Mid-term mayhem in J-Town

The day of the unknown- Photo taken in late 2007

7:00 on election day. The day of the unknown in a small American town of J-town. The day that can be that of glory or hell. It all depends on the voter and his/her preferences. Looking at the current situation however, this mid-term election is not like any other mid-term election we have ever seen before. It serves as the crossroads to deciding our future, if we have one. It serves as a way of venting our frustrations out on the people who are still in Washington and should be ousted, regardless of which party. It serves as a make or break for the two major parties that have been dominating the political system of the United States of America for 140+ years- the Democrats and the Republicans. It serves as a gut check for the policies that are in place but we as voters are asking whether we are satisfied or not. It serves as a reminder that “Yes, we can!” can be interpreted from many viewpoints on many levels and with regards to many topics. For me, it serves as a king-of-the-ring style professional wrestling match which has been overly hyped up for the last three months and is now at the boiling point where people want to see some action and some embarassment in the form of boos and rotten tomatoes.

Looking at ringside, we have many contenders who are striving to be the best, but in the end, only one will emerge as the winner. Each has his/her record, both good and bad, regardless of whether it was locally, at the state capital, or in Washington. We have an incumbent mayor of J-town, who just finished writing a letter to the editor about how great his town is in order to save his hind end from being shot off because of his drunk driving record and his strive for modernization at the cost of places of historic interest. But we also have opponents who have already figured him out and want to unseat him at any cost. Then we have an incumbent state representative who opposed providing financial aid for students going to college, health care for all, and bailouts, while her opponent is a novice but the total opposite of those views. We have a household name for candidate for governor, an unknown opponent who detests both primary parties and one who is also generic but has a record of wooing his fellow politicians in his favor. We have far left liberals who want to control the stock markets and far right conservatives who want to continue the good-ole days of free-wheeling markets and unlimited no-holds barred competition. We have pretty faces and those who want to mess them up. We have moderates who get along with both parties and those who are Tea-party related and want the government to back off. We have fat clowns who are talk show hosts and think they are the only source of the political party and those who are reasonable but speak softy and carry a big stick.  All have one thing in common and that is they want to win the hearts and minds of the voters. But in order to do that, they have to win the King of the Ring pro-wrestling event by bad-mouthing, kicking, punching, gouging, and humiliating each other, just for a few votes and recognition based on empty promises and business as usual.

And finally, we have the voter who plasters his campaign signs all over his house, cheering for his favorite candidate who is a woman warrior with words and carrying her autobiography like a Bible, and one who has no sign on his front lawn and reads a candidate’s  autobiography on hope, which has yet to be seen. One will go to the polls and serve his community of J-town and his country. The other will stay home and watch the mayhem on TV, wondering if it was worth voting if there will not be any change anyway. Or regret not going to the polls at all….

The Flensburg Files normally does not take sides in any political issues. But given the intensity of the elections that are taking place on 2 November throughout America, the creator of the blog, who has been there and seen how down and dirty American politics can really be, would like to ask voters to choose wisely when going to the polls on this firey day, as your vote will determine the future course of the US and the rest of the world. Don’t vote just because the economy is in the doldrums. It has been that way since 2001 and will remain that way regardless of the outcome. Don’t vote on a candidate for a false sense of security. Inquire critically based on the candidate’s record and think critically on deciding whether he/she deserves a place in the government or if he/she should be selling peanuts or entertaining for circus clowns. If you’re unsure of who to vote for, don’t vote and watch the events unfold. Sometimes it is better not to vote and be happy with the outcome than to vote and make a big mistake.  In any case, best of luck and may the most intelligent, well-informed, and (above all) the most sensitive and honest candidates win, and may the voter’s wish for a better candidate come true.

Until next time, friends.

Multi-culture is dead. Is it?

