Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Logical Westerners

One of the fascinating things about doing a PHD here is the experence of the cross-cultural aspects of education from the bottom side of the system. Some, of course, are drearily familiar to me from many years as a university teacher here. Some I won't talk about for a while. Others make every day a new discovery....

In my human resources management course on Thursday, the class activity was a type of personnel evaluation. Anyone who has ever done the US Foreign Service exam and gotten past the written test will be familiar with it: the candidates are brought in and given a task to accomplish as a group. A group of evaluators then evaluates the candidate interactions as they go about seeking a consensus. My own experiences with that system have been entirely negative -- on my second test the Foreign Service scoring system came back with a scorecard I have always treasured -- one which awarded me the lowest score in the cross-cultural category, and the highest in the category that included personal appearance and dress. Perhaps one of the evaluators spotted my inner Louis Vuitton.....

Anyway, I was assigned to be one of the evaluators of a group of five students, three females, two males, all twenty years younger than me, all locals. Their task was to arrive at a consensus on Taiwan's three most pressing problems, which yours truly already knows to be (1) not enough parmesan cheese; (2) no quality whole wheat flour; and, (3) a distressing lack of South Indian food.

We evaluators, numbering six, were taken out into the hallway and given our assignments. The teacher appointed me to evaluate the students' logical capabilities -- "because westerners are better at logic." The interesting question is not whether that is true, but what it signals about the attitudes of locals toward logic and westerners. How does such stereotyping denigrate logic, westerners, or both? Into what category had I been summarily pigeonholed? Doing my best deer-in-the-headlight imitation, I accepted the assignment. We were supposed to come back with feedback on each individual in front of the whole class, and there was simply no way I felt comfortable doing that as an American evaluating Taiwanese, and as a new student in a class where everyone had already established warm relationships, especially set up in that impossible way. Such cross-cultural evaluation has the potential to all-too-quickly degenerate to cultural critique, leading to bad feelings and/or lengthy and tiresome explanations. I've encountered this problem of clashing performance expectations among people from different cultures before, and never felt comfortable with it. Of course, I had to do the evaluations in Chinese, too.

We all went back in and the students sat down and began to talk. Taiwan's main problems, it soon emerged, were reform of the educational system, which is ruining the nation's young -- they won't buckle down and work, Taiwan's politics, which were disorderly and chaotic, and the media, which was out of control. The economy was also mentioned. Veteran Taiwan watchers will instantly recognize the underlying issue -- the age-old one in Chinese society, which expresses itself as "if only there was more order, ____ would be perfect." Since the answer to all social questions is "more order" -- more control-- essentially the search for order is a struggle for control -- which is why there is never any order. The clash here was my expectation as an American, with a cultural preference for "objective" data and prize numbers, which none of the students used in their assertions about the state of Taiwan. I did point out that each side was talking out of its cultural preference, and flat-out refused to discuss the performance of individuals.

I'm still handling the lengthy explanations. *sigh*


Prince Roy said...

I hear you about the 'distressing lack of South Indian food' and it's a point I've noted a few times since moving here.

Michael Turton said...

LOL. I was thinking about you when I wrote that.


Anonymous said...

30 years ago, when I arrived here I found myself with a roommate whose mother was Taiwanese and father was from the mainland. He had become so acclimated that he nearly forgot Mandarin, and only spoke in Taiwanese. He died at a young age, as a construction worker, heart attack at night. He never woke up one morning.

When disputes came up about living space I could go through A, B, and C, he would say yes,yes, yes, to the steps, but at the conclusion of the final step he would tell me I was crazy with logic. End of discussion, and beginning of warfare.

I am not so sure in my own mind what the mindset is here now, but I suspect from personal experience that somethings have not changed tremendously.

What I do get is a sense of is that people fear that things are not as they should be, and a fear for the comforts of life we all want.

Wow, I guess what I am really saying is that people here want a strong man who knows absolutely what is right, never does wrong, and somehow still is democratic.

Who among the leaders here can fill that bill?

The crisis is here now that the mainlanders are losing their savior, and the locals are losing their savior.

Logic? Not for here, and not for the US citizens either who want a faultless leader.

Well, we are blessed in living in interesting times.

There is always hope, and we all live on that.