Tuesday, October 24, 2006

2: When Hakeem met Sally

When I started teaching a new class several weeks ago we began the the first session by introducing ourselves. An Egyptian lady started:

Egyptian lady: Hi, my name is xxxx but you can call me Sally if it is easier for you.

Spanish man: Hi, my name is xxxx.

Egyptian lady: Oh, your name is difficult, can we call you Hakeem?

The whole class laughed and the new names stuck. Life is so easy when people have a sense of humour and are willing to compromise. I was reminded of the different names I've had in different countries.

During the three years that I was in Hong Kong I learnt to respond to ah-Joe, Jo-san, Mr Joe and loaf of bread. My favourite, though, was being called 'handsome boy' by stallholders in the wet market (yes, flattery goes a long way). In Hong Kong I learnt that integration can be a choice. Living in a tiny room in Yau Ma Tei gave me so many experiences that I could never have had in a villa in Repulse Bay.

While I was studying in India I picked up more names including Yusuf, Jogendra, Jo-Jo, Joker and a collection of puns based on translations of my surname. In Hindi/Urdu it is necessary to distinguish between free as in 'buy one get one free' and 'free Kashmir'. I realised in India, however, that integration is also about oppurtunity. Much to the advantage of my language study, I spent most of my waking hours engaged in conversation and was invited to eat in people's homes on a daily basis. Even when I escaped to my hotel room, friends would knock on the door, wanting to come in for a chat.

So it was Indian culture that made my language learning experience so positive. People who migrate to western countries often find things much more difficult. Even my Australian friends in London complain that they don't get chances to make friends with English people. Much harder then for my students who are limited by language. Even if they work, they are usually in low-paid employment where most of their colleagues are also immigrants. All of my students would love to be more 'integrated' than they are. So it frustrates me to hear about immigrants 'refusing to integrate'. These things work two ways.


Knuffy's Owner said...

In Germany, things are even more harsh. They have an official document that uses words such as "in need of integration", and "able to integrate" (they are both one-word words in German), as if they were in-born traits. Things in Australia seem to be getting worse too, with an ever increasing sentiment of "Speak English, be like us, or get out". Scary.

pip said...

Great post Joe! I agree that it is the people and the culture that make it worth the challenges of learning another language.

Joe said...

Hey KO - good to see you back! Would you please consider starting your own blog? All the languages you speak and countries you have lived in make you my ultimate authority on cultural observation.

Thanks Pip. I love the adventure of it too - like opening up a door without knowing exactly what will be on the other side.

Knuffy's Owner said...

I'm flattered you consider me an authority of any kind, but I much prefer hijacking other people's blogs than starting my own : ) Actually your blog inspired me to start my own blog - twice - but I never got futher than one entry : (

Joe said...

Hmm... and you didn't even let me see them! Well I'm glad at least that you're back on the radar.