TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
THE NUNS IN VUGHT
“So, Wim…how are you today?” I’d say in an attempt to get the conversation started.
“…uhm…uhm…ok.” He’d say, the sweat already departing his temples and heading for his cheek.
“Right. Glad to hear you’re doing ok. Did you have a good night’s sleep at the hotel?” I’d ask, keeping my question closed so that he only needed to answer with one word.
“…uhm… no. Ok.” He’d say, catching himself after the word “no” knowing that, by mentioning a bad night’s sleep, I’d be forced to ask a follow up question as to why he’d slept poorly. The “ok” in his answer was an attempt to put me off the trail.
“Ok Wim, can I have a quick look at your white card?” I’d ask, nodding at his bag, the card hidden inside.
“… card?” He’d answer, reaching up to wipe the sweat.
This would go on for several minutes. Poor Wim. Pulling teeth took an extra set of skills to remedy the situation, none of which included the assortment of drugs a real dentist could give to a patient.
I had to do it the old-fashioned way: patience, compassion, and acceptance. The key here was not to fight against it. If the student was stuck, the student was stuck. I had a few options. First, if it was a Dutch student, I could speak to them in Dutch. This went against company policy. Our strategy was “total immersion” and speaking in your native language was considered a no-no. In the old days, a student speaking his native language in a foreign language lesson was likely the moment a nun pulled out her ruler and whacked the student’s hand. Fortunately we’d let go of that teaching technique, however. During my first few years at the school, I hadn’t yet learned Dutch so it wasn’t a solution anyway. Once I learned Dutch, I did have the option but it was a double-edged sword. Allowing the student to speak Dutch gave them some freedom, but the whole point was for them to learn English and if we spent the entire lesson speaking Dutch, their English wouldn’t improve. The last thing I wanted was for a student to leave the room conscious of how much Dutch we spoke. So falling back on Dutch as a remedy was a last resort.
A second remedy I used when pulling teeth was simply to drop the pretense of talking about “business” and talking instead about something the student loved. Football, travel, their kids, money, Holland – you name it. In many ways that is the core of being a Professional Foreigner: find whatever makes their rockets fly, and talk about that. Many students were so brain cramped by the idea that they were at the school to improve their “business English”, that they forgot to talk about the simple things. Everybody can talk about something they love. It’s human nature.
As I became more and more comfortable with the concepts of mileage and pulling teeth, I began to play my American cards more frequently. When students told me they had been to New York, I was always able to play the “Friendly American” card. I was genuinely interested in the student’s opinions about America and, as they told of their adventures, we laughed and had a grand ole time. The Friendly American was probably the easiest card for me to play because it is close to my true nature. I, and most of my fellow Americans, are naturally friendly people. But friendly I mean we smile and laugh heartily, we avoid rudeness and we exude a general ease with strangers. Friendliness has always been the face America shows to the world.
But not all my students responded to friendliness.
Since America’s participation in the liberation of Europe in May of 1945, the trans-atlantic alliance has been the guiding light in western freedom and democracy. Put another way, America and Europe are friends. Sure, there are occasional moments of strain in our “special relationship”, but the bonds that tie us are solid. Having said that, there is a pocket of humanity in Europe that is not entirely on board with the American narrative. As I pointed out in the introduction to this book, some people just don’t dig us. It could be our isolationist tendencies, or our arrogant “super power” strutting, or, even simpler, a lack of affinity for “American positivity”. No matter the reason, during my work as a teacher and Professional Foreigner, I met a few souls that made it all too clear they’d rather stab themselves in the eyeball than embrace Americana. For moments like those, I learned quickly to play a different card.
Conflict has never been my cup of tea. If you give me some wiggle room, I’ll find a way out of confrontation. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed either. For whatever reason, it is who I am.
But, like it or not, there are times when fire can only be fought with fire. Sometimes, I simply had to push back with a student, because it was the only language he (they were almost exclusively men) understood. Keeping in mind that walking away, or silence, were not an option during a conversation lesson, I would lob a couple of bombs across the table and wait for the dust to clear.
The most common sticking point was inevitably American politics. American intervention in the Middle East, American intervention in Eastern Europe, American intervention in general. The American Government does indeed have a way of becoming entrenched in other peoples’ affairs, for better or for worse, and my students’ had opinions about that. When I came up against a classic anti-American, I most often played the “Fearlessly Optimistic American”. In other words, I listened to my student’s world view, his cynicism about America, and offered up words of hope. I didn’t disagree, as that was to smother the fire. Instead, I indulged his opinions ever more deeply, and countered with the fact that someone had to intervene, and America always got the call. I suggested that, no matter what, American ingenuity would prevail. It didn’t matter if I agreed with my own words as, again, the point was to keep my student talking. You may call this disingenuous, and perhaps it is, but my role as a Professional Foreigner was to encourage conversation, no matter what.
Interestingly, the vast majority of anti-American students backed down almost immediately. As it turns out there are very few true fanatics out there. A slight bit of compassion would go a long way towards finding some gray area in a man’s world view. After all, a proper terrorist wouldn’t have been at our school, learning English in the first place. So how bad could they really be? By the end of a week’s worth of lessons, I always found some kind of common ground even if it was as simple as soccer or Dutch food…