Language love is culture in drag

...And the Red Pill, which activates the Trace...
Will you take the red pill and challenge monoculture? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did you ever feel you take on a new personality when you speak another language? Does it feel like performance? Do you love it?

I love messing with cultural expectations. Greeting Africans at the airport in their own language gives me a rush. Speaking Arabic as a blue-eyed blondie gives me a laugh, too. I also like to speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent, or speak German with a Swabian (Stuttgart area) accent. Sometimes I get a laugh, sometimes anger. The folks at the airport always smile; I make friends during every layover. In contrast, once I was speaking Moroccan Arabic with a Moroccan waitress at a coffee shop, and I was accused of being a Jewish spy and encouraged to leave. (“We’re closing now,” I was told.) I don’t like the cultural rules we’re told to play according to; fooling people’s cultural expectations brings me joy.

Taking the “red pill

Maybe I’m a kind of drag queen, messing with expectations. I recently listened to RuPaul‘s interview on Marc Maron‘s WTF podcast (Episode 498), where he compared drag performance to the “red pill” in The Matrix. We all know what it means for us to act like a man or woman, because in our “Matrix,” each gender follows certain rules–talking, walking, dressing, etc. in its own unique way. Human beings identify with one or the other gender and follow the rules. Society expects you to follow the rules of your gender; anyone who has been to high school knows the shame and horrible epithets that go along with the boy whose speech sounds too feminine or the girl whose hair looks too masculine. We demand that everyone follow the Matrix–otherwise, they threaten reality.

Drag performers take the “red pill” and so reject the Matrix and flaunt the rules and borders of gender. He or she changes identities in an instant: now he’s a woman, now she’s a man. “Ego”–so goes RuPaul’s famous tweet–“loves identity. Drag mocks identity. Ego hates drag.” Drag is threatening because our ego is grounded in an identity, such as gender, but drag shows that gender is just another performance. A man can go on stage and become a woman in actions, mannerisms, and character. He takes on a woman’s identity. Then he takes off the makeup and he acts like a man again. He mocks the rules of identity in the Matrix by never settling in one.

The cultural “Matrix”

The Matrix presents, in addition to rules for gender, rules for culture according to which we act and build our identities. If I am American, I act a certain way. If I am Greek, I act a certain way. If I am Russian, or Oromo, or Iranian, I follow cultural rules to display and maintain my identity.

This compartmentalized view of culture can cause an identity crisis for the children of immigrants. If I am a second-generation Indian, born in Singapore, living in Australia, how am I supposed to act? Indian? Singaporian? Australian? The Matrix doesn’t offer a set of rules for this situation, leaving us in the lurch. The Matrix demands that we despair that we don’t fit, or whittle down our identities to one the Matrix deems “normal.”

Take the red pill!

Languages are the cultural “red pill.” For “third culture” kids, who live between the culture of their parents and of their residence, they can thrive if they learn the languages of both cultures. They can transcend the Matrix and follow their own rules. Like drag queens, they can switch seemlessly from one set of expectations to another. Performing in each culture is unremarkable. When you see one of them switch to the other, however, the jaws drop: “How did he do that?” The Matrix doesn’t allow such fluid change of identity.

You can transcend the Matrix by learning another language and culture, and the more you learn, the less you are held fast by rules. You can connect with people you couldn’t otherwise. New ways of thinking will challenge how you perceive the world. When you have a dilemma or decision, you will suddently realize you don’t have to follow the expected solution; you can draw from ideas outside the normal expectations. Those invested in the Matrix might laugh at or reject you. At the same time, unlikely friends will meet you here; openness will greet you. Through new languages we hope to bring down monoculture and bring about a fertile ecosystem of new thinking and new ideas. We want all of your personalities and cultures.

Are you ready to help overturn the Matrix? “You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

International students in middle school: Marginal or model?

International students raise everybody's level
International students raise everybody’s level

So many schools in the US profess the importance of producing global citizens. Learning new points of view, becoming “marketable” in an internationally-facing economy, and engaging in different languages and cultures all make up the ideals of a “global curriculum.” Our students, however, sorely lack global competence.

At the same time, our schools are full of speakers of many languages. My own daughters’ school has speakers of Spanish (Latin American and Iberian), Russian, Somali, Oromo, Amharic, Arabic, and Telugu that I’ve heard myself. (Who knows how many more there are?) Their experience spans multiple continents.  All these students are wells of knowledge for everyone at the school; the only problem comes from how to draw it out so all can drink.

Today’s global citizens

The kids from all of these different countries already embody these global ideals. They are truly multi-cultural. They bring in one culture as they absorb America from the cafeteria, the locker room, and their iPods. They are all expected to know a second language–English–at a very high level.  Their English class expects way more than, say, the school’s Spanish class, as it pushes these students to use the language in multiple, challenging contexts, with the high-flung goal of allowing them to compete with native speakers.

Rather than set these kids up as a model, unfortunately, our school and society marginalize these international students. The hijabs of the Somali girls make them “strange,” and kids don’t know how to interact with the Latinos who sit together and speak Spanish at lunch. The Russian kids don’t want to talk about their families’ different traditions, and the Arabs keep quiet so no one hears their accent. Many of them go off to ESL or ELL classes during the day–which is considered remedial, not supplementary. ESL and ELL aids help “accommodate” the kids or their parents. If you hear any language besides English on the playground, you will only hear it in hushed tones.

The wrong model

The monolingual, monocultural kids function, whether we like it or not, as the model. Clearly, we need to teach English and American norms to kids from all countries so they can function and succeed. At the same time, we barely push those kids who lack fluency in a language besides English or display ignorance of any culture or values besides those of the US.  The monocultural kids are already at the top of the class.

We misplace the stigma. Instead of just getting the international kids “up to speed,” we ought to emphasize among the monolingual, monocultural student body that they do not measure up to the high level set by these bright, flexible, intelligent students. (Studies have shown that fluency in more than one culture and language improves cognitive and academic performance.) Our schools should do more to lift up and highlight the unique knowledge and wisdom of these children. As much as our education pushes knowledge of English language and American culture, all would benefit from learning from their multicultural, multilingual example.

Drawing from the well of international students

Our schools could offer much more as they prepare our children for global citizenship if they drew from the very student body of the school.  If I want my child to learn Telugu, why does the school not offer a forum for her to learn from her Indian friend? Taking kids out of “normal” class for ELL classes is important, but why not other languages for other children? If my children learn about world or US history, why do these children’s experience not make up part of the curriculum? Why don’t the kids from the Spanish table at lunch help out the Spanish class? Why do my children not learn in literature class about the beautiful, unique importance of Somali poetry? or Arabic music in choir class?

Students should be rewarded for broad cultural and linguistic heritage, and ignorance should be educated. Grades and assignments should reflect global citizenship. Language arts should include knowledge of another language and international genres of literature. History should include deep knowledge of other countries. Speech and communications should reflect the ability to communicate in other languages.

Will the monocultural and monolingual students cry “no fair!”? I hope so. I hope they realize that it is not fair for them to be consigned to ignorance. We should influence them with grades and peer pressure–the main incentives in middle school–to dive deeply into another culture. Then the global citizen from Russia will get a better grade than the kid born in the US, or the one who is embarrassed of his Chinese accent will outshine the one who doesn’t even try to speak another language. Not only will this produce better global citizens, it more accurately reflects our globalized economy and society.

How do you think schools could draw from the multicultural, multilingual knowledge of all of their students, to the benefit of all?

Photo credit: Éole / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA