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Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century
Harvard University Press, 2006
312 pp., 54.50
The first official day of training, after having flown east for five meals (all breakfast), my Peace Corps cohort somehow ended up singing "The Star Spangled Banner" with enough heart to bring our trainers, Kazakhstani nationals, to tears. But walking out onto the terrace afterward, one of the volunteers told me that he just didn't think it was right to have sung our national anthem in their country. I think I pointed out that they had asked us to their country precisely because we were Americans.
As it turned out, our earnest and sometimes ridiculous efforts to respect the culture would be thwarted in every way, beginning with our hapless reliance on the filler-word "um"—which, in Kazakh, is like dropping f-bombs. At some point, the culture stopped seeming sacred to us. It wasn't too long before we started writing top-ten lists in our newsletter with digs at the local culture: "Godliness is nowhere near cleanliness," and "Blood is thicker than water, unless it's over 100-proof." As cavalier as our new attitude toward Kazakhstani culture may have seemed, it came amid much angst.
Our experience, it turns out, was not at all unique. Innocents Abroad—no, not the one by Mark Twain—shows that Peace Corps volunteers, missionary teachers, and even Teddy Roosevelt's imperialists in the 20th-century's third world had much in common, not only in being overwhelmingly white, young, and inexperienced but also in their worldviews. To write this book, Jonathan Zimmerman patiently made his way through scads of diaries and letters from teachers, sorting out the debates about education stirred up by rote memorization, corporal punishment, vocational training, church-state relationships, and whether or not to be publicly proud of America. The result is accurate, if not fully processed. To judge by how exactly each chapter coincided with my experience, Zimmerman had an easy time categorizing the contended issues.
It's much harder to deal with them. And here I could begin ...