The Great Exchange: Building Community between the International Schools and the Host Community

Edward Lake, November 2010

International schools have grown significantly over the past two decades. Businesses, governments and religious organizations are becoming more global and as a result there has been a rise in the number of expatriates, those who live and work in a foreign country but who still retain citizenship of their home country. These expatriates often have families to bring with them and therefore, children who need to be educated. In many cases these children are educated at an international school, where they can obtain a more “international” education. But although the students of these schools are becoming more international through their interaction with classmates from all over the world, their teachers may need a bit more encouragement.

While working in the international school community I have met many new and seasoned teachers. I am always surprised though that the majority of these international school teachers do not have significant interaction with their host culture and have not picked up much of the language of their host culture. It is sad because these teachers and staff members are missing out on a great experience.

While working in China I met a Canadian born Chinese woman who after growing up in Canada moved to China to teach at an international school. I went out to dinner with this woman and several of her colleagues from her international school to a restaurant highly recommended by some mutual friends of ours. When we arrived at the restaurant the teachers all asked for English menus, but none were available. So one of the teachers called their domestic servant on the phone and had her talk to the waiter, so that this bilingual domestic servant could order the food for us. I felt quite embarrassed to order food this way; I decided to intervene and tried to order the food for us even though my Mandarin was very poor. I had only been living in China for 3 months at that point, but I knew 5 standard dishes that every restaurant serves, and ordered those (with poor pronunciation) for us to share. What was shocking though was as we were chatting over dinner I found out most of these teachers had been living in China for at least two or three years, and they only knew a handful of Mandarin phrases, and just a few aspects of the culture.

Now it is easy to lay blame on international school teachers for not interacting more with the community, but many of these international teachers have legitimate reasons for their lack of cultural exchange. One explanation might be that they are too busy: that the demands of their job allow little time to learn a new language, or get involved in cultural activities. Most international schools require each teacher to get involved in many after-school activities including two or three sports or clubs in addition to evening study hall duty and their normal lesson planning and marking. These numerous activities would be difficult for a seasoned teacher to be able to juggle, but a number of international teachers are also in their first year of teaching: imagine all of these difficulties on top of being a rookie teacher. With such a demanding schedule, one cannot blame them for having no time or energy to interact with the local community.

Another reason for their lack of interaction is that it is scary to break out of a cultural comfort zone. They may be very eager to meet local people and make friends with them, but they are nervous in how to do this. Most of us get nervous when making a new acquaintance and we all wish we were a lot more outgoing; this feeling is amplified in a cross-cultural setting.

Thirdly this lack of interaction is often due to the “international school ghettos” that have developed. This is where teachers and staff from international schools often live together, work together and have their leisure time together while living in an international community. Some have referred to this as the “international school bubble”. Again, this is not always a deliberate bubble. International schools often provide free housing, or discounted housing to teachers who live in housing selected by the school. What usually happens is that the school will place most of the teachers and staff in the same building, and often within the same unit or floor; so the contact with other people outside of the international school community is limited. Also since these teachers live together and have the same holidays and schedules, it figures that they would spend much of their free time together. This is especially common for new teachers who are often “learning the ropes” for mentor teachers and who develop friendships with their mentors.

While living overseas it is often comfortable to head to a restaurant that serves food and drinks from your home country. Although this is a great way to relax, it again limits your interaction with people outside of the expatriate community, since they will also be more likely to attend the same venues and restaurants. What tends to happen is that a restaurant or bar gets labeled an “expat establishment” and is often crowded with large numbers of expatriates and very few local people.

Having such little contact with the local culture has a number of negative effects. It causes a teacher to miss out on learning a new perspective on the world and opening up their understanding of different cultures of the world. It also could mistakenly send the message to their students that host countries have nothing to offer. It may also create resentment by the host country towards expatriates; and might make them feel that international teachers and staff have an attitude of superiority.

Being Deliberate About Interacting With The Culture Around You.

I met a first year teacher who lived in China who never went grocery shopping for herself. Instead, she paid a local domestic servant to do all of her grocery shopping for more than one year. This older woman was very nervous about learning a new language and making mistakes; but that is an important part of learning, and a great way to make friends with the salesperson in the market. Sad to say, this young woman left her international school job after her first year because she felt lonely. Her departure was unnecessary though because there were hosts of local people eager to get acquainted with her.

Another great way to get connected to the community is to join a sports team or club. There are usually a large number of sports clubs and teams from basketball to football to squash. While I was living overseas I have always been quick to join an ultimate Frisbee club and have met many wonderful people while getting exercise and practicing my foreign language skills.

If you are not interested in sports, you can join many other kinds of club. Most communities have some kind of dance club, music group, and in every community cooking lessons always exist in some form. There are a variety of clubs that you can find in every community. The internet is a great resource for finding these clubs and activities, as well as through word of mouth. This is another great way to meet more people and establish friendships with the community.

Another great way to mix in with the local people is in your local religious community. While living in Singapore I have gotten more involved in a Bible study group with local Singaporeans (as well as other expatriates). I have been able to make strong friendships this way, and have been able to learn more about these cultures and share my culture as well.

It can be difficult to get out of your comfort zone and meet with people from a different cultural background, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Challenge yourself to interact with the community on a daily basis. Go grocery shopping for yourself and have a conversation with the salesperson, or stop and say hello to a person walking their dog. There are many opportunities every day to interact with someone from the community. When you do I am sure you will feel much more excited about the community around you, will learn a lot and will establish lasting friendships.