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EFL 2: How I Learned My Brain Is Asian

I taught English as a Foreign Language here in Berlin for over 15 years. Although I am admittedly a bit of a grammar nerd, the main reason I stuck with it so long is it’s a job where you spend a great deal of your time talking to people and hearing their stories and, of course, get paid for it. What could be better than that? (I earn my keep these days more from translating and writing, but I mainly do the work in my favorite cafe so I at least have the semblance of being connected to other people…)

I do still sometimes teach the odd in-company business English one-to-one. When I do, I always feel like a bit of a spy, sneaking into a world of Adults with a capital A. I chat with my students and find out things I would otherwise know nothing about (so that’s what a Systems Engineer does all day…), correct a preposition or two and remind them the present perfect is indeed a tense. I walk down halls with gray industrial carpet and drink bad office coffee (office coffee is so bad and there’s always so much of it) and teach people who are always happy to see me because English lessons mean a break from work and they’re not paying for it. Then, when it’s all over, I get to leave.

(My most recent favorite student, who I unfortunately don’t teach anymore, was a logistics project manager named Sven. He was a left-wing guy originally from Freiberg—Freiberg is a bit like a more picturesque, even more affluent Berkeley—who was about my husband’s age and kind of adorable, which was nice. During the entire presidential campaign, we spent every lesson discussing Trump’s chances—he thought Trump was going to win, but I was still in my myopic I’m-from-California-bubble, so I couldn’t believe such a thing was possible—and comparing depressing things we’d seen or read. When Trump won, we spent a good ten minutes being sad and shaking our heads and repeating over and over, I just can’t believe it. In other words, I was doing with Sven what I was already doing with my family and all my American expat friends, only I was getting paid 40 bucks to do it. Score!)

My longest, more part-timei-ish rather than one-off-ish, teaching gig was at the Sprach- und Kulturbörse at Technical University Berlin (I wrote a post about the institute here, so check it out.) I taught courses there from 2001 to 2014, which always had between 12 to 6 students. Most of them were college students from one of Berlin’s four main universities, although I did have the occasional teenager or senior mixed in.

Since Germany offers free higher education to everyone, including foreigners, people come from all over the world to study here. (I rolled my eyes last year when I read an article in the New York Times where they tried to understand why Germany does this, as in “what’s in it for them to even educate foreigners for free?” But in Germany, unlike the US, money doesn’t rule, principles do. And there’s one principle all Germans I’ve ever talked to believe in, whether they’re right, left, or center: Higher education should be free for everyone. Period.) In most classes I taught, I had about 40 to 60 percent German students at the intermediate to advanced levels, and about 10 to 30 percent at the lower intermediate to beginner levels. The other students came from all over the world, although most were from either Asia or Eastern Europe.

Here’s one thing I can tell you:

The three nationalities I found the hardest to teach were Russians, Germans and Bulgarians.

(A disclaimer if you please: I had plenty of students from these countries who were an exception to what I’m about to describe, but these cultural tendencies came up repeatedly in my teaching career. In other words, forgive me if I generalize. ;))

Since I live in Berlin, let’s start with the Germans:

Understanding German culture helps when teaching them, although certain things still get under your skin even if you know the cultural reasons behind them. Case in point: the first few years I was teaching, every couple of classes an Antje or a Dieter or a Florian would walk up to me and say, I think we should do more of this and less of this and do this better or differently: In other words, telling me how to do my fucking job. (The parents at my daughter’s school do this all the time with the teachers there, and I cring everytime they do.)

But, from a German’s point of view, they are only telling you the truth here, and telling the truth is a sign of respect, because it will help you to improve. Never mind that this “truth” is often entirely subjective, which is something many Germans fail to see.

A natural sense of scepticism and a critical nature are also two typical cultural traits, particularly here in former Prussia. Combine this with a tendency to speak your mind and tell “zeh troof,” and what happens is you get people who question more or less everything you say and do.

The most typical challenge I used to get was, “Ok, but they say it differently in England.” Germans love to pull the British English card. (I even got asked once by a student if I learned British English at school—apparently she just couldn’t believe my teachers would have taught me something as inferior as American English. “Oh yes, Mr. Winterbottom came in every fortnight at half three with tea and watercress sandwiches to infuse us savages with a proper dose of the Queen’s English. What the fuck do you think, Katja?”) Then again, an English guy in a TEFL course I taught last year told me Germans always say to him, “Ok, but they say it differently in America,” which suggests the whole thing is less British English snobbery, and more a general sense of mistrust prevalent in the culture.

But anyway:

When I first was teaching, the ‘British English card’ was always a little unnerving. Often, I would second guess myself: Maybe they do say it that way in Britain? But once I had a few years under my belt, I called their bluff.

“No Ute, they do not say ‘I am living here since five years’ in England.”

“Jürgen, the only grammatical difference between British and American English is that they use present perfect a little more often than we do and they have that “have got” thing I learned was wrong in school. Add in differences in accent and, occassionally, vocabulary and what you have are varieties of English, but it’s still the same language.”

“Nope, Florian, you’re wrong. Let’s move on now.”

(A good thing about Germans: They dish it out, but they can also take it.)

If they pushed, as they sometimes did, insisting their teacher in school taught it to them that way, I always said, “Well, was your teacher a native English speaker?”

“Oh…,” they’d say, and sink down in their chair.

