Not all cross-cultural encounters are friendly ones, and not all students enjoy being in a classroom. When these factors are combined in a classroom where the teacher is foreign and doesn't speak the students' native tongue, tensions can run high.
I've just been handed a student's completed work. A postcard, written in English, to be addressed to the student's favorite person. Except on the address line, this one says "Osama Bin Laden." In the corner, where there should be a drawing of a stamp, there is a drawing of a hand giving the middle finger.
A little part of my faith in international goodwill dies. This kid hates Americans, or at the very least resents being forced to learn English. His postcard is meant to offend me. I hand it back to him.
"No. You can't write this. Do you know Osama Bin Laden?"
"Yes, teacher! Many American kill!"
"That's right. He's a very bad person. You can't write your postcard to him."
The kid grins at me. He thinks his insolence is funny.
"No, teacher. It's ok, because I say FUCK YOU!"
I'm thunderstruck. This is the first time a student has cursed at me. I don't even know how to respond.
The student points to the middle finger drawing in the stamp box. "It's ok, teacher," he repeats. "I say FUCK YOU Osama Bin Laden!" He's still grinning.
The gears in my head finally resume turning. This is not at all what I thought. Rather than expressing hatred toward me and my foreign culture, he is actually bidding to earn my favor with clumsy and moderately offensive show of solidarity against Osama Bin Laden. Still, profanity in the classroom is a discipline problem. I have to be stern. I have to educate him that it's not polite to say FUCK YOU in English.
By the time the teacher assistant picks up the group at the end of the class period, I still haven't stopped laughing.