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Issue 85. Washing Dishes November 14, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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BLUE_BOOKI’ve been struck in recent months by the ideas of intentionality and mindfulness as they relate to intercultural learning. My interest in this concept has come from several paths, but the most salient is the research I had been doing on the long-term outcomes of a high school study abroad experience. (See the “researchers” page on bettinahansel.com for links to download these studies.) What I learned is that there are many positive and important outcomes from this experience, but the one I was most interested in was the development of intercultural sensitivity. The full immersion in another culture, including living with a host family for almost a year should logically make a person more aware of and sensitive to cultural differences, and of course it does, but often only to a limited extent. Looking at these results, my initial thought was that the educational materials and orientation sessions needed to be strengthened, and that the families and volunteers closest to the students needed more training to help students increase their awareness. The more I studied and reflected on these issues, however, the more I realized that the spark to make this work really needed to come from the student’s intention and attention. It may be obvious that a student who is not paying attention will miss out on things. But intention may be even more important because it is about the focus of the experience. If students tend to be self-absorbed, they will have a limited attention span, and a limited intention span as well.

There is much to be said about the benefit of learning from experience, yet most of our daily experiences don’t strike us as particularly educational because we aren’t intending to learn anything from them. Going to live for a while in another culture doesn’t always change this. I have washed dishes in Paris in much the same way that I wash them in New York, with only the slightly confusing C & F (for chaude and froide) marking the faucets instead of the H & C (for hot and cold). I don’t expect to learn something new by washing dishes. Even where there are more noticeable differences — such as the gritty scrubbing powder my friend in India rubbed, dry, on her dishes to clean them — it is often very easy to simply observe the difference and think nothing more about it. 

There may be as much to learn about Indian reality and culture from the dishwashing practices as there is from a guided tour of the Taj Mahal, but think of the difference in mind set with these two experiences. At the Taj, we are keenly aware that this is one of the most magnificent and important cultural sites in the world and so we hire a guide to explain it to us. We listen intently to the history, the dimensions, the meaning of the symbols. We take photos.  Dishwashing is a chore that must be done, but finished as quickly as possible. Life is elsewhere, not in the kitchen sink. And yet in every household in India, every day, someone is washing dishes, with implications for health, sanitation and the water supply. That someone is usually a servant or a woman, though this could be changing.  On a blog declaring itself to be “A Platform for Indian Homemakers,” I found this protest regarding an advertisement for VIM, makers of dish scouring powder, bars and liquid.

beneez | January 9th, 2009 at 11:51 am


The advt showing a man who washes vessels at home is in bad taste in a country like India.

Kudos to the marketing team who would like to take the company downhill.

Western culture or American culture does not fit in here. The economy style of America would have taught us enough and more lessons I believe. Hope we are intelligent enough not to copy their culture and ruin our country.

Best wishes


I am reminded why I love Indian editorials and letters to the editor with this gently screaming social commentary on gender roles, dishwashing, and the cultural and economic influence of the USA that is felt in India. For those who meet the culture with a wide angle lens, there is plenty to learn through every experience and encounter.

Even if students are curious about everything, they may still be overwhelmed by so many different cultural differences. The mental structures they have carried in their head for a number of years may not be well equipped to accomodate new categories of information, and it’s much easier to force the new information into the exisiting mental structure than to step out into the world without that scaffolding. Bringing the student’s awareness to that scaffolding makes it easier to trust the parts that will still hold you up and the places where you can stretch out and add new elements to your understanding.


Issue 84. Over-Prepared and Hyper-Aware October 28, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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GREEN_BOOKLast week my husband and I spent a few days camping in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, a surprisingly large and remote area in the midst of the great urban corridor between Boston and Washington. We planned this trip for several weeks, making shopping lists for meals we could cook on the propane stove, food that could be frozen solid and used as it thawed, and food that didn’t require refrigeration. We bought a tent, camping chairs, rope, and tarps. My husband sharpened several pocket knives to take along and made a small cooking table out of plywood. We bought a camping stove, a propane heater and a lantern. We found books on the Pine Barrens, researched the locations and reserved our spot. We took the car to the garage to have the tires balanced for the trips over dirt roads we knew we’d face. We checked the weather forecast — we were lucky! — and downloaded maps of the area from the internet. We brought along two GPS devices: one for the car, one for hiking. We tested the inflatable mattress, found the heavy blankets and quilts, the long underwear and the many layers of clothes we’d need. We bought a solar shower since the camp site had only a pump and an outhouse. We brought books, music, our recorders, and a solar-powered emergency radio. I made up a first aid kit. All of this barely fit in the car. I had to leave behind the yoga mat at the last minute.

Many times, exchange students or anyone else planning a trip to a new and different place goes through this kind of planning process and everyone tends to agree that it is important to prepare well before departure on such an experience. But we can sometimes over-prepare, especially when we are going to a very different place. In fact we over anticipated what we’d need to bring, and it was a burden. A good part of each activity involved searching through various boxes and bags and small corners of the car trying to find something we wanted to use, while much of what we brought wasn’t needed.

Part of our over-preparation also involved creating fantasies about what our experience would be like. We supposed we would spend our evenings after dinner sitting on the camping chairs huddled near the heater and lantern, reading. As it was, when I did open a book, it was more because I had planned to do this than because I truly wanted to read. Watching the campfire was much more appealing. 