(The Native Speaker card trumped everytime…)

Anyway, after a while I started to realize one of the reasons I was being challenged so often was also partly my doing. My teaching style at the time was West Coast casual along the lines of, “Hey guys. So, like, what do you want to learn and stuff?” But Germans—and maybe people in general—want a teacher who’s in charge. They prefer to be told what to do and why they’re doing it, and if this doesn’t happen, they start to feel anxious.

Mix this in with a school system that has a slightly sadistic undercurrent, as in “if it doesn’t hurt, you’re probably not learning anything” and you realize what your average German is actually craving in a teacher is not too far from a dominatrix.

Once I realized this, I had a bit of fun with it. If I saw on my attendance sheet that my class was mainly full of Germans, I’d wear my glasses on the first day—which I really  only need for reading—and walk unsmiling into the classroom with a military posture. I’d bark out my instructions and seem a little scary and make my expectations very clear:

Gehorch mir, meine Schüler, gehorch mir!

A few lessons later, I’d start being more my goofy, West Coast self, but by then I’d gained their trust. No one ever told me anymore how my teaching could be better.

(But maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I just got better at teaching. Either way, I always got a kick out of playing ‘Mistress Rebeccah’.)

As far as Russians go, their culture is so direct and hardcore, they make Germans seem like the meekest of modest British mice. When arguing with a Russian, pound your fists on the table and throw dishes against the wall and nearly strangle them, and the Russian will probably say later you had a “slight disagreement.”

And if the German school system has a touch of S&M, the Russian school system sounds more akin to torture. From what I’ve heard, I wouldn’t be surprised if they still use iron maidens in detention and teachers all get a government issue cat-o-nine tails before starting their career.

As for Bulgarians, they tend to be fiery and extremely outspoken. I didn’t usually have a problem with them myself, because they’re more blunt than bossy, and bossiness is definitely more my pet peeve.

Actually, I often get a kick out of people who speak their minds no hold barred, as long as they do so without malice.

“Hey, wait a minute. You’re not supposed to say that, and they just did.”

But if you’re more the type who gets easily offended, as some of my colleagues at the SKB were, Bulgarians can be trying.


On the whole, my Asian students were always very trusting and obedient (just like Mistress Rebeccah likes them….).

But, of course, there were some differences between the countries:

The Japanese students in my courses were truly an enigma: They were beautiful and cultured and stylish and pleasant and polite and polished and I never had the slightest idea how they really felt or what they really thought. (A good friend of mine lived in Japan for several years. We took a stroll through Botanischer Garten two days ago and she told me the Japanese even have a name for this: The mask, the smooth, aesthetic veneer which shields messy things, like emotions. The stronger and less pliable your mask, the more sophisticated you are. I’m actually going to Tokyo for ten days in July and am more than curious to see this intriguing culture first hand, although I’m sure it will seem as much a mystery as always.)

I loved teaching Mongolians—apparently there is a fairly large community here, living somewhere in the depths of former East Berlin. My Mongolian students were always warm and outgoing, and they had these crazy long names and a nickname with no more than three letters:

“Hi, my name is Narantsetseg Tüvshinbayar, but you can call me Syd.”

(Ask a Mongolian abroad if they miss Airag (fermented horse milk) and I can guarantee they’ll sigh: “Oh my beloved Airag. How I long for it!”)

My Asian students from other countries tended to be on the shy and introverted side, but I always had some who opened up a little. Like one girl from Vietnam who told me she found it hard to tell Europeans apart. (This, of course, was hilarious because so many ignorant white people identify all Asians as “Chinese,” although there are definitely differences in their features if you look more closely.)

I must admit, I had a hard time believing her:

“Europeans have different hair and eye colors. Some are fair skinned and some are darker.”

But the girl just shrugged. “They all look more or less the same to me.”

As a whole, thinking in Asian cultures tends to be much more circular and associative than linear, like it is in Western cultures. Several of my Asian students from different countries talked about how difficult this was for them.

“Europeans always want me to reach some sort of a point when I talk, and I just don’t know how to do it,” a Chinese girl once told me.

I also noticed the difference sometimes when they were talking. For example, a more chatty guy from Thailand might land on a square in an EFL conversation game that read: Do you prefer to visit the mountains or the ocean?

His answer:

“I prefer to visit the mountains more than the ocean. Germany has some mountains I visited last summer with my roommate. The Alps are in Europe too, but the Himalayas are higher mountains than the Alps. I went with my parents to the Himalayas in 1994 and we saw this field of butterflies…”

Whenever an Asian student gave one of these stream of consciousness answers—I never got them from people hailing from any other culture—I always thought: Hot damn. That’s how I think!

One of my favorite students of all time was a woman from South Korea whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. She was in a conversation class I was teaching and I probably let her hog the stage a little too much; normally, I was good at shutting the chatters down, so more people have a chance to talk, but this woman was so fascinating. When she talked, thoughts simply spiralled out of her. It was beautiful to listen to them.

“….when the tide came in my grandmother, who lived in a village in the south, would go to the beach with her nets and she would harvest seaweed and small creatures and cook them into a broth we ate for dinner, and the feathers in her bed, they always tickled my nose….”

All this from the mundane question: What did you eat for dinner last night?

The woman was a designer working on a project for the South Korean government to set up an address system that makes sense for foreigners.

“In South Korea, if I get into a taxi, it’s normal to tell the driver, Take me to the yellow house next to the 7-11 with a red lamp post in the front, which is not that easy for foreigners to understand.”

(I’ve since learned these kind of directions and addresses are typical in many Asian countries.)

That’s it, I thought when she told me this. My ancestry may be mutt Northern and Eastern European, but my brain is definitely Asian. 😉


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