My name is June Wong

My name is June Wong.  Emigrated from Hong Kong to BC, Canada 13 years ago, I am constantly involved in cross-cultural activities.  As an undergraduate student I was on the editorial board of a Chinese-English bilingual newspaper Perspectives, based in the University of British Columbia.  During my second year of service, I initiated a new column Colours of Maple to promote understanding between Eastern and Western cultures and provide room for first and second generations Chinese students to share their experiences.  After graduation, I have worked as a freelance translator and at various international school settings, teaching high school Mathematics for about 3 years.  In May 2004, I completed my certificate program in Cross-Cultural Counselling, in which I had the opportunity to reflect on my past cross-cultural practices.  I am writing to find out if there is any potential in research in the area of effective intercultural communication in the context of education.  In the past year, I have been posing scenarios with questions to provide food for thought for my potential audience, to help ease their frustration that arises from cultural differences, promote cultural sensitivity, prevent oppression (especially in covert forms) towards students and develop approaches to foster intercultural communication. 

 

My goal in pursuing graduate studies is to continue challenge myself and become part of the larger force that contributes to social development.  As I continue to develop professionally, I wish to hold seminars or publish booklets that aid my audience to develop a new sense of awareness.  My main audience includes teachers and administrators of K-college levels, sports and art coaches dealing multi-ethnic groups, expatriates, and parents of school-age children.  Through partnerships with a diverse group of fellow graduate students and advisors, I will be able to refine my project.

 

Here I need to state the distinction between my concentration in intercultural communication and multicultural education.  Efforts in multicultural education as practiced currently include such elements as food festivals, exchange programs, language classes and inclusion of cultural specific contents in the curriculum.  What I am more interested in investigating are the interactions between personnel in a typical teaching environment, particularly between teachers and students in the classroom studying any subject matter.  Hence my work is more at the micro level, and falls within the frame of postmodernism.  Teachers play a significant role in creating and preserving culture through their everyday activities and communication. Teachers pass on and instill values, often subtly, through the daily classroom experience.  In turn, these values perpetrate through many paths to the society.


Fig.1: The Culture Onion


Source: http://www.csp.edu/maco/maco/Courses/THY573/OnionDiagram.doc

 

As an introduction to my presentation, I use an analogy to help conceptualize the importance of improving intercultural communication in the 21st century, in the same manner as rethinking how some subjects are taught:

 

Imposing values within the dominant frame of reference

Vs
Mindful, Effective intercultural communication

 

Is analogous to

 

Teaching how to use a math formula

Vs

Teaching for understanding of math concepts.

I came to realize from my interactions with teachers trained in the western world that, for their cross-cultural work to be effective, one of the keys is to understand their own biases first¡Xin particular that Western culture practices and promotes linear thinking.
 

Balance,
harmony,(external)

collectivism,
relationships, 
past orientation, emotions,
sense of being,

guilt,
high context  communication symbolism

 

Logic,
problem-solving

individualism,
management, order,
future orientation, cognition,

action,

sin,
low context communication

 
            English            Semitic            Russian           Oriental


                                                                                               
FILL IN SPIRAL

                                                                                    (itself a diverse

                                                                                    group)

 

 

 

 

Fig.2 Cultural Influences on Patterns of Thought
Source: Toward Multiculturalism:
Readings in Multicultural Education, pp 207-221.

 

Without knowing their own thinking pattern, they are prone to be casually judgmental on (or invalidate) others¡¦ irrational behaviours and expressions when experiencing culture shock.  They need to understand that it may also be the linear thinking pattern that causes some people in other cultures find their postures and speech intimidating (this could make a research topic on its own).  I will illustrate with a few brief examples that may be used in my seminar.  Paradoxical as it seems, I should admit that my presentation style is linear, though I hope I can expose my audience to various kinds of expression. 

 

Having said all that, I should add that White teachers/school staff is not the only group that needs heighten their cultural sensitivity.  Teachers and staff of visible minority backgrounds also have the responsibility to pay attention to their own biases and make the stretch across to students¡¦ traditions.


Scenarios:

¡P       Case 1: Making mindful, culturally sensitive statements

Have we ever made statements, such as:

¡§All Canadians/Americans are immigrants or descendents of them¡¨,

¡§Ethnic Chinese immigrants are reticent/shy compared to Canadians¡¨.

With regard to statement 1: There are occasions when we make these well-intentioned statements to downplay White dominance and imply equality among Canadians/Americans by acknowledging that we are all immigrants.

Questions: What do these statements have in common?  Do we sometimes commit oppression unconsciously? How could we neutralize influences from the media? 

What really is the Canadian norm?  Also, should we say Israel, or Palestine?

 

¡P       Case 2: Plagiarism

There has been shared concern about ¡§borrowing content from the internet¡¨ in completing written assignments predominantly by Asian students.  Some schools implement policies to address the issue.  The borrowing phenomenon is partly rooted in the past-oriented value of adherence to traditions and the expository mode of learning in many Asian cultures.  In Imperial China, the selection of government officials was based on the capability of the candidates reciting the old books.  The knowledge in the old books was passed on and became that of the students.  In both the past and present, the competition for spaces in higher education and jobs gear students to place more emphasis on exam results rather than process in learning.  Added to the challenge is the need to introduce the concept of ¡§original ideas of an individual¡¨ to a collectivist culture. 

The above causes are only one tip of an iceberg.  However, being able to find out even one more contributing factor is enough to ease our frustration considerably.

Questions: How can we effectively introduce the concept of intellectual property, initiate changes in school policies while respecting the worldviews of other cultures?  How could these be done without violating an institution¡¦s core principles and ethical standards?

