diversity abroad

My Experience Teaching English Abroad in Indonesia and Russia

One day in my Business English lesson, an adult student asked me, “Miss, what’s the difference between a mugger, carjacker, smuggler, burglar, kidnapper, thief, pickpocket and robber?”After what seemed like the longest pause of my career, with an awkward blank grin on my face, I spat out the best answer I could come up with off the top of my head. Afterwards, I couldn’t stop trying to pinpoint the finer distinctions between those, and pondering WHY I didn’t know how to explain it. It was really quite simple – most people don’t have to be so acutely aware of their own language since it is learned passively. For many teachers that I’ve met, a huge challenge in entering the TEFL world was learning the meta-language and rules to English grammar since we picked it up inherently. Language awareness as well as cultural awareness have become the two largest factors in my learning experience abroad.


In my TEFL course, one of my instructors liked to harp on us every time we used “yep” instead of “yes”. We couldn’t see what the big deal was, but sure enough, one lesson, a 6-year-old student of mine parroted back to me “Holy cow!” - I then realized the full power of constant exposure on an impressionable mind. This doesn’t just apply to younger learners – in an adult class, I once made a passing joke about having “a bajillion” things in my purse. A few minutes later, after we had changed subjects, one of the students raised her hand and asked with grave concern, “Miss, how many zeros are in a bajillion?” Needless to say, I watch what I say a lot more now than when I first began teaching abroad.

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Dealing with the power of the media has also been an interesting experience. Yesterday, an adult asked me what “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya” meant – he picked it up from the subtitles of “The Big Bang Theory” and much to his dismay, couldn’t Google translate it. With Hollywood films invading every country and Youtube (as Gangnam Style has displayed) infiltrating every young mind that has access to the Internet, the mass media lingo and slang has become some of the first phrases of English many non-native speakers tend to pick up. When I assigned a group of teenagers to create their own restaurants, complete with menus and budget breakdowns, one of them chose the slogan of “Finger-lickin’ good!” I couldn’t help but ask where that motto come from, and he mentioned an old KFC commercial he’d seen once with that line.

Thanks to a certain ABC show and Kanye West, a Business English class asked one day for the definition of a “cougar”, as well as what it meant in comparison to “cradle robber”, “gold digger” and “jail bait”. To be honest, though, for all the eye rolls that my coworkers give whenever they hear these stories, I’ve found it quite enjoyable to receive these questions since it demonstrates an interest at least in learning the finer details of English and in an enjoyable context. 

The language barrier extends beyond slang and subconsciously absorbed and used vernacular – the first language can be a huge obstacle in the students’ understanding of certain English words. For example, in Russian, the word “magazine” is a general term for a shop, so the idea of a magazine as reading material is quite silly to them. When doing telephone tongue twisters with my teenagers in Jakarta, I held one up that included “Is it harder to tutor two tooters to toot or to tutor a tooting tutor to toot? Who can tutor tootors and who can toot the toot with two tooters?” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why somewhere down the line, some of girls burst out giggling uncontrollably for several minutes.

Finally, after their tears of laughter subsided, one finally told me that “kentut” in Indonesian meant “fart”. In both Russian and Indonesian, articles don’t exist so with an Advanced level conversation student I created the “Article” jar, inspired by the “douche jar” on “The New Girl”. Every time he forgets to use an article, I draw in a ruble – I have just about enough ‘money’ now to open my own kevas factory.   

Living abroad, especially in cultures as widely differing as Russian and Indonesian ones, can also bring the normally subconsciously absorbed lifestyle subtleties to a very sentient level. These everyday nuances come up both inside and outside of the classroom in many forms, whether it’s a faux pas or a confirmed (or shattered) stereotype. Coming to terms with and learning about these sensitivities have made for some of my most interesting learning experiences overseas.

Interacting with the locals in the classroom every day means not only picking up certain slang from them in their native tongue – and occasionally a bad word or two – but also learning about their mentality and perspective. During a lesson on errands, I used images of appliances and tools used around the home to elicit certain vocabulary but when my students in Indonesia were confronted with a lawn mower, they were stumped – after all, they generally don’t have lawns. In Indonesian culture, it is completely normal to ask how old someone is right off the bat. However, it is a fairly personal question to ask what someone’s mother’s name is. In Italy, one of my kids’ favorite activities to play in class was a back-writing game where they would “write” with their finger on their teammates’ back and race down the “telephone” line to get a certain answer or conjugated verb at the end of the line. In Indonesia, though, since they have a fairly conservative Muslim culture, the students were a bit squeamish about participating in such an exercise.

It’s always difficult to completely eliminate stereotypes when dealing with someone “different”. As an American, I always make a conscious effort to remember what I am representing and how others view me. The most comical thing is when others remind you of that typecasting. I was playing Taboo with a class of young Russian teens when an 11 – year – old boy was given the word “vodka”. Without a moment’s hesitation, he blurts out, “This is what Americans think we drink every day!” Not all stereotypes are without their traces of truth, though. For every foreigner who has heard that Russians don’t smile and are as unfriendly as can be, there is a Russian who thinks that Americans smile like fools all the time and put on a façade when speaking with near-strangers.

However, one of the more controversial incidences dealing with stereotypes that I’ve personally encountered didn’t actually have anything to do with the American one. In Russia, there are numerous ethnic groups and the Caucasians have an infamously destructive reputation in Moscow. While walking with some friends in the afternoon one day, we took an underpass to cross a large road and found it to be completely empty except for two bodies gripping one another in the middle of the dimly lit tunnel. As we got closer, we saw flecks of blood which originated from one of the two Caucasians who had an enormous pool of blood spilling out of his chest. The other man wouldn’t let him go, and didn’t seem to be as injured. We quickly sped out of the tunnel and once in the reassuring light of day, took a moment to look at each other with wary glances.

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For several minutes, we discussed what to do – none of us, save one, could speak enough Russian to explain to anyone what we just saw or ask for help. The one Russian among us, and another friend of mine, didn’t believe it would do any good to call the notoriously corrupt and racist police and was reluctant to waste our time trying to get them to care. The other two felt it was their moral duty to report the occurrence and were appalled at the numerous other pedestrians we witnessed going in the tunnel and right back out with amused expressions and a lack of concern for the injured party. Finally, the Russian friend found a local security guard but he immediately brushed off two drunk fighting Russians as ‘normal’. After more pressure from the others, he then called the police whose first question was, “Are they Russian or Caucasian?” When he responded with the latter, they scoffed and nonchalantly replied that they would send someone over to “check it out” momentarily.

Whether it was shock at an unexpected indifference or amusement at a seemingly bizarre tradition, being exposed to the power of language and cultural barriers has been my most prized learning experiences in foreign countries. I find it difficult to try and put these experiences into words, and I hope that one day, for every time I’m asked why I travel so much, I can come up with a better answer than, “It’s indescribable.”

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