Same, but Different
My major teaching experience prior to TYO was in a local elementary school in Hong Kong; in other words, another context where English was not the pupils' mother tongue. Comparing the Chinese and Palestinian children's grasp of English, it would be misleading to say that the standard is much higher in one place than the other - because I teach some 12 year-olds here in Nablus with astonishingly good English. Rather, in Hong Kong, school tuition has a much higher influence in the average child's language learning than it appears to for children from the Nabulsi refugee camps. Unlike their Hong Kong counterparts, most children that come to TYO have benefited little from English lessons at school, and therefore their English-speaking capacity is far more dependent on what help they get at home. Hence the vast lingual chasm within my classes, whereby some children can master English sentences unaided, and others don't know their alphabet.
One strong cultural principle that appears to overlap both Hong Kong and Palestine is the significance of family. Despite the fact that Hong Kong families are typically very small and the families we work with can often have perhaps eight or ten children in them; the traditions are reflected across continents: the importance of sharing regular family occasions, the duty you have to your parents, and respect for your elders, for example. A close affinity to your relatives (both dead and alive), which partially manifests itself in Chinese culture through honoring one's ancestry, is an unspoken cultural rule here: when Palestinians ask where you are from, they want to know about your parents, your heritage, your identity in relation to people and place. Personally, I deeply appreciate such an emphasis on a sense of 'home' and belonging.
Despite the geographical differences, the cultural differences, the psychosocial and developmental differences, it is impossible to refute that within a moment of simple pleasure, children are practically indistinguishable whether from Nablus or Hong Kong, Cape Town or London. Children here still love to watch TV cartoons. They adore having their photo taken. If you play a game with them, they still get really competitive. If you offer them some candy, their face lights up (though, naturally, healthy alternatives are promoted at TYO). Children in Nablus will ceaselessly delight you with their joy, value you with their affection, entertain you with their inhibition, challenge you with their curiosity, and humble you with their innate sense of fairness, day in, day out, and always with a cheeky seasoning of misbehavior thrown in for good measure. After all, kids will be kids.
Everywhere I've traveled, soccer has been my connection. It is the world's pastime, my similarity with the stranger sitting next me on the bus, with the taxi driver, the grocery store owner and the children I am teaching. Playing on the hot crumbling streets of Havana or on the manicured club field in Germany, the beautiful game always welcomes me. Although not without some hesitation - once I've proven myself with scrapped knees, a couple of goals and slide tackles. It has been the way that I connect with people, make friends, get invited over for dinner and relate to my new home.
Nablus has been an exception to my previous assumptions. Yes, it does share the world's pastime in cheering for Barcelona or Real Madrid, in playing what the Brazilians call Pelada (street ball), in its love for the game. But initially, it has not welcomed me onto the field. As a female athlete, I have faced this challenge before but it has never stopped the game as it did the first time I showed up on the field.
I ran out onto the field, excited and energetic, and joined in on the game. I proved that I could play, scoring goals and exercising good teamwork practices, but it was not enough. My initial presence made them feel uncomfortable, a young foreign girl playing soccer with them, was too much. Every week, I keep going outside to the soccer field. Slowly, "shway, shway," I have begun to gain more respect. As they realize that I love Barce (Barcelona), that I'm here to coach and to play the game I love.
The sphere of the women, of the girl is narrow here. Her identity does not include athlete, soccer player or coach, it remains seemingly content within the home. I have begun to expand their understanding of how to relate to women as steadily we both become more comfortable with one other's presence. I tell them about how popular women's soccer is in America, how normal it is for girl's to play sports especially soccer. As the allure fades off, I remain a coach, a teacher, and a female soccer player. The biggest difference for me between my culture and life here in Nablus is the difference my gender plays in everyday life. It has inspired me to continue to expand the narrow perception of girls and women and what better place than the soccer field.
Ultimately, when the game begins we are all equal on the soccer field. Only preparation, skill, strength and teamwork can bring us to victory.
Possibly one of the most obvious and largest similarities between children I have worked with in Nottinghamshire, England and here in Nablus is that they all have a great appetite for fun and laughter! The last couple of weeks have been particularly enjoyable as we have been getting creative with stop-frame animation and puppet theatre. It has been lovely seeing games and activities that I used with children in the UK giving children just as much joy and satisfaction half way around the globe!
In every drama class I teach here, I try to give the kids as many opportunities as possible to exercise their imagination and get their creative juices flowing. A few of the kids have been especially good at this, however I have found that the children here often seem to struggle to come up with their own ideas - more so than other children I have worked with in different places. We do a lot of small group activities with each of my fantastic volunteers being responsible for a team of kids. I find that the children tend to look to the volunteers to take the lead and come up with ideas and often need a lot of prompting to use their own creativity.
For example, the children who arrived early last week took part in a brief drawing activity while waiting for the class to start. I was surprised to see that most of the children had left the backgrounds to their pictures blank. It was only when suggestions were given by the volunteers about possible backgrounds, such as mountains, a cityscape or a park, that the children put pen to paper and the pages were filled with vivid colour. I wonder whether the difference lies in the styles of education adopted by the schools here in Nablus and those in the UK. It seems that there is simply a lot less importance given to creativity in the curriculum here, which is one of the reasons I feel my work and that of all my colleagues at TYO is so valuable!
My last Arabic lesson ended with an interesting discussion; I was asked to explain my thoughts on the condition of women in Palestine. Clearly, this is a topic that requires some careful consideration, but after a few moments of reflection I had a response: there aren't many options for women. In the surrounding area of my hometown in Michigan, my mother has access to a number of activities for women. She attends yoga and aerobics classes, is a member of the Herb Society, participates in the Women's Ministries group at her church, attends cooking classes, and hosts holiday tea parties. I am sure I’m neglecting some of the events on her social calendar. This level of involvement in women's interest groups seems to be the norm in my family, even with my eighty-something year-old grandmother who still enjoys the occasional quilting bee. Contrarily, there seem to be few opportunities for women in the Nablus community to socialize outside of the home environment. When the ladies from the Women's Group at TYO show up for their seminars and special classes, you can tell it's a special treat for them. They are happy to be out of the house and in good company with their peers.
I can't help but think of my own mother when my translator, Hanin, talks about making some personal sacrifices to accommodate her daughter's desires. It was a given that the Eid money she received would be spent buying her daughter new clothes. "I had my time as a young woman," Hanin once told me without any tone of regret, "now it's her turn." My mom put aside some of the things on her own wish list to make sure I was happy, I'm sure, but our shopping trips are among my favorite bonding moments. We might dress differently or speak a different language, but women are women, no matter the location.