Monday, June 18, 2007

Moments of Cross-cultural Learning

A few years back, on a glorious sunny morning, I picked up breakfast and headed over to the university. Since it was such a beautiful day, I sat down on the wall in front of the Humanities Building and ate, waving at the students as they passed by on their way to morning class. A totally satisfying way to begin the day....

The next day I found out that I had violated an unwritten rule. A teacher drew me aside. "Michael," she said in a low voice, "you made us really uncomfortable yesterday."
"What? How?"
"Sitting outside and eating like that. That was really strange."
"What? Why?"
"It just wasn't right."
Apparently there is a rule that teachers must never be seen to eat outside of their offices and designated eating areas, which I had violated right there in front of everyone. It reminded me of the time I deeply offended the students at my school in Kenya by putting up a picture of my grandfather dancing at a wedding with my sister, physical contact between the sexes in the same family being verboten. They made me take it down.

A similar incident occurred last week when I was at the university where I am a student. Drowsy after a hard morning of studying, I went out into a lounge area formed by a huge space in the hallway, and saw a couch. Going over to it, I discovered to my delight that it was nice and firm, plenty of back support, with a high armrest that made a perfect pillow. It was just begging me to take a nap. So without further ado I kicked off my shoes and stretched out.

Apparently, that too was wrong. The next day I met the Chairman of the Department, who took me aside and begged me never to do that again. I guess sleeping in a public area with one's head on the table is OK, but sleeping on a couch that no one ever uses is totally wrong. Why, I have no idea.....

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

In Taiwan, it takes a high figure, say a person who is of Taiwanese origin and highly achieved oversea, to openly do the same and say it is OK do that to change these "strange things."

v said...

in kenya the presumption seems to be that any physical contact between the sexes (or is hugging ok?) will lead to sexual feeling, even if between family members. We know that's wrong, but the Kenyans can't stretch their mind to consider that possibility. In Taiwan your eating outside maybe was making you look like a student, and so reducing your authority in the eyes of your students. The presumption being that you can never teach effectively if you don't have an authoritarian 'i'm the superior you're the superior' air about you. The Taiwan person asking you not to eat outside again could not stretch his mind to include the possibility that learning can take place in a setting where the teacher does not have to appear to occupy a unassailable position of authority above all others. During 6/4 the gov't could not stretch it mind around the possibility that the student protest could've played itself out out without it (the gov't) appearing weak and ineffectual. To appear strong it had to crush the beijingers protecting the students. So what leads to so much tragedy is a failure of imagination- a very limited view of what humans are capable of, both good and bad.

Chihwei Tsao said...

i would take a nap on the couch if no one would see me. i would feel embarassed if lots of people see my sleeping on a couch in public, i think it's just a cultural thing. maybe it's better if i fall asleep more reservedly...

jc said...

about sleeping on the couch.

here's my guess. pls take no offense.

maybe it never occured to you that the couch is meant to be shared by at least two persons (or more)? If you take up the whole space in a public couch, and leave no room for others, I would say that's selfish.

also, taking shoes off in public is considered rude.

Michael Turton said...

That's interesting. But no one ever uses the couch. I guess potential use is enough. But the way the Chairman asked me suggested I had violated some taboo, not displayed selfishness. Maybe it was the shoe thing.

Micheel