As I walk through the streets of a typical European town, the first impressions I have are the way people speak their native languages. Almost immediately, I can tell that the way they construct their sentences, use their words differently, and speak with a heavy dialect that they are speaking the language of the country they are living in, albeit not in the way it is spoken officially. In this case, we’ll use German as a case study. Either they come from different regions of the country, like Hesse, northern regions of Schleswig-Holstein, or the Vogtland region of Saxony, or they come from different countries, like China, the Middle East, or Scandanavia but are here to make a living. If they are not trying to speak the language, they are speaking with their own native tongue, which is easily picked up just by listening to them.  Outside a rum shop, there is a Russian family gatheirng outside to decide whether to take a boat ride or walk to the theater for a musical. At a market square bearing a Danish name, an American tour guide shows a party of 13 the flea market and what is typically being sold there. Outside a barbershop bearing an English name, a French family is making fun among themselves because of their hairstyles they just received.  Then one takes a look at their apparel and the way they behave and run their lives on a regular basis, whether it is a Muslim wearing a turban and carrying the Koran, a Jewish family celebrating Hanukkah, or the Japanese eating sushi while celebrating New Year’s, and one will find that these are not just foreigners who visit the country because of its attractiveness to tourists. They are foreigners who immigrate to the country to make a living there, just like everybody else. These are people who want to have as much of a lifestyle as we do. They want to learn the language and the culture while in turn, want to  make friends with us and share their experiences and their way of life.  The problem is that countries, like Germany, are at the crossroads regarding what to do with the huge influx of foreigners wanting to live here, and the actions that have been taken by many recently have indicated a rise of nationalism and the clash of cultures, which the late Samuel P. Huntington would enjoy watching with utter interest had he been around today; especially when he listens to the comments made against foreigners by imfamous celebrities today. Already, Juan Williams of National Public Radio in the USA was sacked for his comment on his fear of Muslims on an airplane while being interviewed on the show “The O’reilly Factor.” Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh declared the USA as a “White and English Only” state, claiming that if Hispanics want to live there, they have to speak and do business in English only. And the latest comment that has irked many like yours truly to a point where a campaign to unseat him has started was Bavarian minister’s Horst Seehofer’s strive to force integration of many migrants through learning German fluently and with no dialect through his comment that “Multi-culture is dead.” Looking at this from an expatriate’s point of view, the first two comments to use in response to such comments starts with “Oh spare me!” and is followed by “What is going on here?!!” With all the Italian ice cream parlors, Mosques, Chinese clothing shops, Danish specialty shops, and British tea stores that exist here, why are  people getting so worked up with this trend of a country being inhabited by foreigners?

There are four theories that are worth looking at:

  1. The country’s attractiveness- especially with regards to the social welfare system and the job prospects. It was not long ago that countries like Germany and Canada announced measures to attract highly-skilled  foreigners to these countries because of jobs that fit their qualifications, like those in the IT branch, for example. Some of these sectors had been shied away by the countries’ own inhabitants because of the too high degree of difficulty and the preference for other subjects that are more to their liking. And with these offers to bring in foreigners come the incentives, like the possibility of receiving a permanent visa and taking advantage of the social welfare system.

  2. The language of the country- While learning English is a piece of cake to many foreigners, other languages, like German where I’m living, can be a challenge if you have to figure in the logic of it, how it is spoken and written, and the many dialects that exist. From my own personal experience,  it can take 2-3 years with lots of work to master a difficult language, like German. For other Latin-based languages, like French, it might take longer than that. And for non-Latin based languages, like Chinese and Japanese, it is definitely much longer- say 5-7 years but when living in those areas only.

  3. The dominance of English and the Anglo-Saxonization of other languages- English has become the lingua franca of business, commerce, travel, academia, science, and in some degree everyday life. In Germany and other European countries, it is expected that all pupils learn the language beginning in the fifth grade in order to learn the basis before building off from there on the university level. The problem with that is many words in other languages are being absorbed by English, thus creating words and phrases that are cool to the younger generation but irritating to the older generation. Two German language words come to mind when I claim this statement: Download means Herunterladen, but in the new German, it means downloaden. Mobile or cell phones means Handy in German.

