June 10, 2012

The Malagasy Truth Bomb

English Class Prep

I’ve been teaching English at the local high school for several months now.  I teach there twice a week, and each class is scheduled for two hours.  Two hours is a long time to stand in front of a classroom.  I prepare my lessons at the beginning of each week and, at this point, I’ve become pretty good at creating substantial and engaging lessons that fill the time allotted.

So, one Monday, I sat down to plan my lesson.  According to my twenty year old textbook, I was supposed to teach my students how to describe objects in detail.  I knew that I had to find something for the class to write descriptions about.  I found some things, but being unsatisfied with them, I decided I had a better idea.

So I went to class with nothing.  I taught the required vocabulary to my students – simple adjectives that they could use to describe things, how to construct descriptive sentences, etc.  We practiced the new vocab and I answered their questions, and then I divided them into groups for an exercise.

“Describe me, and when you’re finished, you’ll present your descriptions to the class,” I told them.  This way, I thought, I could teach them anatomical vocabulary too.  How innovative, I thought at the time.  The students set to work.

Madagascar, Where Tact Does Not Exist

The first question I got was, “How do you say, ‘Wes has darkness under his eyes?’”  I was a little surprised, but I had asked them to describe me, so it was a fair question and I translated for them.  I was expecting things like, “Wes is wearing jeans,” or “Wes has blue eyes.”  It was not to be so.

The thing is, I had miscalculated when creating what I thought was an effective exercise.  Arriving here at my site last year, I learned quickly that the Malagasy have absolutely no tact.  None.  If you have a zit on your face, they’ll let you know.  An absolute stranger will tell you so.  If there is anything whatsoever that you can be criticized for, you’re going to hear about it.  It’s the Malagasy truth bomb.  So, what I had done was given a class of teenagers a carte blanche to ridicule my appearance.

This realization made me uneasy.  I observed the students.  They were staring at me, whispering to each other, giggling, and writing.  I had placed myself in front of the class for their inspection, and now in my unease I struggled to appear casual.  I may have tried too hard, possibly putting my arms akimbo and leaning against the blackboard with my foot up against the wall.  I felt like a guilty person trying to appear innocent.

Eventually it was time for them to present their descriptions of me.  I had made a mistake that I couldn’t take it back.

The Roast

The first description wasn't bad, but it was just the calm before the storm.

 “Mr. Wes is not tall, but not short.  He is not strong, but not weak.  He is not big, but not skinny.”  Apparently I am entirely average.  Ok, whatever.

“Mr. Wes has white hair, red skin, and grey eyes.”  Am I a demon?

“Mr. Wes has a long nose, little eyes, and smooth skin.”  Uh, thanks.

“Mr. Wes has big teeth.”  How about I bite you with them??

“Mr. Wes has bags under his eyes.  He is tired.”  I can’t imagine why.

The Malagasy Cultural School of Hard Knocks

The roast went on.  There were naturally brownnosers who showered me with complements, but I saw through their flattery.  I secretly paid attention only to the critical descriptions.  An insult holds more truth than a complement.

As I continued to receive my students’ critiques, I was reminded of a similar situation during my adolescence.  It was Thanksgiving, and my family had sat down for dinner.  My step grandfather, who was at an age where all tact and sensitivity have been thrown out the window, stared at my face from across the table, and said, “What’s wrong with your face?”  He was referring to the acne I suffered as a teenager, and I was horrified.  Everybody at the table became silent and stared at their plates.  I wanted to die.  If I remember correctly, my mom came to my rescue and changed the subject.

This time around, I didn’t have my mom there to protect my self-esteem, but that’s not necessary anymore.  I’m less impressionable at 30 years old than I was at 16.  If you can desensitize yourself to people’s critiques of your appearance, it’s actually interesting to see how people perceive you.  Especially people from a different culture.

A friend back home once told me that everybody has a skewed self-image.  I think this is true.  That’s why we tend to be susceptible to other people’s comments about our appearance.  We don’t really know how we appear to others because we see ourselves all the time.  I believe that my class gave me a balanced and unbiased description of my appearance.  I am a long-nosed devil with big teeth who is tired.  This is not an insult.  I already know that my nose is long, that I was sunburnt at that time, that my teeth are somewhat bovine, and that the bags under my eyes and my perma-frown make me look constantly fatigued.  I was not insulted… just unprepared to receive pure truth.  As an American, I’m not used to this.

I used to blame the Malagasy for their truth bombs.  I thought they were insensitive and rude.  But now, after that class, I feel differently.  Wouldn’t you prefer truth over flattery or sugarcoated critiques?  Their intention is not to insult.  It’s just to tell you something, to start a conversation, or to laugh about something.  It’s a part of their culture that you have to embrace.  I do.  I drop my own truth bombs now.  If someone drops a truth bomb on me, I immediately return the favor.  “Oh, I have a zit on my face?  Do you know that you eat like an animal?”  Then we laugh and talk.  Truth bombs are great icebreakers here.

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