Travel Oops: The ‘Tomato Sauce’ Tirade

The source of my ethnocentrism. Tomato sauce. © Amy Frazier

The source of my ethnocentrism. Tomato sauce. © Amy Frazier

Tomato sauce. That’s what made me go epically ethnocentric when I lived in Adelaide, Australia, for one year as an exchange teacher. I didn’t mean for it to happen, especially since, frankly, Oz is awesome, and I started thinking perhaps I was more Aussie than American. Plus, I’ve always tried to embrace various cultures, respect different customs and avoid going down Ethnocentric Avenue. After all, I once ate an entire portion of hideous headcheese in Paris for lord’s sake.

“We Gonna Rock Down to ‘Ethnocentric Avenue’”

Of course, culture shock is completely normal, and it’s to be expected that travelers will, in some way, compare the country they are visiting to their own. The international non-profit organization, Unite for Site, which relies on volunteers to help with global eye care health in remote villages, has a great explanation of culture shock:

No matter how open-minded or accepting, all travelers are susceptible to culture shock;  for their means of interacting effectively with society have been knocked out from under them. Even seasoned travelers are vulnerable to culture shock when traveling to an unfamiliar foreign country. What begins as discomfort and confusion subtly progresses to frustration, anxiety, irritability, loneliness, and withdrawal.

Unite for Site also warns about the dangers of ethnocentrism, which they define as “the unconscious presumption that there is one normal, single way of doing things, and that deviations from this universal order are wrong.”

An American roundabout. They actually make much more sense.

An American roundabout. They actually make much more sense.

The most adjusted travelers, in my opinion, also get ethnocentric about certain aspects of culture — usually over small things. At least that’s what happened in my case — when I had a tantrum over something trivial. It’s definitely a moment I cringe about now.

I actually thought I might lose it over driving through roundabouts, which terrified me every time they appeared in the road. Even my young kids knew this. “My mom hates roundabouts,” Eddie and Kasey would tell their new Australian friends.

While scary, roundabouts, I had to admit, were practical and more efficient than four way stops.

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Travel Teacher Oops: Basically Neighbors with the “Biebs”

One of the Hallways of Le Fevre

One of the Hallways of Le Fevre

Adelaide, Australia. 2010. Raiding the supply of “blueys” or blue withdrawal room forms in the staff room of Le Fevre High School, I grabbed a substantial stack. Recently, I had been called a “f**king bitch” in class by one of my year 8 students, so I armed myself with the blue tickets to the “naughty room.”

The withdrawal room was where you sent unruly, belligerent or uncooperative students. As I contemplated how long my blue pile would last, the assistant principal Jane Prince, whisked into the staff room.

“Steph, we need you to teach the Year 7 transition class today,” she mentioned while filling teacher pigeon holes (mailboxes) full of paperwork.

“The what class?” By now I was so used to winging it at Le Fevre, where I had been assigned as an American exchange teacher, it didn’t faze me one bit to be given a class I didn’t have a clue about.

A classroom awaiting students.

A classroom awaiting students.

“The transition class. Year 7s from feeder schools will be visiting today. We need to introduce these prospective students to our maths and language arts programs.”

“Jane, you really want me to teach this class?

“Yes, why not?” Jane grabbed another stack of papers, licked her thumb and began rifling through them. Soon they were completely sorted. She turned to look at me, while peering over the top rim of her glasses frames.

Because, seriously, you want the kids to come here, right? To impress them.

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Travel Oops: “I’m sorry, she’s left the country.”

© Stephanie Glaser 2013

© Stephanie Glaser 2013

Two things you automatically have going for you when you’re a foreign exchange teacher and things go wrong:

1. You are foreign and your manner is often chalked up as being an unfortunate result of your nationality.

2. Eventually you will leave the country.

Ultimately you can get away with being strange or a little bit crazy. Even better, if it’s necessary, the excuse that you’ve moved to another country can legitimately be used.

I suggested that my principal use that very excuse on my behalf the next time Gertrude Brown called to demand I give her $1,000. In two weeks, I would be returning to the United States after one year of teaching in Adelaide, South Australia. So, indeed, I was leaving the country. Maybe that knowledge would finally shut Trudy up.

© Stephanie Glaser

Mitchell (right) and his minions © Stephanie Glaser

Early in the 2010 academic year, I had confiscated her son Trent’s mobile phone after he took it out during class to text and show it off to his classmates.

When Trent, who was a whinger to begin with, argued that I had no right to take his phone, Mitchell, the class clown, piped up, “You know she told us we can’t use mobiles in class, Trent.”  Ignoring that Mitchell next leaned back in his seat and placed his feet up on the table, I stood in front of Trent with my arm extended, palm upright.

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Travel Oops: How about a Skippy Burger on the Barbie?

author: Ramiroja

Shrimp? author: Ramiroja

“Maybe we should get some shrimp,” I suggested to Kurt as we cruised through the aisles of Coles, one of Australia’s main grocery stores. “You know Aussies really like their ‘shrimp on the barbie.’” I repeated a well-known fact in the US about Australians and their barbecue bounty.

Kurt and I were preparing to host our first “legit” Australian barbecue. To say barbecuing is popular in Australia is a pretty flimsy assessment. BBQs in Australia are like Baptist churches in the Bible Belt of the US. They are a given, well attended and the followers are devout.

We knew barbecue was big time. In fact, only living in Adelaide a few weeks, we had already been invited to two events.

© www.appliancist.com

© www.appliancist.com

The grills, alone, are impressive precision-engineered machines and major household appliances. Some look like they could power a small aircraft. Certainly the control panel of the one we used confused a rookie Yank like me as I attempted to adjust settings during a trial run.