 

¡P       Case 3: Prior knowledge

When I reviewed the concept of simple and compound interest to my Math 11 group, a student newly arrived from Oman said that the idea of bank interest was alien to her.  We both take for granted what we grow up with.  She could not respond to my puzzlement why bank interest does not exist in the Muslim world.  An Iranian colleague explained that Muslims are taught to earn money through hard work, not by means of investment.  This incident opened my eyes to many possibilities in the world. 

Questions: Given that we should try not to make casual assumptions on people¡¦s prior knowledge in planning our activities, how should we communicate and perhaps turn this situation into a teachable moment?

 

¡P       Case 4: Dating/Sex Education

The ban on dating is a written rule in Mainland Chinese high schools.  I happened to come across a female student¡¦s written assignment for Social Studies, indicating that she ¡§wished to have the freedom to court (males)¡¨.  I was in a strange mood that day.  To fulfill my curiosity, I asked, ¡§Imagine one day you become a mother, would you allow your son or daughter to have the same amount of freedom to date¡¨?  Without hesitation, she shook her head.  She could not give any reasons when asked.  I hope I could have tried with some more students.  This exercise came spontaneously but at the end I found it valuable in the way it questioned one¡¦s inner values and in turn helped them understand their traditional Chinese parents and teachers.

We should also note that parents of East Indian heritage are relatively authoritative in their children¡¦s relationships.  Arranged marriages are not uncommon.

Questions: How could we take caution to communicate our own beliefs without imposing them, respecting the parents?  Any creative ways to handle the above situation?

 

¡P       Case 5: Minorities¡¦ interpretation of ¡§mainstream¡¨ concepts

            I remembered times when my White colleagues were exhausted by the endless teasing at lunch by several Chinese office staff in their 20s¡Xbecause they believed that if White people have a strong sense of humour they should always be able to take jokes!

            Another case in point is that some parents see that granting freedom to children in Western culture means spoiling.  Not only may this affect their childrearing practices (as some of them may try out ¡§mainstream¡¨ ways to help their children succeed), but it may also affect their perception on the ¡§mainstream¡¨ education system.   

            Question: How should we make clarifications when there is seemed to be a misinterpretation of ¡§mainstream¡¨ concepts? 

 

¡P       Case 6: Writing styles and Thinking pattern

I asked a group of Chinese nationals to write an observation for a Physics experiment.  I emphasized my expectation that observations should be written in a precise and concise manner, saying ¡§less words and to-the-point¡¨ repeatedly.  The assignments turned out ¡§not satisfactory¡¨.  Before I returned them, I read out a report from a student who was up to my standard.  I stressed that this was what we called ¡§good reports¡¨, ignoring the fact that many non-Western cultures express in a relatively ephemeral, subtle manner.  I, unconsciously, positioned myself on the dominant point of reference, invalidating other ways of expression. 

Similar differences were noticed by TAs who marked college essays written by Persian students.  Related to non-linear thinking pattern is the use of non-verbal cues to avoid confrontation.  Being able to read non-verbal cues is seen as a wisdom.

Question: This is not to say that we should not introduce foreign ways of writing to students. Cultures are constantly changing at both the giving and receiving ends. How can we communicate so that we can deliver new methods to a different culture while acknowledging diversity?

 

¡P       Case 7: Independence

A parent told a teacher her worries about her daughter who, at her own will, lived on her own and made her living by teaching piano.  The parent was not convinced by the teacher¡¦s assurance that the student will succeed as an independent learning in college.  Like many traditional Asian parents who pave the paths for their children, the mother expected her to get good marks in high school then proceed to university.  Knowing that she had only 70% for Calculus, the mother had her doubts.  Mother and daughter both have responsibility towards each other.

Question: If you were the teacher, how would you bridge the gap between contrasting values?

 

¡P       Case 8: Afternoon Nap

Some agrarian cultures have a more frequent work/rest cycle.  A one-hour nap in the afternoon is a routine in schools in Taiwan.  Some people are frustrated by those who practice ¡§alternative¡¨ ways.

Question: ¡§Is the 7-day week universal¡¨?

 

¡P       Case 9: Hard work

The school I taught in China provides student housing.  A student told me that there were no washing machines and they were supposed to hand-wash their laundry.  She said that students once made a request to add washing machines but the owner of the school replied that students should learn how to work hard and not think about comfort.  (To maintain our focus on cultural sensitivity, we assume that no financial considerations are involved). 

A Culture Piece: It is true in Chinese culture that living through Spartan conditions and hardships is viewed as a valuable training.  Ironically, under the one-child policy, parents today neglect this aspect of upbringing. 

As a teacher, I could have made use of the traditional values in guiding the students.  Rather than simply seeing the washing machines as amenities, we can help them to recognize that having washing machines in the dormitory is more than getting comfort.  Students do not escape duties such as stocking washing powder, maintenance and scheduling of machine use.  Students can take those duties as an opportunity to gain management skills. 

A cultural twist of the issue, if not successful in convincing the owner to reconsider his decisions, can at least educate students the concept of management  while respecting the traditional value of perseverance.

 

Still there are many other topics worthy of discussion in terms of enhancing intercultural communication:

¡P       the need to establish trust and bonding in some cultures as a prerequisite to communication

¡P       differences in tolerance level in terms of physical contact, comfort, convenience and privacy.

¡P       different definitions of happiness 

 

There are pragmatic factors to consider in developing and promoting new ways of thinking.  Given today¡¦s teachers have so many items to invest, for example, are they willing to invest in such software?  Nevertheless, in retrospect, I hope I could have had this sort of training prior to entering the profession.  A multicultural education policy should be complemented by appropriate cross-cultural training and channels for discussions for teachers.

Thank you for your attention.

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