2001.08.31

Yes Sir!

I don't know if I've ever heard that phrase addressed to me before, but I heard it more times than I care to remember yesterday during my first day of teaching at the Marine Academy, Chittagong. But getting there was half the fun . . .

As I have mentioned before, the only thing that is really predictable about Bangladesh, other than the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, is that nothing is predictable. We had two days of bus strikes a few days ago, for some unknown reason. It wasn't reported in any of the papers, but everyone seemed to know about it but me. As Thursday approached, I asked around to see if there would be a bus strike on that day. As late as Wednesday night, everyone said no strike. But of course, as 7 a.m. rolled around, the busses were not moving and everyone suddenly knew there was a strike. I think the whole district planned this just for me.

I had been out during hartals (strikes) before without any problems, so I hopped on my trusty bike and headed off for the Marine Academy, about 25 k.m. away. On the way out of town I found some barricades - poles that had been placed across the road to keep traffic from passing. As there were some rickshaws and a few small vehicles on the road, and they were going around it, I just followed them and continued on my way. Then I passed some people rolling tires into the center of the road. What good is that? A little further down I found the piles burning in the center of the road. Hmmm, maybe I shouldn't be going out during the bus strike.

The scarriest part came when I came to a crowd of people around a barricade of tables that had been set up. They weren't letting anyone through, including rickshaws. There was enough space for people and bicycles to get through, but I was getting very nervous as I approached the crowd. I almost turned back, but quickly made up a quick sentence in Bangla about how I'm a volunteer teacher and must get to my classes. I wasn't going to tell them I was going to the elite Marine Academy, but wanted to use my title as teacher to my advantage. Although they are not paid well and have a low status, most people realize the importance of teachers and you can play that card to your advantage. As I went over the sentence in my mind a few times so it would come out clearly the first time, someone standing by the gap in the tables noticed I was a foreigner and waved me through.

Oh, relief!

As I came closer to Anwara Crossing (about half way and the junction to another part of the district), it seemed less and less like a strike. I think perhaps it was just the southern arm of the Anwara Crossing as busses were frequent on the western side towards the Marine Academy. I was late by 45 minutes, but too bad. I enjoyed the ride for all of the problems. It took 1.5 hours, much longer than it would have taken in the States. But in the States I had 21 gears and didn't have piles of burning tires to ride through...

The Marine Academy was almost more of a shock, absurd in an strange way. Sometimes I wanted to shake my head in disbelief, and other times I wanted to break out laughing, but restrained myself from both. It was some surreal Samual Beckett play, only instead of waiting for Godot, no we were waiting for Sir.

The level of surrealism was partly my fault. I had one lesson plan for four classes. It makes sense though - they've never had classes from a native speaker. I'm only going to teach for 6-8 weeks, then they have exams and a winter break, so I might as well hit them with the hard, but essential, stuff and call it good. I dove right into pronunciation.

There's no break between classes, although I had some originally schedualed. Since I was late, they rearranged the schedual again to give me on class the moment I arrived, a 10 minute tea break, then 3 more 45 minute classes back to back. I actually enjoy teaching the same lesson to two or three different sections at the PTI. Usually the lesson improves over time, especially if I have time to reflect on what happened and the responses I got. But at the PTI, the sections are different. There are different personalities to the students, different "strong" students (the ones who will always answer my questions), and I can feel when I'm in which class.

At the Marine Academy, all of the cadets are between 19-21 years old. They are all male, they all wear white, Navy-like uniforms with nice white hats, they all salute and say "Yes, Sir" and "No, Sir". In other words, every class was exactly the same. The first lessen went reasonably well actually. I interjected a little bit of humor, something I try to use all the time at the PTI to keep the students interested (inherent lack of motivation is the fact of life at the PTI), but kept things fairly serious and fast paced since these are advanced students. I used techniques to help them discover the differences between their Banglish pronunciation and American English pronunciation (since this varies as well, I should say, in my case, Northern Utahan American English pronunciation).

But by the time the second, third, and forth classes rolled around, I'd get 10 minutes into the lessond and think that I had already taught them something, but their faces were blank, not knowing to what I was referring to.

"You mean I didn't already teach you to put your finger on your lip to feel if your tongue is coming out of your mouth when you say 'the'?"

"No, Sir."

"Oh, OK. Back up a little bit here . . . " And so it went for four 45 minute classes. They all merged into one so it was hard to do a self-evaluation at the end of the day. I know that 3 out of the four classes went very smooth, but one seemed to be a bit hesitant, a bit bored. I think it was the last class and they probably felt that way because by that time I was making no sense at all and all they could do was wonder about this strange man standing in front of the class, sticking his tongue out of his mouth with his front teeth on top and blowing little bits of spit at us.

"Why is he here and when will he go away?" they must have been whispering to each other.

"Are you bored?"

"Yes, Sir!"

So then there's lunch. All of the cadets must run. They can never walk. They fall into formation just to go to lunch and wait. They wait and wait for the person I'm chatting with in the office. Just killing time. It's a formality here in Bangladesh. They call it gossiping. It's something to do when there's nothing really to do here, 30% unemployment and all. So then he takes me to lunch and I realize that all 120 cadets are standing at attention in the mid-day sun, waiting for him. Waiting while I shoot the breeze. They're probably used to it, but I can't help but think how rediculous it is. Then he lets them all run into the mess hall, one by one. Then we are escorted in by two marching leaders, arms swinging wildly as they march, blowing a whistle in sync with their steps.

We enter the huge hall, much too big for so few students. Everyone is standing by their plates, waiting for the two people at the head of the table, me and my partner, to sit. We sit. They sit. We begin to eat. They begin to eat. I look around for the water and bowl to wash my hands and get nervous when I don't find it. My hands are covered in chalk. But I look around and everyone is using a fork and spoon! What's this? I don't know how to eat Bangladeshi food with these strange items! I really don't. I use my hand and feel quite comfortable with it.

I actually bungled quite a bit trying to imitate their style. I started eating with my fork and then it was pointed out to me that rice is eaten with a spoon, the fork being used to push the rice onto the spoon. Oh, OK. I finish up in a hurry, not really caring for the meager offerings (a big hunk of chicken leg which I don't eat, three chunks of potato, rice, and some rather thick dal which is nice, but I've become used to the watery dal served in the hostel).

The ultimate in absurdity came when I finished off my rice and went to eat my banana which was on a plate to the left. I picked it up and was told to wait. I waited. Everyone else was waiting while the last few people finished their rice. Then everyone waited. One of the cadet leaders stood and announced, "Take your fruit!" Everyone picked up their banana and knife and commenced to eat. I picked it up and was about to peel it when I was again stopped and shown the "proper" way to eat a banana. You take your knife, cut off the top, peel it with the knife and your finger holding each section of peel, then you hold up one section of peel with your thumb against the banana, cut off a bit of banana with the knife, and, without dropping the piece you cut off, balance it on the knife and bring it to your mouth.

I only dropped one piece.

I had to get out of there fast after that. Classes were done, but I had to do the obligatory tea visits, briefing on what will happen next week and the proper routines for coming to class (the class leader has to come and salute me, beg me to go to the class, I agree, wait for him to leave, then go to class), and break in my new desk and chair (Wow! Something that no one has at the PTI except the Superintendent!).

I cycled slowly home. The strike had finished. The busses were running, and I stopped off at the small Buddhist temple on the side of the road for the first time for a little quiet time.

I got home a bit after dark, my muscles sore and needing rest.

And that was the day of striking and waiting....

More next week!

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