  4. The compromise between keeping one’s cultural identity and adopting one of another country. There are four ways of looking at this based on a theory I learned during my Master’s studies at the University of Jena. One can keep both cultures and become more open and tolerant; however one can chuck his own culture away and adopt the culture of the other country but risk losing his knowledge of his own origin. A person can also keep his own culture and not adopt the one of the other and risk being ignorant. However, one can neither keep his own culture of origin nor adopt the culture of the other country and risk being apathetic. While there is a small portion of people like me who prefer the first option, many people elect the third option for reasons that they are only living in the country for a short period of time and it does not make any sense to embrace the language and the culture. However, the plan that many countries on both sides of the big pond (any yes both Germany and the US are toying around with this option) would be to use option two, to force the language and the culture on the foreigners living there. This has sparked outrage from both sides of the spectrum as on the one hand, it would mean adopting a way of living that does not coincide with what the foreigners were used to but on the other hand it would avoid any encroachment on the tradition and value of life of a country threatened by the foreigners.

So looking at the situation from a politician’s point of view, the next question is what to do with the situation when there is a big influx of foreigners, a high rate of unemployment, scarce job possibilities, and a language that is eroding through the dominance of other language. There are no real answers to the problem except seeing the fact that each country has been a melting pot, where foreigners come in to fill in the shoes in industries and sectors left behind by the older generation because their sons and daughters are interested in other sectors, and therefore provide the country with economic support. Basically, they come in to work for the country while in return they expect recognition of their existence and want to befriend others. And it is understandable if many of them have problems getting adapted into the culture and they find other people who speak the same language as they do, instead of learning the language of the country they’re living in. I can testify to that with the German language as it was easier to pick up people who spoke English than those who spoke the native tongue. But this was at the beginning when I was an exchange student for three semesters before starting my career as an English teacher and had to use the German language to help the students with their English.

Attempts at trying to enforce integration while at the same time put a cap on immigration, as it is being practiced right now is futile, as it has been experimented in the past but have failed miserably. For instance, deporting immigrants to their home countries without looking at the situation over there was practiced as far back as 200 years ago, when the US tried sending Africans to Liberia to have them settle there, only to find that the experiment failed because many of them wanted to return to be with their families who were either enslaved or free.  The attempt at forcing culture and language onto a culture was practiced in the Austro-Hungarian empire, where the minorities were forced to adopt the Magyar language and culture in the areas occupied by the Habsburg dynasty. This was met with resistance and eventually failure although it was later practiced with the Native Americans by the white settlers through the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania. The problem of putting caps on immigrant numbers is that it will never solve the problem of filling in the missing gaps left behind in the industries and sectors, as many inhabitants of a country emigrate to other countries to make a better living. Canadians emigrate to the US and parts of Europe. Chinese and Japanese emigrate to Anglo-Saxon countries. Germans fancy New Zealand, the UK, and Australia, in addition to their liking to the USA.  The problem we have with foreigners is our unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that we have a deficiency in terms of foreign language as well as cultural awareness of others that exist. It does not mean that we are ignorant, but it does mean that we are too passive and too influenced by the outside who want to gather our attention just to garner popularity, even though what is said is nothing but rubbish. What we need to do is acknowledge the fact that multi-culture is NOT  dead but is blossoming not only externally but also internally. Externally means that we will always have people immigrating to our countries to make a living for themselves and help our economies. They will present us with their cultures where we will embrace them and share them with others who are interested. That means we’ll always have Hispanics and Asians living in the US and the Eastern Europeans and Chinese in Germany and other regions.  Internally means that each region in the country will remain strong and proud of their heritage and will share them with others who are interested. We’ll always have Native Americans in the Americas. We’ll always have the local traditions in places like Thuringia, Saxony, and Bavaria. Cities like Görlitz, Saarbrücken, and Flensburg will have small pockets of minorities who have resided there for many generations. Migration is part of the whole Globalization process that is ongoing and will continue to be that way.

