I am unmistakably white, middle-aged and middle-class and my students at Vision First were adult male African refugees aged 25 to 35, from circumstances I could only imagine. With not much in common to begin our first class in English, I stumbled through forty-five minutes trying to make sense of the differences between us. I often asked my students to repeat what they had said. I felt I was under water listening to them. Their words were softly spoken and the accents were unusual to my ear. And they had trouble with me: my fast tempo of speaking, the quick change of topics, and the words I used.
But eventually we spoke of owls. I had only recently discovered that the owl, a symbol in the West of wisdom was a symbol of death as the spirit-taker in the Oriental East, and now Frank, a class member from Togo, informed me that in parts of West Africa it is believed by some to be a bringer of bad luck, and fairly killed if one comes too close…
And then things changed and I forgot I was a teacher for a while and we more or less talked. And I discovered my students were interesting and decent people. And that’s the thing that came powerfully to me as the class progressed. I don’t know how they have survived — not only in their own countries but here in Hong Kong, where there is no access for them to work and formal education and all the things we take for granted here. How can one have dignity when the circumstances which allow it seem so absent?
We often imaginatively try out the experiences of others. Could I survive in their circumstances? If I’m honest, I think the answer is no. And yet, while I have only known my class members the shortest amount of time, they seem to have not only survived but also maintained their dignity. My students have much to teach me, and I hope I have something of value for them as well.
I look forward to our next class.