Cape Town, South Africa--I felt like I entered boot camp when I walked into the level two class. The teacher, Cherry, was booming instructions. Her expression informed the students that any breach of command would not be appreciated. The topic of the week was fashion, and she asked the students if they knew the meaning of the expression, “a slave to fashion.” After clarifying, she pointed to me, sitting in the back corner as part of the peer observation rubric.
“Is Daniela a slave to fashion?” she asked.
“YES!” they all yelled.
I looked down at my black, pin-striped pants, thin turquoise sweater, Hush Puppy winter boots, and figured they might be confused. I pictured myself last year, when I was living in the bush: wild, curly hair, Zulu warrior sandals, worn cargo pants. Slave to fashion? I thought not!
The class continued with the Broken Telephone game. Cherry whispered something into the first student’s ear. His eyes widened. He whispered it to the next student. The receiver’s expression became more and more confused, and eventually the Saudi Arabian disconcertedly stepped back from his classmate who was passing on the message: “Zzzzzzzzzz?” he asked.
We all laughed. Cherry asked the Korean student at the end of the chain to reveal what he’d heard.
“Daniela is beautiful!”
I could see Cherry struggling to keep a straight face, “Yes, that’s true, but that’s not what I said. What was it?” she asked the first student in the chain.
“Daniela is a size zero,” he said. I felt my face turning red, wondering why I needed to be the topic of the activity.
“Now, what clothes do you like on a woman?” Cherry asked.
“Mini-shirt!” said the Brazilian guy.
Cherry put her hands under her breasts. “Mini-shirt?”
“No,” he swept his hand across his thighs.
“Miniskirt!” the others yelled out.
“I want a woman to wear hot pants, a tank top and high heels,” one of the Koreans, Jin, said. “What about you?” Cherry asked Diego, who is Venezuelan.
“Yes, hot pants, a tank top and high heels.”
“Like Jin,” she said.
“I hope so!” Jin laughed.
“Now, do you know what the fashion police is?” Cherry enquired. They stared blankly back at her. “Fashion! Police! Fashion! Police!” she yelled, striding across the room. She explained that they helped make sure people weren’t wearing mismatched clothes or unflattering cuts or colours, in short, hideous outfits. She then told them they would now have the chance to be the fashion police and help three people struggling with their attire. After discussing the scenario extensively in their groups, the students shared their suggestions. The first group said the 37-year-old businesswoman in question should wear a long, black dress with heels and a white gold necklace.
The Saudi Arabian in the other group interjected in a serious voice, “Like a witch!”
His group expanded on his view, asking how they could expect a working woman to be effective in a long dress and heels; it would be more practical for her to wear pants.
“It’s fine,” said the Korean in the first group, “Women just sit at the desk!”
Cherry and I exchanged glances. “Maybe in Korea,” she said.
“Okay, now what would you do with a million dollars?” she asked, “What do you think Diego would do?”
“Give 50% to poor kids,” said the French girl beside him.
“Typical answer!” booed the Koreans.
I looked down, trying to control my laugher. It took me back to the students I’d taught in Canada, many of them Korean. Their unique sense of humour had kept me smiling until my face ached.
When I returned to the Academic Office after the class, there was a book on my desk. One of my advanced students who was leaving Cape Town that day had left it for me. Titled “6 milliards d’Autres,” it chronicled the author’s interviews with more than 5,000 people from many different countries around the world, revealing their hopes, fears, and dreams. It was the most amazing gift I could have gotten, full of fascinating content and all in French! I was touched by his thoughtfulness.
Later that day, I had a Skype interview with a future internship student in France to determine his interests and English level. During the conversation, I discovered that he was, in fact, from Rwanda, and had left at the time of the genocide. I immediately thought of one of my good friends in Canada, who had the same background, and was struck by the strange coincidence of this student now coming to Cape Town. No matter how far away in time or distance, it seems people and situations are a lot more closely connected than we may realize at first. Everything is linked in a world that’s a lot smaller than it seems.