While dealing with illegal immigration is a whole different story, we need to acknowledge that Multi-culture is give and take. Therefore, I have some suggestions which might make the process a bit easier for everyone that is involved. We can:

  1. Encourage the foreigners to have a sufficient knowledge of the language of the country they are residing in- in my case, German- so that we can have a conversation with them. Regional dialects and minority languages are a plus if they want to stay for a longer period of time. In the German case, this includes but it is not limited to Danish in the northern part of the country, French and Dutch in the west, and the eastern European langages in the east.

  2. Encourage them to learn another foreign language that is important in the way we do business- like English, Spanish, or other langauges so that we can communicate with them in the neutral language should it be necessary

  3. Help them get accomodated and used to the way of living in the country they wish to reside in, which includes the cultural aspects, but at the same time, not force them to give up their own culture.

What we can take from them is:

  1. Their language and culture. I believe we can be proactive and know more about the way of life of the foreigners living in the country and let alone their language. While it is easier to pick up Spanish and Asian languages in the US, it is a big but doable challenge to grapple with various languages the foreigners in Germany bring with them, and especially if it is the English language, since most of the foreigners coming to Germany can speak that language.

  2. Their friendship. We should be more open to them and learn about them so that we can understand them and where they come from.

This can all be done through education, whether it is in the classroom of a high school or university, or through a social gathering where there are many foreigners present. It can be done on the street when people help them regarding directions, but it can also be done at places where they purchase products, like train tickets at a railway station. In either case education makes us more open regardless of age and background. It is more the question of whether we are willing to do that, or if we are inclined to accept Seehofer’s comment that “Multi-culture is dead” and be stuck in our passive ways. In today’s society, we cannot afford to be ignorant, let alone blind to the events that are going on that affect us all. Education is cheap but reaps rewards in the end, including our willingness to be open.

Keeping that in mind, let’s finish the files by asking ourselves about Multi-culture. Is it blossoming like it should? Is it really dead, like Seehofer mentioned? Or is it really at the crossroads?

Where’s the RSS?

SHORT NOTICE: In the last couple of entries, I was informed by a lot of readers that they could not obtain access through the RSS. Although the symbol is difficult to see, you can find it right above the title The Flensburg Files in the upper right hand corner, where the feed me sign is located. The arrow is pointed in that direction as well. Should you have any questions or still have some issues regarding this, please let me know and I’ll see what I can do. You can also access the Flensburg Files through the Worthington Daily Globe online and there will be more opportunities in the future to access the files so that you can read them on a regular basis.Hope this helps and more of the files will come soon. Until next time, folks.

Jason D. Smith

Columnist of the Flensburg Files

Most wanted teacher

Teaching: the fruits of life
Teaching: the fruits of life Photo taken in 2007

OK, it’s official. I’ve just been declared the most wanted teacher on campus by the students!  Just when I was about to sit down and relax over a cup of cappucino, I was received by a storm of students whom I taught English in the last semester at a  university in Erfurt, Germany and their first question was: “Mr. Smith, can we join a class you’re teaching?” The next comment was “Mr. Smith, I’m really interested in taking part in your class. Do you think it’s possible to do it this semester?” Then came the next one: “Mr. Smith, we really enjoyed your class last semester. Is there a way to participate in one of your classes?” And another one: “We really miss you, Mr. Smith.”  The further the trend kept going and the more helpless I became because I realized a few days days earlier that my courses were filled to the brim with no elbow-space to manoever. While I had to tell them that it was not possible this semester (which I didn’t really like doing), it led me to conclude that patronism has reached levels that had not been seen until this afternoon. In the almost 10 years I have been teaching English in Germany, the only highlights that I have seen in my success, apart from climbing up the “corporate ladder” in the educational food chain starting with freelance teaching adults to teaching students full time at a university, were students patronizing my teaching by visiting my classes over and over again, while recommending my classes to others. Many of students I’ve taught over the years still keep in touch with me through all possible means of communication, and I help many of them out when they need it. This includes having an English gathering outside the university once a week, where we just sit and remininsce over a beer or ice cream. This also includes having an English section in my facebook profile, where many students pick up some interesting facts worth noting.  But still, what makes a teacher really good at what he is doing and what makes the students patronize you for your work?

