Professors make return journeys, bring back lessons from across borders

Hindustan Times | By
Feb 05, 2020 07:06 PM IST

When teachers travel abroad for research or as faculty, they return with insight into other cultures, new perspectives on young minds, and fresh views of education systems in other countries.

Adapting to new cultures and learning methods, seeing how differently students from different cultures see the world, people who have taught in countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Kenya and South Africa have unusual stories to share.


In Bangladesh, a city of extremes

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Debjyoti Ghosh, 36, says his year of teaching comparative law at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, a year ago, was a unique experience.

“I had students from India and Sri Lanka who found the conservatism of Chittagong stifling and at the same time there were also students from Taliban villages in Afghanistan who found the university experience tremendously liberating,” he says.

Ghosh says the Chittagong he experienced was a place of extremes. “The haves are so rich that they had barely any connection with the others and the have-nots were defecating in open drains. Unless you are politically connected there is severe apathy. One day, as we were discussing rights in a class, a student got a text saying her vote had just been cast,” he says.

What inspired Ghosh was the grit of the students. “Some were young textile workers at the university on scholarships. It was amazing to see how hard these women worked and to read the insightful papers and assignments they submitted.”

Fishing on dry land in Vietnam

Vasu Mahajan, 25, currently teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and found that country far more culturally similar to India than he would have imagined.

“It’s a very secular, very cosmopolitan city. Most young people ride scooters, drink beer, smoke, sing karaoke and live for the weekend. Football is the major religion and everyone comes out on the streets when a football match is won. It was an environment I found easy to blend into,” he says.

His students are friendly and eager to show foreign teachers around. “My class took me and another teacher on a fishing trip on the outskirts of the city. It was unlike any fishing experience as there was no river or lake. Instead it was a restaurant with a man-made lake in the centre with wooden cabins surrounding it. You can pick up rods and some bait and try to fish. If you get a fish, the restaurant will cook it for you for a small fee. It was an intriguing experience,” he says.

‘Kenyans are fascinated by how much we travel’

Anirudhha Ghosh, 34, a research scientist in the department of environmental science and policy at University of California Davis, has been conducting workshops in various African and South Asian countries for four years.

His window to the local culture is mainly through his students. In Kenya, he found, people were quite amazed at how much Indians travel.

“The students are fascinated by how much we move about, and the exposure we get as a result. A student once told me, amazed, about how two Indian women one gave directions to their bus driver in a local tribal language, not even Swahili,” Ghosh.

His travels over the years also helped Ghosh decide to take a job in Kenya; he will move there later this month. “I realised that my work is valued a lot more there than here in the US, where I am one of many scientists at my level. So when I got the opportunity to work in a research institute based at Nairobi, I immediately decided to make the move.”

‘South Africa’s education system is very progressive’

Supratim Biswas, a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Cape Town, says he was surprised by how advanced the South African education system was.

“There was a counsellor in each examination hall, to help any students who might suffer from stress, panic or any kind of breakdown.”

Students in Cape Town are so self-aware and sensitised, as a result, that even if you reprimand or criticise, you need to be careful to do it so as not to hurt the student.

“They’re very politically aware and vocal too. I once described South Africa as a developing country and the students erupted in objection,” he says.

In their system, children start to think for themselves and do research early on. “They start to develop expertise in niche areas even before they graduate.”

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