Tag Archives: UK

#BecauseESOL

I don’t share a lot on this blog about my job as an ESOL teacher for migrant adults in London. This post, though, hits home in how accurately it encapsulates the ups and downs of what it’s like to be an ESOL professional. It’s not an easy job, but most of the time it’s worth it. I hope Sam’s post gives you some insight into what I do most days at work!

Sam Shepherd

I started using this hashtag on twitter a while ago as a bit of fun. You’d be discussing something with someone from outside ESOL and they’d ask why. And, this being Twitter, you’d have no short explanation, except a virtual shrug and “because ESOL.”

So this is the long explanation, for which I apologise, as I’ve been here before, but it never hurts to remind people.

Because Language

ESOL generally occurs in an English language environment, unlike, say, international EFL which can occur in all sorts of contexts.

This means that ESOL is judged on the same terms as, say, hairdressing, or Access to HE, despite being profoundly different in one crucial regard: the students and the teacher don’t share a common first language. Some of them might, but not all of them. So you can forget your learning outcomes, differentiated according to Bloom’s (entirely language dependent, and balls to…

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Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

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The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.

 

Living Abroad & Perspectives on the US

This week has brought some interesting perspective on life and living abroad. I’ve been back in the US for my grandmother’s 80th birthday party/family reunion and a brief visit to my parents (and also some quiet time to work on my MA dissertation). It was fantastic to see all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in California for the birthday party — I’m really glad I went. It has also been nice to be in Rochester and not have any official household duties — of course I help out, but visiting the parents is different from living with F like a “real” adult; here, I can be a bit like a kid again, albeit a grown one.

almost the entire family on my mom's side, gathered in Ventura, CA for my grandma's 80th birthday. Photo credit: Nancy R.

almost the entire family on my mom’s side (missing a couple cousins and partners), gathered in Ventura, CA for my grandma’s 80th birthday. Photo credit: Nancy R.

I lived at home for two months last summer, but that felt normal as I had only been in the UK for six months beforehand and was still on the heels of transitioning from Peace Corps/Ukraine life. Peace Corps was so different that returning to the western world was an adjustment in and of itself — it didn’t matter where I was, and there were so many changes that I had to take each one as it came.

But this year, I’ve become settled in my UK life and haven’t been back to the US for almost a year. Being “home” has felt different, in part because I’m here for a vacation-y 10 days rather than a long period of “living” time. Here are some things that have struck me about the US after living in the UK/Europe for a year and a half (of course, the following things seem extreme because I live in London, a city of 8 million, and am comparing it to Rochester, a much smaller city of 300,000. But I think I’d feel some of these differences no matter where in the US I was):

  • Open space. Americans often take for granted how much space this country has. On the flight from London to LA, my British seat-mate and I marveled at the hugeness of the land, particularly in the southwestern US, and at how much of it is uninhabited (and uninhabitable. And beautiful).
so much space!

so much space!

somewhere in the Southwest

somewhere in the Southwest

  • Traffic and driving. Okay, so LA has crazy freeway traffic, but the Rochester streets are so peaceful! My dad and I were driving to Panera the other morning for breakfast (and endless coffee refills, yes!) and I remarked on how quiet the streets were. My dad replied, “Oh, I was just thinking it was pretty busy.” That’s perspective for you! It comes from living in London, where traffic is dense no matter the time of day. In a similar vein, driving has felt really easy here after cycling in London, where I have to be hyper-aware on the bike so as not to be run over by aggressive drivers. Cruising around in a car here feels quite calm in comparison.
  • People and friendliness. Maybe I’m becoming more like a reserved European, but Americans are so friendly and open…sometimes overly so, it seems to me. I’m happy to strike up the odd amiable chat, and do it regularly in London with our fruiterer shopkeepers. But many people here seem a little too in-your-face-potentially-forced friendly. It’s fine, and I do appreciate the openness, but it’s funny to come at it now from another perspective — if anything, it reflects how living abroad has changed me. I will say that it’s refreshing to go into a store here and be able to ask an employee about what I’m looking for, because I know that they will provide good customer service and help me find what I need. In the UK and other parts of Europe it sometimes feels like people are mildly annoyed when you enter their shop…but I sort of like that, too — or at least am used to it by now!
  • Short distances. Again, this is me comparing two cities of vastly different sizes and areas. But still, it is so easy and quick to get around Rochester. In London I have to plan and map out where and when I want to go somewhere, taking into account the time and money and clothing I’ll need. Here, pretty much everything is a 5-20 minute drive away. I could get used to that again…

Oh, the cross-cultural life is always fun and interesting! I wouldn’t have it any other way — it has opened my eyes to how different people live and how different societies function, and has brought me a hefty dose of perspective along the way. I love it.

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