by Michelle / ISR Columnist
Universal consensus has it that our world is rapidly becoming smaller and smaller with communication and news now available to everyone, everywhere at every single moment of our lives. But for international teachers, new locales and near continuous worldwide travel sets us up for some truly susceptible and embarrassing moments where it might take days for the blushing to stop. Here’s one such story:
The school year was about to begin at this, my second international school. A few days earlier the board arranged a PR event (with newspaper photographers and reporters) to introduce new students and their families to the community, while also spotlighting the new faculty. All of us new teachers joined the families on stage to present our brightest and most eager smiles for the photographers before the social activities to follow.
As everyone was getting situated on stage I noticed a child who looked to be about a second grade student hidden behind the adults. Gently but firmly I ushered this child toward the front of the group, thinking that surely the parents and this shy child would want to be included in the photo. I looked up, smiled and said to the parents standing nearby, “Your little girl is so lovely. I’m sure you’d want her to be in front, yes?” My comment was met with deadpan stares and silence as the photographer continued his clicking racket without pause. The child moved forward and looked up at me with gorgeous eyes and a slow, easy smile.
Once the photographers were finished we left the stage, back to the front rows of the gathering to listen to the congratulatory speeches as another teacher leaned forward to hiss in my ear, “That is a boy. His family is Sikh. The covering over his hair is part of their religion.” Oh. My. God. At that point I wanted to melt into my seat, hoping desperately for a nearby hole to crawl into.
His long hair, gathered into a topknot and enclosed with a small elasticized bonnet, along with those long, wickedly beautiful eyelashes had completely fooled me. For days I remained embarrassed, thinking my colleagues must be positive I’d just fallen off the cultural turnip-truck. It was a rocky start to a new country, a new school, and new set of colleagues.
Whether it’s awkward social situations, miscommunications in the local language, or a world of other hurts large and small, we’ve all experienced the occasional embarrassing situation. Stay in touch with your colleagues around the world to compare notes on how to keep yourself out of fatal faux pas disasters, here on ISR!
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11 thoughts on “The Fatal Faux Pas”
I taught at a school in Korea for two years. I was treated incredibly well and with the greatest respect possible. I never had a clue that, when I was speaking to Principal Gye for the first full year of employment, I was incorrectly saying “Gae,” which in Korean means “dog.” I will always be thankful to Principal Dog for not treating me like a total moron.
In Thailand, my children moved to a school with a large Sikh community. We talked about how the ‘bun’ was a part of Sikh religious beliefs, and the children were fine with it. Great, even, as my son, then 3, demonstrated when one day on our way home he said: “I love Indians. And cowboys!” There was still a bit more work to do….
After a very tiring, long day I needed to meet the school’s repairman at my apartment in staff housing because my TV was not working correctly. I was new at the school and trying to learn the language and deal with everything. To top it all off I needed to explain to him that I did not feel well enough to deal with the TV repair. I had a high fever and felt terrible.
To make a long story short, he spoke no English and I was just learning Turkish. I said in Turkish, “TV yok (no)” and then pointed to myself and said in English “Sick”. His whole expression changed instantly. I immediately dialed up the bilingual school secretary who, when she could stop laughing, explained to me that the word “sick”when said like that in Turkish means the F— word in English so essentially the repair man’s understanding was that I had told him to forget about the TV and “fix” me.
Even now, several years later, that man has a special wink when I pass by and has had plenty of opportunity to share the story with many others who work at our school..Perhaps not the best way to start out in a very conservative, traditional country.
At the end of year celebration in which teachers that have made significant contributions or those that are leaving are given recognition, I was the recipient of faux pas – by the school head.
During my time at the school, I had established a jogging club for the kids and parents a couple of days each week before school. As a part of the club, I gave out certificates when a jogger reached a milestone of miles jogged. One of my fellow teachers had submitted my name for recognition but could not remember what we called the club but did remember that we counted miles jogged when giving out awards. When the headmaster was reading the letter to the staff, parents and school board members, he congratulated me on establishing the “Mile high” club at the school and encouraged everyone to join in during the coming year. Needless to say, I was greeted with lots of whoops and scattered cheers as I walked to the podium to receive my award.
My faux pas – one of my middle school students in Monterrey Mexico was the son of a fellow teacher from Australia. Here in the states, in order to avoid saying buttocks, we often use the cleaner term ‘fanny’. He was being chatty and the bell had rung and I said to him ‘ you’d better get your fanny in that chair right now!’ – well, if you don’t know … down under, ‘fanny’ means a woman’s private parts! His face was flushed, he turned bright red, his eyes were huge! Later that day, his mom sought me out and explained what the word means over yonder – Oh my goodness!
When I taught in Mexico (ASFM in Monterrey 91-93), I was paired with a very prim and proper older Librarian from the Boston area named Jean. Try as she might, she could not get the proper pronunciation of Spanish. It always came out in a Bostonian accent. While out at a road side stall one day, she asked for a ‘cafe con negrita’ (coffee with a black woman). Obviously she wanted ‘cafe negro’ (black coffee). Oh boy!
In Thailand I managed to pick up a bit of the language. Actually just enough to get my self into real trouble. Being a tonal language, one word in Thai, depending on the tone used, can have a multitude of meanings. When I asked a women in a shop the price of a vase, she heard…. “how much for the woman?”. She then screamed for her husband who came running. The two of them were going ballistic. Fortunately their daughter who spoke English was present and she asked me to tell her in English what I had wanted. She then asked me to say it in Thai. She began to laugh hysterically. She related to her parents what had happened and everyone was laughing and bowing.
So it goes. But nothing I did was a bad as what President George H.W. Bush did on a trip to Australia in 1992. Former President George H.W. Bush did not even have to open his mouth to offend his Aussie hosts. Riding in an armored limousine through the capital city of Canberra, Bush threw up a two-fingered “V” for victory sign toward the Australian onlookers. But while the gesture means peace in the U.S., Bush made the mistake of flashing his fingers with his palm facing in, which in Australia is the equivalent of flipping the bird.
My HoD (a local colleague in a school somewhere in SE Asia) did something similar when she was posing for a photocall with a member of the indigenous royal family. After the more formal shots, the photographer invited the participants to adopt a ‘free style’ pose…at which point, she flicked what she thought were two ‘victory’ signs with each of her hands. I had to VERY QUICKLY whisper to her that she had her hands round the wrong way!!!
I did a very similar thing in Hong Kong, referred to a student as ‘sweetie, her, she’ for half a term. The student said nothing. I realised MUCH later that the child with the ‘top-knot’ and long eyelashes, full lips was in fact a boy.
Laughing! Thanks for candidly posting an amusing but very real experience. So easy to make mistakes like this as we traverse the world and switch cultures like we switch shirts. And usually there is no way to rectify the situation either, unfortunately. After 8 different international schools (countries) don’t know which story to tell! Try as you will, there is no way to be culturally sensitive enough 100% of the time. Remember it works the other way too; a big friendly North American smile interpreted as a ‘come-on’ for instance.