Consequently, we searched Coles for the right meats, sides and even condiments. “I don’t see any shrimp at all — just these prawns,” I called out to Kurt. “Yikes, and look at how expensive they are.” I could certainly understand exorbitant prices for seafood in a land locked area, but we were ten minutes from the ocean.  Nixing the idea of shrimp, we considered other options.

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Travel Oops: Oh Yeah…I’m a Yank

from: Herbert Hoover Library, National Archives and Records Administration

from: Herbert Hoover Library, National Archives and Records Administration

During my first parent teacher conferences at Le Fevre High School, I met with the parents of my one British student, Jessica. They had just moved to Adelaide, and, like me, they were adjusting to the Australian school system. So we discussed our observations about the differences in education.

For some reason, they seemed to forget with whom they were talking and shared an interesting insight with me. “Well, I don’t know what to think many days. Australia is getting closer and closer to a new America,” Mrs. Ford confessed while shaking her head. I believe she actually wrung her hands, too.

The observation didn’t seem quite charitable toward the US nor Australia.

Football pro bowl

Despite that mild statement, which one would generally expect from a British subject, I never encountered any outright US bashing. Always, I felt welcome and accepted in Oz.

In the beginning, I was aware of being a “Yank,” and Australians have some definite opinions on Yank tendencies as well as our activities. For the most part, Aussies strongly dislike American football, which they have dubbed, “Gridiron.”

“Ah yeah, a bunch of pussies out there with all that armor. They think they’re these bloody gladiators, but then take all those breaks,” said my colleague and friend Brad. “Sooks!” he calls American NFL players.

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Travel Teacher Oops — “I came to hear The Outsiders, Miss.”

© sashafatcat

A bowl of grits © sashafatcat

If an American from the South had heard my bogus southern accent, that person probably would have thrown a bowl of grits in my direction or doused me with sweet tea. My Australian year 8’s, however, didn’t particularly detect the lack of authenticity.

They actually seemed somewhat engaged as I read them The Outsiders, so I drawled out the dialogue and got my y’alls polished up real good.

Painting by Roelant Savery

Painting by Roelant Savery

It’s not every day that you experience a victory in education. In fact, a VE day can be pretty elusive, like looking for a rare bird or any endangered species. When I was an exchange teacher in Australia, finding success was like searching for the dodo. Non-existent.

I felt like such an incompetent teacher, and every time I talked to my Australian counterpart, Dash, who was teaching my American classes, his updates deflated my spirits even more.

“Ah, yeah! Steph, we had a breakthrough today in Senior English; Madelynn* read a poem, revealing the abuse and torment she experienced as a child,” he e-mailed me one day. “It was the first time she’d told anyone. The event was so cathartic that we all had a good cry.”

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Travel Oops: “Someone smashed a window, Miss! And he’s right there!”

© Jade Taylor 2010

© Jade Taylor 2010

After local troublemakers invaded Le Fevre and punched the principal as he tried to get them out of the school, the entire staff was on high alert. First, the assailants had broken a window and then charged into the main building to “bash” a year 12 who had slept with one of their girlfriends. They brought knives and knuckledusters (brass knuckles).

Having a school lockdown situation was nothing new to me since I came from the US. I was now in Australia as an exchange teacher. Word on the street with my year 11’s was that the derelicts weren’t finished. Another massive bashing was on the way.

Two weeks earlier, at nearby Henley High School, students had given their uniforms to some hooligans from another school.  Consequently, the intruders, who had major grudges, stalked the Henley halls unnoticed. They kicked the crap out of a student, who again, had slept with the wrong girl and then unwisely publicized it on Facebook.

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Travel Oops — “Do You Have a Gun, Miss?”

© Stephanie Glaser

© Stephanie Glaser

A “temporary” building with two classrooms, P301, on the inside, was a faded green mint color — like saltwater taffy gone stale, having been left in a carnival candy sack too long.

But I had windows, a big white board, carpet and neat tables and chairs lined up perfectly. On high, the air conditioning unit blasted air that could cut any perennial’s life short. Was this real? I didn’t have any of these items in my US classroom.

In the little climate controlled temporary, I felt a certain calm even on the first day as a new exchange teacher.  Of course this was mixed with a free-flowing anxiety. I didn’t know a thing about Australian students or Year 8s, for that matter, but really, how hard could it be? Plus, if I totally bombed, I could definitely milk my accent for the first week of school, at least.

Right?

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Travel Oops: “I have a Million Dollar Idea” — Milo Lids

I had a million dollar idea once — and this was no “pet rock” or “Snuggie.” My million dollar idea was Milo lids. A really good idea, or so I thought…

One day, when my grammar lesson was tanking at the school where I was an exchange teacher, I asked my Australian year 8 students what their favorite food was or what I should be sure to try while I was in Australia for the next year.

The unanimous answer, of course, was Vegemite, Australia’s favourite concentrated yeast extract spread. Aussie kids are pretty much weaned off the breast and on to Vegemite. I had tried it and wasn’t quite there yet with what tasted like congealed soy sauce paste.

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In Australia: Beware of “Rangas” and Bloodless Coups

© Eleifert

“Miss, Miss, MISS GLASER!!” I heard from a distance while I patrolled the grounds of Le Fevre High School where I was spending one year as an exchange teacher. Ian, a sweet yet somewhat socially challenged year nine, careened toward me across the asphalt.

His backpack was sliding down his shoulders and his uniform jacket was flapping as he bounded over. Actually, Ian looked a bit deranged. Generally, one never knows what to expect while on yard duty at “Le Feral” (the kids’ affectionate nickname for their school).

“Miss! We have a new prime minister – it’s Julia Gillard, and she’s a ranga!”

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