Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lectures, Research, and Cultural Difference

I should probably post about some of the things I do at work in more detail. I'll post later this week about my translation and industrial-research work, but for now, I'll talk about my cultural-exchange stuff.

During the six weeks I was interning in New York, I was responsible for surveying academic literature on cross-cultural psychology, particularly on Asian/American contrasts, in recent years. Some of this literature was in response to a 2003 book, The Geography of Thought. My task played into the school's efforts to further develop its international curriculum and to improve communication between the mostly Western faculty and mostly Mainland Chinese students.

Anyway, I created this enormous matrix (interactive, on bubbl.us), and another one, detailing and creating a taxonomy of the results of cross cultural studies:
There's a method to the madness. Most of it is straight citations.
As a result, here in Shenzhen, my bosses asked me to prepare a lecture for our newbies on American campus and city life. I was to talk about differences in campus culture, the expectations and assumptions of American professor, and survival information for living in the USA.

I gave that talk today.

It was an interesting, edifying experience. The students were attentive, but didn't have too many questions. Some of them were a bit tired - it's the day after some exams - but that was to be expected, alas. What I found more of an experience was explaining my normality. How do I explain the sum of what my normalcy is like? How do I guide someone eight thousand miles away through the methods and assumptions with which I am intimately familiar?

Learning another culture is one challenge, but explaining your own is an even more challenging one. Trying to distill the experience of American campus life - or American city life, for that matter - is truly a mind-boggling experience. Add to that the need to address certain assumptions widespread in China - for example, the assumption that black people cause all crime in the US -, and the mix-and-match knowledge of America gained from TV and reading, and it becomes quite an adventure. Furthermore, the students are graduate students - all older than me - so I was a little intimidated.

The students seemed to find my presentation interesting. There was a lot of visible surprise when they learned, for example, that many American students don't live in dorms, or work part-time jobs for significant periods of time. In China, your student occupation (unless you're a PhD student) during the year is "student," and you live in dorms. Some were pretty relieved when I addressed the thorny issue of things such as "that pro-Tibet protester who repeatedly harangues you"; some probably heard stories of discomfort from friends who had gone to the States and had uncomfortable encounters of the political kind. Discomfort is problematic, regardless of my own opinions.

Giving a presentation in a different culture is also a good experience - it's a fantastic way to understand the linguistic norms and expectations of a society. In China, silence is understanding - whereas here, it's confusion. In China, a certain formality is expected in presentations, but so is a certain humanity. One must be humble, but respectful. It is an exercise that is certainly a test for someone used to the innately Western, Model UN, bombastic style.

It was a good experience, and the cross-cultural aspect of my internship have been quite fascinating. If I take one thing from this internship, it will be the new knowledge on the way people think across different cultural boundaries.


  1. How interesting!
    The thing is, though, that it feels to me like the University of Chicago is a lot different from other universities, so your personal "normal" may not actually be an accurate representation of most American colles. How did you take this into account with your presentation?

  2. I talked a bit with students at several other universities - OSU, Berkeley, Tufts. Also, I talked with the American faculty. This university is a lot like UChicago in personality though.