Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cultural Mistakes and Misunderstandings

Even though I have 4 years of experience living abroad, I still make mistakes.

Visitors to another country often make mistakes because
1. they are not aware of their own culture
2. they are not aware of the other culture.

In the beginning we look at the world through a pair of tinted glasses and everything is filtered and judged through our cultural identity.

For example, in Africa at first I may judge, "Why are people so rude? While having a conversation, no one is making eye contact with me." Because I am not aware that Americans feel comfortable with eye contact while some cultures deem it rude to look at you directly, I make a mistake and judge incorrectly.

Another example would be, in China, why when I ask students if they want to play ultimate Frisbee on Friday evening, all the students answer yet, but then no one shows? As an American I trust their direct yes, but then feel confused when no one shows up on Friday. In Chinese culture, yes can mean no. There were probably questions I should have asked to determine what the students really wanted as well as indirect cues that I didn't catch indicating that the yes really meant no. Now because I am aware of this custom of saying yes but really meaning no, I can put aside my American assumption that yes means yes and start to notice indirect cues as well as ask the right questions.

After four years, I thought I was pretty good at being aware of my culture as well as the one I am living in; however, I still make mistakes.

My latest mistake was while teaching the short story "The Scribe" by Kirstin Hunter. It is a story about an African American boy in the 1970's who offers a free service of reading and writing to help people who are illiterate. These people are paying rude loan sharks a small fee to fill out forms and read letters for them. The young boy also educates several people that instead of paying a check cashing fee with the expensive loan sharks, customers can go to a bank and cash checks for free.

After the story, one of the high school textbook questions was discuss the following quote, "Those who have little, much is taken." In America, there is a belief that people take advantage of the poor- loan sharks, extra fees, and scams. There is a belief that America was built on the backs on the poor. For example, factories, railroads, farms, jobs that no one wants except illegal immigrants.

I wanted to know what the students' thought about the poor. Do they also believe that those who have little, much is taken? It was a hard question for them to answer and I couldn't understand why. To me it was so obvious that poor people are taken advantage of.

What had I not considered?
What mistake had I made?

I had forgotten that China is a communist state and the viewpoint from students raised with communist socialist ideas would probably have a very different viewpoint about the poor. If I had remembered that, I could have asked more appropriate leading questions instead of questions coming from an American assumption.

Living in other countries for so long, I have stopped tip toeing around so much. I have stopped being afraid of making mistakes by not being aware of my culture or the culture I am living in. This recent misunderstanding was a wake up call. I can still make mistakes, so don't stop being aware of who you are and who you are interacting with. Don't get lazy. Search for the reasons and the assumptions behind the misunderstandings.

I think I am going to learn a lot about myself and Chinese culture with this English short story class on human behavior.

1 comment:

universalibrarian said...

I had a really small but weird cultural misunderstanding yesterday with a test question. A dog is tied up at one of three points on the edge of a 10ft by 15ft shed. with a 20 foot lead. How much room does he have to play in at each of the three locations? ....... I was expecting beautiful little accretions of half circles drawn around a box. Not one of my students did that. Why? ... Well in Taipei it is the inside of a building that is important, one does not consider the outside because you don't own it. The students were not reading about a little shed situated in a beautiful open yard but a room that one would lock the dog in. ALL of them, the more western and eastern alike drew pictures in which the entire inside of the room was shaded from all sides. Stupid teacher... what kind of question was that. Funny but disconcerting. I wonder how many other weird assumptions I make all of the time. Hope you class is going better. All teachers have a hard time sometimes. Keep trying, you always are having more of an effect than you think.