice and refused to let her husband switch her, they admitted the practice was probably fading away.
In a subsequent discussion of this tradition, a Czech friend told me I had gotten it all wrong. He informed me that this tradition predated Christianity. It reportedly was viewed as a cleansing practice that symbolically beat disease out of the women. I replied that that did not mean it was not sexist. After all, sexism predates Christianity, too.
Right after Easter my students wanted to know if any women had doused me water. I told them I went to Poland where the tradition used to be that boys doused girls, but now douse anyone passing by. They all shared that their families and friends, including the women among them, were very amused by the story of their English teacher who thinks the Czech Easter tradition is sexist. I wonder if any of them had other thoughts on the subject? Things do change, don`t they?
This article was originally published at the Pell-Mell.cz server.
Názory z druhé strany - Thought from the other side
In this weekly column, pro-feminist men - men that are strongly influenced by the feminist movement - write their observations in daily life on the role of men and women in the Czech Republic.