Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Working at a k-12 boarding school with students and teachers from dozens of countries and cultures, simple daily interactions can be educational and rich in meaning. Random little moments with people I don't even know can make me shake my head in wonder and pontificate on "kids these days."

As I was talking to a couple of my eleventh graders after school in the quad today, a sixth grade girl walked by and shouted in her annoying little voice, "HelLO, Mr. PolKA!" I don't really know her; I don't teach her; but she shouts out my name whenever and wherever she sees me. It's kind of cute. Kind of rude.

Before I could respond to her, though, she saw one of the kids I was talking to, said something in Korean, and bowed low in a sign of respect.

"Wait a minute!" I shouted. "You bow to her--a student? But you don't bow to me?"

"Oh, sorry," the sixth grader said and gave me a quick, little bow before running off.

"What was that all about?" I asked my two kids.

"I don't know," the recipient of the bow said. "I guess she sees me as her respected elder."

"But not me?" I asked.

"I get the same thing from the younger Thai students," my other student said. "But I guess they just see you as a foreigner."

"So I don't get respect? I thought you came from cultures that respect teachers."

"Yeah," the Thai guy said, "but they see you as an American and act appropriately. They act the way American students would towards teachers."

There's something wrong with kids these days. Especially here, especially the good kids that come from good families, the ones that end up acting the way they think Americans are supposed to act. But maybe "wrong" is the wrong word. When you're in a situation where cultures mix, where identities and beliefs are formed, strange things happen. And strange conversations take place.

This morning, for example, I ate breakfast at school. Only one colleague was there, a French teacher, with his son, who is in the second grade. My colleague stepped away from the table, so I continued with some small talk with the small kid. We were on the topic of food, and he was saying how he prefers certain things back home in France.

"I bet you think everything is better in France," I said.

"No, not everything," he said. "I don't like the bananas in France. They get shipped all the way from Africa."

"Really," I said, and then we chatted about different foods that are better here in India. Eventually we ran out of different ingredients you can add to milk.

"You know," I told him, "when I visited France a couple of years ago, I liked something that you probably don't know much about. I really liked the wine."

"Oh, yeah, wine! Some wine, when you drink it, it makes you go," he said, making a strange, shuddering face. "Other wine makes you go," he continued, this time with a different face.

I was having a conversation about wine with a second grader! Or was I?

"Do you mean to tell me that you can differentiate between good wine and bad wine?" I asked.

"No," he said, "all wine is good. But I really like beer."

"Beer?" I laughed.

"Yeah! Apple beer."

"Do you mean cider?"

"Is that what it's called?"

"Where did you try cider? Does you father allow it?"

"No, at grandma's. I had two glasses!"

After school, after the bowing incident, I ran into the French teacher in the staff work room. I told him the story.

"Surely you're exaggerating," he said.

"No, that was the exact conversation we had this morning," I said.

He said I was trying to embarrass him in front of other colleagues, who were laughing away, especially when he said that his son had just been disqualified from the spelling bee for misspelling the word "wine."

"Which wine was it? The kind you drink, or the way kids talk?" I asked.

"Now you're really trying to embarrass me," he said.

Eventually the conversation returned to the wine you drink. He said he sometimes buys a local brand from this one shop at the top of the hill.

"How is it?" I asked. "Is it drinkable?"

"No," he said, "I wouldn't say it's drinkable."

"Really? What would your son say?"

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