And of course we brought along our cultural baggage as well, which included expectations about camping behavior and the value of being quietly immersed in the woods, watching birds, looking for deer and other animals and generally communing with nature. Part of my baggage held the assumption that people are foreigners in this environment and must behave carefully lest we destroy this place through our carelessness. But another group of campers — about 8-10 men in their mid 20s — seemed to have different assumptions.

We are city people. At home on a weekend night, we’re used to hearing loud parties in houses, rented spaces, and the few night clubs in the area. After the party noise quiets, we often hear the sound of a couple arguing in the street, or the laughter of two people who can’t end their conversation and go home. Occasionally there is trouble — fights or even gunshots — and we are likely to sleep through it. But on our first night camping, the shouted jokes and the increasingly loud conversation of our neighbors along with their oversized bonfire raised my suspicions more than was warranted. Inside our dark tent, I focused intently on the group across the way, trying to decipher what was going on. I asked myself questions such as: How much have they had to drink? What are they doing now? Do they have hunting rifles with them? Will more of them arrive? Will they wonder over this way? Could I call the park ranger on my cell phone (and where had we put that piece of paper with the phone number on it)?

I became hyper aware of the rustling of leaves and pine needles, of each movement in the underbrush and each shift in the light.  I filled in my sensory gaps with my imagination. Was it a person or a deer who walked behind the tent? Is someone shining a flashlight this way, or is it only the movement of clouds uncovering the moon?

We tend to assume our senses are accurate, but research has shown time and again that what we believe that we see, hear, taste, touch or smell can easily be primed by what we expect to experience. See Rachel Herz: The Scent of Desire. Much of what we sense seems to be what we imagine we sense. At the same time, we often ignore or dismiss as ordinary the sounds and sights we see every day, and we don’t seem capable of perceiving most odors once we’ve been around them for a while.

Our imagination is ours, and under our control. We can interpret our sensory experience in different ways when we imagine different meanings to it. I found the party of young men a little threatening until I was able to reimagine it from another perspective. In that other perspective, the forest is commonplace, and part of the public space people have available for their use. In that other perspective, a party out in the forest is safe: people can enjoy themselves freely and then camp overnight rather than trying to drive home.

Issue 79. Structured Time September 13, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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AQUA_BOOKLast week I spoke to some dear friends from Recife, Brazil through an internet video chat: one of the many ways it has now become possible to stay well-connected with friends over long distances. In Recife, the temperature has started to creep up from the barely cooler July and August temperatures of  81 farenheit/27 celsius and so the opening of the summer has been declared and all on the same day, people flocked to the beach as they do every year, even though the previous day was every bit as lovely and warm. It just wasn’t summer yet. Here in New York at 40 degrees north of the equator where the change of seasons is more marked, the temperature is nearly the same but fewer people go to the beach now because the US Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of summer.

According to Wikipedia, there are currently 41 calendars in use around the world, although this includes the fiscal year calendar and ISO weekdate. Each calendar has a variation on a leap year cycle to account for the time it takes for the earth to rotate around the sun, and there are various ways to determine when a new year begins. For example, Rosh Hashana 5770 in the Jewish calendar begins in less than a week. Other calendars begin the year with the vernal equinox. The different cyclical schemes used to correct for the rotation around the sun also mean that in some calendars an entire month is added to make the correction while in others it’s a more frequent additional day.

To return to the Brazilian calendar, which structurally is exactly the same as the US calendar, there are still differences. The names of the days of the week from Monday through Friday translate as 2nd Market Day through 6th Market Day, and all days may be abbreviated by their numbers. You don’t have to be in school to think of the year as having two semesters in Brazil, while in the USA, financial news is given by the quarter year. And while the US week starts typically on Sunday, for which reason the 7th day Adventists consider Saturday to be the 7th day on which God rested, in much of Europe the visual layout of the calendar week starts on Monday and many people think in terms of numbered weeks as much if not more than they do in months. The Iranian week starts on a Saturday and ends on a Friday. Variations of the Zoroastrian calendar include 30 named days in a month.

Even a day is not easily standardized. This article from Scientific American give some of the Western oriented history of our standards of time. It’s worth reading this article just to contemplate the idea even in the higher latitiudes, summer and winter days could both be considered to have 12 hours of sunlight, but that summer hours would then be substantially longer than winter hours. I feel certain that I would live differently than I do if I carried this concept of time, but just knowing that other ways to structure time are possible is liberating.

This liberation may explain why people who have had the experience of living in another culture often feel so profoundly affected by this experience. They have the choice to consider other standards, to know other realities and to understand how life is organized differently someplace else. And even if, as often happens, they return home to embrace more fully the familiar patterns of life there, they know better the value of these patterns they choose to follow.

Before we had to say goodbye and saudades, my friend and I talked about the way time passes. My friend asks me how it is possible that the years pass so quickly when the minutes pass so slowly. It has to do with missing friends and family far away, and about not having so many places that one has to be on a given day. I have been intending to return to Brazil for about 10 years, but each year it doesn’t happen.

But if I can count my hours by the passage of the stars by night or the clouds by day, or by the amount of time it takes me to read a good book or walk to the park and back, then surely there will be time to return to Brazil and to slow the passage of the years and make the minutes fly by.