Aug 132009

Ken Wilson – English Teaching Theatre, Mister Monday songs – has been sharing his story of how his career started. (If you haven’t read it yet, forget about this and get over there now).

Ken has a delightful account of trainees screwing up in ‘teaching practice’ sessions and a great memory for details. By contrast, my memories of my teaching practice are a blur now – as they no doubt were to my students at the time. However I do remember my first lesson very vividly.

sand_duneMy IH training course in London finished on a Friday. The next Monday, I was a very green teacher standing before her first class in Algeria. It sticks in my memory for a couple of reasons.


1. I managed to get through 16 units of ‘First things First’ by Louis Alexander in a 45 minute lesson. (Pacing has never been my strong point)

2. A student came up at the end of the class to say ‘hi’ and welcome me, and he made me blush.

Mustaffa was a lawyer and he seemed like a very pleasant, well-mannered kind of guy. Our conversation went something like:

Welcome to Algeria.

Thank you very much.

Is this your first visit?

Yes, I’ve never been here before.

So how long are you staying?

6 months. I’m looking forward to it

Are your parents here too?

No, they’re in England. In Buckinghamshire.

So are you married?

No, I’m single.

Ah,  so you’re a virgin.

<pause> I think I misunderstood. Did you say ‘virgin’?

Yes, virgin – like the virgin Mary

<pause> You’re sure? Virgin like in the virgin Mary?

Yes, you’re a virgin


It was my first lesson in cross-cultural awareness and it took me a several months to work it out. In fact I’m still not sure whether I’ve worked it out, but here’s my take on it:

I was a young female and I had made it clear that I was travelling alone to Algeria – sans parents, sans husband. We came from different worlds. What might be viewed as healthy adventurousness in one culture could be seen as unhealthy wantonness in another. Mustaffa was a well-educated guy who wanted to reassure me that he could reconcile the concept of being ‘well-brought-up’ with a woman travelling on her own . He knew the right thing to say in his native tongue to allay any concerns I might have and translated. Meanwhile I was blissfully unaware that I should have any concerns.

So Mustaffa, if you ever read this blog, I’d like to apologise for not telling you how dumbfounded I was at the time. If you haven’t twigged by now, please drop the ‘So you’re a virgin’ line. It gets lost in translation. And also – thank you for introducing me to the wonderful adventure of cross cultural miscommunication.

So several questions here: Do you think I’m interpreting this correctly? And has anyone had similar experiences? And how did it all start for you?

 Posted by at 6:53 am

  10 Responses to “How it all started”

  1. Vicki!

    that is absolutely hilarious! do you think every other single woman teacher from Buckinghamshire received the same welcome in Algeria?

    There is something absolutely rivetting about these first cross-cultural experiences, especially when apparently flawless English is being used.

    I think we should keep dreadging them up, don’t you?


  2. Thanks Vicki for sharing. I have a similar story… I was recruited to S. Korea and told that I would receive training before I stepped into the classroom (previously I was working in a big corrporation). However, I arrived on a Sunday night and the next morning I was in a classroom with 14 eager Korean students with no clue what to do next. I was told to introduce myself and then have them do the same. Well, after introducing myself I asked the students if they had any questions. I got all of them: How old are you? Are you married? Where is your family? and the one that dumbfounded me: “Do you have a lover?”

  3. Ken, thank you so much for stopping by. But don’t spend too long here because we want you to get back to your own blog and carry on with the story. What’ll happen next? Ha! I’m hooked.

  4. Slightly different context, but cross cultural.
    I was in Berlin working on stage with a Swiss man and we had a choice to communicate in Spanish or English.
    I chose English.
    We devised a routine and after the first night i asked him how he felt it had gone.”
    “Good”, he said, But come…after”
    The next night i waited for my cue, then waited a bit more then entered.
    “What did you think” i asked “Yes, good, but come …after.
    This went on for three nights, me delaying my entrance more and more, he always insisting i come …after.
    “Ok, i think we need to rehearse – tomorrow?”
    “Yes, he said
    “What time”, i asked.
    “I’ll be there …..before 3”
    i turned up at 2’15, eager to impress.
    3 came and went.
    He arrived at 4.
    We then started to speak together in Spanish.

  5. Ha! Oh Holly! Even with your wonderful American openness, ‘Do you have a lover?’ must have been a challenge.
    I have to say the question has a certain ‘get-straight-down-to-business’ charm about it though. A sort of forget-the-social-niceties-and-tell-me –what-I-want-to -know. 

  6. Your stories are always a treat Chris – you know how to tell ’em.
    Thanks mate!

  7. A similar experience of mine happened in Russia, where I was introduced to a new colleague, a Dutchman. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we got on to to marital status. Upon my telling him I was married to a local girl, he casually asked: “Is she your first wife?”

    I was a bit flummoxed. Was that a normal thing to say in Holland? Or did I look like a rake? Perhaps a man with the haunted/hunted appearance of being on the run from a terrible ex-wife (and divorce settlement) in the UK?

    I’ve thought of adopting it as a new and perhaps discomforting strategy at social meetings, but I really don’t have the nerve.

  8. Sandy, a big welcome! Thank you so much for contributing this gem of a story. Ha! I’m not surprised you were a bit flummoxed.
    I have been having a glorious time poking around on your blog. I am going to go add it to my blogroll right away, very quick, because I want go back and explore it some more.

  9. […] first teaching job was in Algeria. (For more on my first lesson, see here) It was a fantastic experience, but not without its hassles. I was an unveiled female in her […]

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