I’d like to recall and expand on something I posted on Facebook on 9/4/16.
I’ve been privileged over the years to do a fair amount of international travel. I’ve taught in India, China, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, Mexico, and in 3 of the 4 major regions of Africa (East, West, and Southern). One of the keys to effective teaching anywhere on the planet is to understand something about the culture of your students; it affects how they think and thus how they learn.
Teaching in China was particularly educational for me. Because the Chinese language (I’m thinking specifically of Mandarin, in which I’ve had most of my experience) has to be memorized—you can’t know how to pronounce or define a character just by looking at it—much of Chinese education is based on memorization as well. The teacher lectures, the students take copious notes and memorize them, and nobody asks any questions. (I’m stereotyping just a bit.) Teachers are highly respected, and they must not be challenged. If a teacher asks a student a question, the assumption is that he thinks the student is not paying attention and wants to shame him.
You can imagine how a highly interactive, collaborative, “discovery” learning experience would be perceived in that culture.
In Africa, the British educational tradition, in which I’ve worked almost exclusively there, has a similar approach—stand and recite.
Now, it’s really important for the teacher to be aware of and accommodate those features if he’s going to keep the door of communication open with his students.
Which brings us to the main obstacle I experienced—being an American.
Americans are separated from the rest of the world by two large oceans. That means they don’t get overseas much.
Yes, it’s a lot easier these days than it used to be, but it’s still pretty expensive, and we don’t pop over to France as easily as Germans can and do. (My trips were paid for primarily by donations.) A great many Americans have never been outside their own country. (Some Americans have never been outside Brooklyn. 🙂 )
That fact has consequences. Most Americans have direct acquaintance with only American cultural standards and are fluent only in English. And that has led many Americans into a sort of cultural arrogance born, ironically, of ignorance. They just don’t know that in China, you’d better not eat everything on your plate, and that in Muslim-influenced countries, you’d better not give or receive anything with your left hand. It’s common overseas for Americans to be stereotyped as loud, obnoxious, inconsiderate, impatient, and arrogant—and the stereotypes are based in actual examples and experiences. The phrase “the ugly American” didn’t arise out of nowhere.
“You don’t speak English?! What are you, stupid?! Can you get me somebody who can actually help me?!”—to which the most logical response, I suppose, should be, “You don’t speak the local language? What are you, stupid?”
Unlike Americans, isolated between their oceanic buffers, most of the rest of the world lives close to, and even in the midst of, multiple diverse cultures with which they routinely interact and in which they routinely operate. Speaking multiple languages fluently is the rule rather than the exception; many of my African friends speak 4 to 8 languages and think that’s nothing unusual. Many of my American friends would be astonished at how much cultural diversity there is across the African continent (don’t even get me started on “the African jungle”)—or even within the one small country of Ghana, which has well over 50 tribal languages and whose Muslim Upper West Region is far more distinct from the largely “Christian” Greater Accra District in the South than the American South is from the West Coast or New England.
When you operate in a culturally diverse area, you accrue a lot of advantages—
- Greater cultural understanding
- Greater ability to read the people you interact with
- Openness to better ways of doing things
- Humility—sometimes 🙂
I may sound as though I’m being pretty hard on Americans. That’s not how I think at all. First, I am an American, and I love my mother country, flaws and all. Second, I recognize that my country’s geographical isolation is a function of topography, which itself is a result of divine providence, for which I have a profound respect and admiration. Providence has been kind to the US in inestimable ways.
And third, I think America has more cultural diversity than we often realize, from which we all benefit.
More on that next time.