Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ghosts, Goblins and Cultural Relativism

 "I got out of bed today, swear to God I couldn't see my face
I got out of bed today, staring at a ghost...
Well, where'd my body go?
Africa or Mexico?
Well, where'd my body go? "
- Weighty Ghost, Wintersleep

Asia is very superstitious. From fortune tellers to good luck charms and black magic there is a prescriptive action that must be taken to counterbalance the negative effects any previous actions may have stirred and then there are further rites and rituals to counteract the initial antidote and so on ad infinitum. Empiricism is, more often than not, met with skepticism, if not outright scorn.

One of my students warned me, "Ms. You must be careful to wash your..." (she had to pause here and ask the other girls for the correct English word but none of them knew) "ummm, you know the paper between your legs when you get your menster?"

"You mean pads when you menstruate?"

"Yes, yes! You must always wash all the blood from your pad before you trow it or else there is a deevil who will come and suck it and when she do she will be able to find you and she will live in your body."
By comparison, when I am accosted in the hallways by inquisitive students about Canadian superstitions, "Uh... well hockey players don't shave their beards before the Stanley Cup playoffs," is usually the best I can do. More often than not this is met with confused stares and students nodding carefully as they slowly back away.

My own students ask me at at least once a week if I believe in ghosts. I still haven't figured out a good answer so I tell them the truth. "Well, I think I've actually seen one or two, but maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me."

"Like how Ms?"

"Like maybe I thought I was awake but really I was still dreaming. Or maybe it was something I ate." A bit of indigestion, right Scrooge?

Indonesians can also be fantastically melodramatic, so when my roommate stopped by my classroom a few weeks ago to tell me a sixth grader had just been escorted down the hall, wailing that she'd seen a ghost in the mirror of the girls bathroom I wasn't really surprised. My own students have been telling me all about the school's ghosts since the day I arrived, including a boy who was their age when he died who can be spotted wandering the halls but mostly in the boys bathroom.

"They're so ridiculous!" the roommate said with a wink and a smile.

I don't know why but I felt suddenly compelled to confess. "Well they can be a bit over the top dramatic can't they, but I don't know, I saw something in the classroom a few weeks ago."

Nicholas had just returned from a trip to Singapore and brought a bag of chocolates to share with the class. I opened them after lunch and we all helped ourselves, myself included though I only had two before I herded them off to their music lesson. I ate two more when I got back to the classroom, gathered up my USB and some paper and went to the IT room to print some worksheets. I brought two more to share with Pak Guntur in the computer lab and then remembered I had forgotten my water so I headed back to class. On the way back I realized I had had too many chocolates, too much sugar.

When I walked into the classroom one of the boys was standing behind the credenza with his back to me, facing my desk. All I could see was the back of his head and shoulders but, while almost all the boys shared the ubiquitous crew cut I judged from the height it must be either Nicholas or Daren. Uncertain which I said sternly, "Hey, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be in music class." There was no response but he disappeared.

Now I was getting mad. Not so much at my student, though he knew I didn't take kindly to being ignored, much less playing hide and seek during class time, but more with Ms. Theresa who was constantly sending students back to me when she didn't feel like dealing with them.

"Hey!" I said again as I walked across the class to catch the culprit hiding behind the credenza, "I'm talking to you." But, it turns out, I was talking to myself.

The next week when my kids asked me if I believed in ghosts, I almost forgot myself. "You will never believe what happened...No, wait, I can't tell you that. Never mind."

"What Ms, what?!?!?"

"I can't tell you."

"Awww, why?"

"Because, you would never come back to class again," I laughed.

"Awwww, please?!?"

"On the last day of school at the class party."

The kids can't wait for the last day of school now. As for me, I still don't know if I believe in ghosts.

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