The Importance of Silence

As a teacher myself, I know the appeal of introducing controversial topics and cultural discussions to the classroom. It’s one the best ways to get your students talking, because chances are they all have an opinion.

Last week in my Italian course, my teacher did just that. I consider myself pretty open-minded or in the least open to being open-minded. From my travels, and what I have learned from others, I know what people think about Americans. And although, I refuse to agree when people say that I “hate America” or that I “never want to live there”, I share many of the viewpoints that non-Americans have on the practices that the government and the society enable.

I’ll have to preface this post by explaining a bit about the other students in my class. There is me, an American girl who has trouble with the fluency of Italian language but, according to my teacher, is the most advanced student in the class. Then there are two Japanese girls, both have similar problems to me in the language but both understand a great deal more than they are given credit for. Then, there are two Spanish girls. Both girls came into the course a week or more into it (and it’s only a 5-week course) studying a level ahead of where they were tested but with the advantage of fluency.

Can't we all just get along?

One of these girls, is eager to speak but sweet and reserved in what she says. The other, I’ve finally allowed myself to say, just likes the sound of her own voice. At first I thought she was really fluent and knowledgeable but the more I listened to what she was saying the more I realized that I know people like her; they exist in every language.

So, back to my teacher’s plan to get us speaking. Our teacher asked us what our thoughts were on each other’s countries: Spain, Japan, the U.S. and Mexico (the teacher is from Mexico). Well, of course someone jumped at the chance and began going into detail about Spain and it’s history. She started with the history, moved to the difference between North and South then jumped on over to Mexico and how it came from Spain. After that it was onto the US.

She went into great rocket-speed detail on U.S. policies and the mindsets of the citizens. She described how the people think they are the best in the world and they don’t find it important to learn about other’s cultures. She was shocked that I couldn’t recite every year of United States history because, clearly, she could recite every year of Spain’s AND the United States’. She went on and on and on about this and how close-minded we all seemed, without letting me so much as open my mouth (and I tried).

Finally, she stopped. The teacher asked me what I thought about the other countries. I said:

Because I have only seen one city in Mexico and the media portrays it to the U.S. as either too dangerous, or only as a place to party, I don’t believe I have the proper knowledge to say anything. As for Spain, the only reason I ever learned about Spain was for the explorer’s and as far as the culture and people, again, I have only been to Barcelona. That city is heavily geared toward tourists and being there for only one week I wasn’t able to clearly steer away from that. I have never been to Japan. That said, I can’t say much at all.

Exploring some of the best of the U.S.A

The teacher asked us to write down again for homework what we thought of the other countries. To the above statement I added very clearly that I had ideas of the other countries based on media portrayals but because I hate when people stereotype me, I choose not to stereotype countries I’ve never seen. The next day the teacher explained to the class what I said and why I was right. Then we were all given the chance to talk about our own countries and why we love them.

I know that other American travelers can relate to this feeling. It’s like when the clerk in Australia asked me (like everyone I met there) if I was Canadian. When I told him I was American he said he knew that, but that Canadians get offended if you call them Americans. He then advised me to tell people I was Canadian if I wanted them to be nicer to me.

NEWSFLASH: When I was being born I didn’t sit up there with God (or whoever) and help him pick a country, city, pair of people to birth me to. Get to know ME before you start making judgments.

Surely, there are some people in the U.S. that fit that awful description that people give. There are people that think they are better, that the U.S. is the only country in the world that’s prospering. That it’s the only country worth living in or visiting, that it’s the best thing that ever happened to the world. Do you really think those people travel outside the U.S.? Take that into consideration when you start telling someone (especially ABROAD!!) about their own country.

Also, consider if you have ever been there to experience it yourself. John Mayer said it best if they own the information they can bend it all they want”, no one really knows much of anything until they have seen it themselves. Ain’t that the truth?