It is not necessarily the qualifications you have.  People can go to college and obtain an education degree with very little or no experience in the classroom and they end up becoming the worst teachers in the institution they are working. It is even more striking with professors at universities both here in Europe as well as in the United States, as they are faced with, on the one end, the publications versus the people scenario and  on the other end, the publish or perish approach. That means that in order to become successful, they have to publish as many pieces of work as possible, even if it comes at the expense of interacting with the students and helping them when they need it the most. If they interact more with the students, they risk not spending time with their work and thus become expendible.  Sure training courses and obtaining a certificate saying that you can teach a certain subject may help a teacher become more successful, but practical experiences make it more rewarding, something that is lacking across the board for many wanting to enter the field.

This brings me to another point worth mentioning, which is the need for English teachers in general. In the past 15-20 years, we have seen the increase in popularity in the English language because it is being used on a regular basis, while doing business, travelling, and dealing with politics on the international scale, just to name a few. In fact, while over 375 million people use English as their primary language (in other words, they’re native speakers like yours truly), almost a billion people- a sixth of the world’s population use English as a secondary language (English as a foreign language).  The numbers are increasing and with that, the demand for English teachers is also increasing, as companies, academic institutions, and even private groups (like families, for example) are hiring people who either have the qualifications needed for teaching or have practical experiences or both.  It depends on who you are working for.

The only problem with that is as an English teacher, unless you have strong connections with your colleagues or if you can identify and expose any loopholes in the regulations, you are sometimes expected to be mobile, which makes it difficult for many who just want to settle down and work in one spot for more than two years. This was the case with one of the universities in northern Bavaria where I was hired there for only two years with no contract extension possibilities, and despite building my cartell with mainly the students and other personnel, I had to leave when the contract ran out. Fortunately I did land a job elsewhere right before I left, but it clearly shows that flexibility and mobility are  also important for a teacher,  albeit it does have its disadvantages regarding gathering experiences, developing ties with other people, and settling down and having a family life just like everyone else.

This brings me to the topic of cartells, which can reap rewards if you develop your ties carefully with the right people. The success as a teacher can depend on the following factors: 1. Whether or not you can get along with your colleagues, 2. Whether or not you can get along with your students, and 3. Whether or not you can adapt to the system that is present at the place where you are teaching or if it collides with your own set of ethics. From my personal experience and based on my personal beliefs, it is important that you have your own code of ethics on how to interact with people, work with them so that they are very successful in the end, and be yourself when you’re in front of the class teaching them some new and interesting facts. By the same token, one also has to adapt to the environment and make some compromises between the teacher, the students, and the rest of the people working in the institution, so that everyone is on the same page in the end.  However, sometimes things do not work the way they should and you just have to make the best judgement and hope for the best.

One factor that a teacher should be aware of is the student-teacher relationship, which is a big deal in the USA and is becoming more and more of an issue  in Europe. This is really fragile as it can either help or harm your career, pending on the interaction between the two. While some students are better off being students, and some will become friends, there are some rare occurances where one will become your “coach” for life, changing your life and world around to your benefit. However, laws are being put into place forbidding this type of practice which has split the public into two. Proponents claim that it would avoid any types of scandals affecting the institution and the reputation involved, opponents claim that it would poison the relationship in the classroom where it should be relaxed and enjoyable to both the teacher and the students.  There is an interesting article on this topic which is enclosed at the end of this file.

