Nov 13, 2009

Can foreign viewpoints cross the line? (....and, um, does it matter?)

A few weeks ago I was teaching a pretty banal English lesson themed around country vs. city life. The group was made up of unenthused 11th grade girls, each a picture or thoroughly urban teenhood in their daily armour of Apple products, UGG boots, and $50 hand cream. I tried in vain to pep up the discussion a little. "What are some disadvantages to growing up in the city?" I asked. I expected the usual answers; smog, traffic jams, subway pickpockets. One girl perked up and grabbed her dictionary, thumbing rapidly through the pages before finding the word and saying it aloud.


She translated it to Turkish for the other students, and immediately the classroom was alive. Everyone was talking, interrupting, getting heated, all in rapid and passionate Turkish.

"Ooookay, can we discuss in English?" I asked. The students all turned to me. "This is not a problem!" one said, "not here in Istanbul." The girl who had looked up the word shot her hand in the air. "That's not true!" The debate resumed with everyone disagreeing at once. "Is it true?" they asked me. "Is it true?"

Umm, about that. As the students looked at me, each side seeking affirmation, my brain was having a full debate of its own. The students got so touchy at the mention of the word, I got the feeling that this crime might be an unspoken occurrence here. Is it a huge taboo to mention anything sex-related in a classroom, even in the lawbreaking context? How did half these young women get the firm impression that such things don't occur in Istanbul? Though I'm not speaking to the character of the city or its people, come on now, any urban space of 14 million is going to see a fair bit of crime. Still, the word got people hot and bothered. I pictured a student going home and telling her parents, "today the English teacher talked to us about violent sex acts. Some of us were uncomfortable, but she talked about it anyway." I pictured myself getting in a lot of trouble, a lot of trouble, for even acknowledging adult activities in the classroom.

On the other hand, this was a group of impressionable 16 year old girls asking for the final word on the matter. I know that sometimes in other countries, a feminist's analysis of things just don't carry. Measuring a different country to my Canadian gender standards can come across as backhanded criticism of the culture in which I am a guest. I try not to rock the boat; I try not to raise an eyebrow in societies that, gender-wise, are quite different from my homeland. I don't expect every woman on this earth to get sexual education and self-defense lessons. But I couldn't in good conscience downplay a very real issue in the face of the people who may be vulnerable to the matter. Sorry, warring conscience; the feminist trumps the abiding foreigner here.

"That's a crime that can happen in the city or the country," I told them. The girls nodded, serious, and I think they understood.


  1. Wow, heavy. But you definitely made the right call.

  2. Now that's thinking on your feet! This would make an awesome case study for TESL. Hint hint.

  3. Now, that's a smart answer for a tricky question!