The Uklak

By Michael Guest

Adrian Petech had arrived in Uruguay only three days before his first English-teaching assignment was due to begin. He was here to replace Helena Ma, an American who had held the position of English instructor at the Liceo Dr. Alfonso Mendoza High School for the previous eight years. ‘Mendoza High’ was a specially designated ‘advanced’ institution, claiming to foster ‘greater international perspectives and possibilities’ in its students, and therefore emphasized intensive English instruction.

Helena Ma would soon be leaving to complete a graduate education degree back in her native California — after winding up some preliminary teaching research in Uruguay. This meant that Adrian had only a few days’ window in which he was to be orientated by Helena and the local staff before being tossed into an intensive English seminar with 12 students – for 6 hours a day.

Adrian had earned his teaching qualifications, graduating with a B.A. in teaching English as a Second Language, and had spent the subsequently two years teaching foreign students back in his native Canada. This, however, was his first assignment abroad.

And it was certainly going to be a challenge – albeit, he constantly reminded himself, a welcome one. His Spanish was rudimentary: common greetings, a handful of nouns (the ones that corresponded closely to English), and the simple questions and answers required to navigate the most basic daily necessities. But, hey, learning both from others, and about others, well that was the whole point of working abroad in the first place, wasn’t it?

The day after his arrival, Helena spared Adrian a morning to go over the curriculum, the course goals, what she had previously taught, and, in particular, to brief Adrian about each of the students. Helena was, as Adrian had suspected from her surname, a Chinese-American. Fair enough. Her focus on research made sense to him, knowing how Asians were very concerned about upgrading their academic credentials.

He wanted to ask her how she had been received in a place where very few Asian faces were seen. Had they treated her primarily as an American or as less-than-American? But Helena was business-like, focused on the task at hand, and not interested in casual banter. Asian values, Adrian surmised.

Poring over the class photos, Helena drew her fingers across the faces of each member. ‘Martina comes from a wealthy local family,’ she explained. ‘Everyone in the city knows who they are. This is Rafael, he is a bit of a bad boy. He’s smart alright but he’s had some trouble with the law. Next is Gimena. She spent three years in Japan, at an international school, so her English is pretty fluent. And, this is Ricardo,’ she pointed to the next photo on the roster, ‘Well, Ricardo is an Uklak.’

‘Uklak? What’s an Uklak?’

‘Oh, sorry. The Uklaks are a very small minority group. Indigenous. They live mostly on the islands. They’ve been discriminated against for generations so their standard of living is lower than other Uruguayans — as are their educational opportunities. They tend to be outcast by mainlanders. It’s actually rare to have an Uklak at a toney school like this. Anyway, this next student…’

Over the following two weeks, Adrian began to familiarize himself with all the members of his English class but it was the mysterious Uklak, Ricardo, who drew his attention the most.

Almost immediately, Adrian noticed Ricardo’s button-like nose, likely a feature of his island heritage, the slightly gnarled hair, possibly a product of island winds. He was a bit taller than the other boys his age – perhaps island people were on average taller than those who lived and worked inland, Adrian thought – and Ricardo was a notably hard worker. Maybe this was an indication of the hard-working instincts that oppressed minorities, like the one he represented, had developed over generations, having to prove themselves on a daily basis.

Once, while at lunch in the cafeteria, Adrian noticed Ricardo seated with a group of his classmates, an event that was punctuated with frequent episodes of teasing and aggressive banter – but, being in colloquial Spanish, Adrian couldn’t grasp it well. He wondered if the other, mainland, boys were teasing Ricardo about his ethnicity, perhaps even mocking his outsider’ accent.

A few days into his tenure, Adrian interviewed each of his students one on one and he was particularly interested to have the chance to finally interact directly with the Uklak. Ricardo’s English was of a high intermediate level but, despite Adrian’s probing, Ricardo never volunteered anything about his distinct heritage.

Finally, Adrian shifted into a welcoming posture, smiled broadly, and told him, ‘I’m proud of you, …given your background. You must have faced a lot of difficulties in life.’ Ricardo seemed a little embarrassed and barely managed to mumble an uncertain response. Perhaps, thought Adrian, shyness and modesty were Uklak attributes. After all, might it not also be that being marginalized had led him to be stoic about his unfair station in life?

A few days later, Helena met with Adrian one last time, just before she was due to fly back to the U.S., apparently interested to see how Adrian was managing his students. She asked him if she could record the discussion – part of her research project, she said. Adrian agreed and began discussing the status of each of his students. Eventually, they came to Ricardo.

‘I’ve been fascinated by the Uklak, Ricardo,’ he told her. ‘You can see the fundamental differences between him and the others, the products of his ethnicity – unique habits, ways of thinking, even the physical mannerisms that are so distinct from his classmates. It’s quite revealing.’

Helena made notes as Adrian spoke at length. Then, when Adrian paused, she stopped the recording and began to bite her lip ever so slightly.

‘I have to tell you the truth here,’ she began hesitantly. ‘This discussion, this orientation,’ she gestured towards her notes, ‘Well, it’s actually a part of my research project.’ She tapped her pen on the sheets of paper. ‘In short, Ricardo is not an Uklak. In fact, there is no such minority group as Uklaks. You can Google it – but you’ll find nothing. I made it up as a part of my research project.’

She noted the distinct fissures of cognitive dissonance etch themselves into Adrian’s forehead.

‘The research project…. You see, it’s designed to see if, and how, a teacher might respond to a student, how differently she or he might view him, if they were told that the student was identified as a member of a particular social or ethnic group.’

It took several moments for Adrian’s brain to unpack what Helena had just admitted. He couldn’t muster a coherent response.

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t tell you it before. I couldn’t,’ Helena continued. ‘But it’s actually the beliefs that Western teachers bring into their classrooms abroad, teachers like you, and me, that are the real focus of my research.’

Adrian didn’t know which was more appropriate: Anger at Helena’s dishonesty? Or embarrassment at his indulgent responses — from having fallen into Helena’s trap? Gradually, one idea settled uppermost in his thoughts:

This deception of Helena Ma’s. It was just so… so un-Asian of her.