Intercultural understanding is such a huge part of language learning and was of course a major part of my teaching and learning experience in China.
I was discussing with colleagues about a forthcoming event in Scotland and they were going for the real cultural stereotypes and cited a Chinese pagoda would be great. So I asked if they wanted a kilted whiskey drinking Scotsman or a wee blackhouse rather than a pagoda?
I appreciate that sometimes we need to embrace cultural stereotypes in order to then break that down and learn but moving to China was a very steep learning curve in intercultural understanding.
Before heading to China I did training with VSO and part of that was about customs and culture. Looking back, it has seriously impacted on how I teach intercultural understanding.
1. Don’t show the soles of your feet to anyone
2. Don’t wave, point or stab your food with chopsticks
3.Always accept gifts with both hands
4. Don’t be late.
So my habit of showing my feet off on a regular basis needed tamed. Not. I mean really? Did we read that out of the same book that people read about all British men holding the telegraph, an umbrella and wearing a bowler hat? Getting shoes for a size 7 scottish lady was not the easiest in the town but slightly easier when we went on the monthly dash to the city for tonic water.
I wasn’t in the habit of waving cutlery so the chopsticks waving was not going to be an issue but learning how to dissect food with chopsticks and not have it flying was a skill indeed to learn. The etiquette at the dinner table was really important and once they had got over I was vegetarian it was just fine. I soon became wise to the sneaking out to pay custom so as not to lose face, I also learned not to embarrass people by insisting I paid my share – there was no way I was going to let anyone think we scots had deep pockets and short arms! but the concept of losing face was such a big one that I made sure I was much more aware of the social etiquette.
Accepting gifts with two hands was very important but I also clocked that in every day gestures it was very much expected from taking in assignments to handing over money when paying.
Late. Well I struggled big time with that one. When I came home from living in Spain I used to do well to get there on the right day never mind on time. I soon realised that meeting at 7 was actually meeting at 6.30……
There were lots of other wee intricacies that made me giggle and have a hissy fit as well. The attempts to get me to compromise on exam marks, or encouragement not to challenge when I saw some seriously questionable practice left me frustrated but the inner workings of the families I got to know was a joy and the privilege to travel and visit my students and observe and take part in spring festival was simply wonderful. Even the chickens feet in my bowl. Try explaining that one to someone’s mammy that you can’t eat it as you are vegetarian.
Intercultural understanding was so important during my time and I have to say the training was nowhere near adequate and in a way I had to make the mistakes and get the subtle hints.
It shaped my own teaching immensely and really influenced my ideas on cultural learning at the foundation of language learning.
I mean I could tell you about toilet etiquette, the time I thought there was a party on the go and it was a wake ( yes I was for joining in) or my comedy words whilst doing karaoke……..