How big is your box? By Daniela Cohen

How big is your box?

By Daniela Cohen

Published on Sun, Mar 01 2009 by Daniela Cohen

Stereotyping – otherwise known as the phenomenon of putting people in a box. Making them small. Seeing them only as the possibility that exists within those self-constructed boundaries. At times, we can feel that we’ve gone beyond the stereotypes. But maybe all we’ve done is expanded the box.

Probably the most interesting scenario for discussing stereotypes is in a room full of international students. While in other environments these kinds of conversations can easily get heated, I’ve found a refreshing level of tolerance and open-mindedness permeating the space inside the classroom.

Today’s class consisted of dismantling our preconceptions as we had the opportunity to hear different nationalities reveal the truth about their cultures. A French student informs us that although it’s true that they drink a lot of red wine in France, it’s not the only alcoholic beverage they consume, and it is, after all, the best in the world. He then presents a picture of a man with a gigantic head, aptly illustrating the French pride while managing to laugh at himself at the same time.

Stereotypes about South Africa are subsequently articulated. A few students were warned to beware of lions in the streets of Cape Town, as well as baboons.� I’ll never forget my students in Canada years ago asking me if we rode elephants to school, not blinking an eye when I, managing to keep a straight face, confirmed it.

The preconceptions that often cause tensions between cultures have been diluted to a level where intercultural jokes are common, and for the most part, everyone seems to enjoy them. A few weeks ago, we were talking about types of families. My Russian student expressed his doubts about the benefits of a single-parent family, saying, “In Russia, children need both their parents.” There was a moment of silence, and then the French self-appointed class clown piped up, “Not only in Russia.” The class roared. Another time, the Russian was complaining about his noisy neighbours, and was asked by another student, “Are they Italian?”

The part I love about my job as an ESL teacher is this: the world in one classroom, but more specifically, the world getting along, students learning firsthand about each other as people, finding the humour in their differences, and in doing so, using their diversity as the vehicle to a rare kind of connection.

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