But all of these factors that I’ve just mentioned only represent a fraction of what makes a teacher an excellent one. Qualifications help but practical experience counts the most. The need for native speakers and those with a solid background in foreign languages (in this case, English) is high. The relationship with the students is also important. But the secret to being a successful teacher is being you. Based on my personal experience they include:

Being creative and spontaneous in teaching some new things to the students

Finding the trouble spots and exploiting and covering them

Being there for the students when they need your help regardless of the circumstances

Being sensitive but stirn to the students- meaning man has to know his limitations regarding what is allowed and what is not allowed.

and most of all, if anything goes wrong, it is ok to admit your mistake. This is the pitfall for many teachers who claim to be Mr. Perfect but defers every single bit of responsibility to others without looking at himself first.  Students will understand if you admit and apologize for the mistake and will respect you more if you learn from them.

What makes it also useful is to develop your own set of guidelines and add the rules as you go along, whether it is on a sheet of paper or making a mental note. In either case, it helps you remember, based on your experiences, what you can do and what is not allowed. This helps you in future dealings with situations that you dealt with in the past.  The more rules, the more you’re respected by your peers because of the set of morals you have, and in the end, the more people you’ll have on your side when you need them.

And best of all, while you are the man who provides the students with the materials and stories for them to learn, it also helps to take some lessons and ideas with you from the students as they will be useful in the future.

Every great teacher has his own roots at the beginning as a novice and if he can proceed in making a difference in the lives of the students while at the same time be himself, then he will in the end become profi in his work. While my ideas I mentioned above are just my strategies in becoming successful, others may have their own set of ideas. The main point is to be yourself and be true to your students and let the success  and the patronism on the part of the students take care of themselves.

This takes me to the fazit which I can say that while many students from my last semester have to wait until the next semester when the opportunity arises, many have expressed interest in my next English gathering, which is once a week and off campus. It will be interesting to see how many of them will show up at a café in the city center for a good beer and some good conversation…

That concludes the files. Until next time, folks.

Links:

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=401935
For those interested in teaching English as a foreign language, here is a link that can help you:
http://www.tefl.com/

69 days: A tribute to the miners

They went in as miners, they came out as heroes- 69 days later! They were leading an ordinary life when they entered the mines on 5 August, 2010. They were leading unusual lives underground for 69 days- cut off from the world and over a half a mile deep into the earth, having nobody to care for but themselves. What became the light of day turned into 69 days of perpetual darkness.  They hardly knew each other as they were drilling for copper when the mine crashed down onto them. They became brothers in the 69 days they were trapped there- each one of them helping each other out through the whole ordeal and helping the people above them as they tried to guide them to freedom.  They took life for granted, having a daily routine of their own, having a family to support and to come home to. They have since valued their lives more- like a valuable resource- brought their families closer together, strengthened bonds with each other and to God, and became better men  both physically and spiritually. They considered their Chilean president as their leader. Now they consider him their father as he was there to oversee the progress and welcome them when they finally came out of the darkness and into the light,  one by one. They were the forgotten ones before the accident happened. Now they made history- for themselves, the mining industry, and the people who rescued them. They went in as miners and came out as heroes. Even if they shall pass on as miners, their legacy shall live on in the books, the memories of those who were there and the generations that will follow, and finally to the country of Chile, as the people’s spirits, which were high during the ordeal, are now much higher now that the miners are back home with their families and life  returns to normal, much happier than before.

The writer of the Flensburg Files would like to dedicate this short narrative in honor of the 33 miners who were trapped for 69 days in the San Jose Mine near Copiapo and survived the whole ordeal as one big group. They took massive efforts helping rescuers free them, and drew our attention to an event belonging to history. What was mentioned above was based on the events and how they came together and drew everybody together, showing us the value of love, life, and happiness, something that we sometimes forget in this hectic world. I hope this will make readers and others rethink this and do something for the better. I know I will.

Update: Here’s a video of the event and what became of the trapped miners, courtesy of Al Jazeera. A heart-felt story of survival and redemption- a chance at new life.

Until next time, happy trails until we meet again….

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