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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

Hi,

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

Ben.

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.

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Issue 68. Challenging your Conclusions May 25, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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PURPLE_BOOKMy years in school in the USA pushed me to think quickly. From spelling bees to timed essay exams, it was always important to form your thoughts as quickly as possible, to “think on your feet” as we sometimes say. An unforgettable approach came from Sister Helen Marie, my 7th grade English teacher at a Catholic girls school. She used a stack of yellow response cards, each with a name on it and spaces for recording grades. At the beginning of class every day, Sister would shuffle these cards and begin quizing us on our homework, calling on the person whose card appeared on top and grading that response then and there. In spite of the random order, I always had a strange premonition just before I was going to be called. One night I even dreamed of the yellow cards and the next day, my card was on top of the stack and I had to write my outline on the blackboard. Just as it happened in my dream, after I completed writing it on the board, Sister Helen Marie told me it was too long and detailed, and she wrote down a grade.

I can’t deny this training has been exteremely useful in many ways, but it also leads me to quickly form opinions and draw conclusions on the basis of what I already know, or, I might say, on just what I know so far. When this becomes a problem is in the context of studying, working, or just being in another culture. I don’t always notice the most relevant information, or sometimes worse, I do notice it but misinterpret it.

What’s needed at these times is to slow down. While I can’t stop my self from making my quick judgment of the situation, what I can do is to delay announcing it. If pressed, I can state my ideas as tentative; as beginnings of thought, rather than as conclusions. I can include the doubt as part of what I know.

In 1991 and 92 I was doing research in India, conducting in-depth interviews with 49 Indians who had studied abroad in the USA and had returned to India. Most had been back just a few years, and they were mostly younger than I was at the time. I wanted to learn about their re-entry adjustment to India, but before long, I had two or three, then four, then five people whose re-entry experience included the death of a parent either while they were away or shortly after they returned to India. I started to consider how this was affecting my sample and how the loss of a parent would have implications for the re-entry experience.  Both of my parents were still alive then, living a nice retirement life in Florida, both in good health. I thought of the experience of the Indians as I thought of my own experience. How sad for them to lose a parent so young; and how strange that so many had this experience.

It wasn’t until I was back in the US finalizing my report and going over all my interview notes again that I discovered a pattern. Nearly everyone I interviewed talked about how their parents were now getting old and that they were taking on more of the family responsibilities since they returned. I began to realize that there was a transition going on at this stage in their lives. They were becoming the adults in the family, assuming new roles, and with an awareness that their parents would not always be there, and that they would need to look after their parents now. While this probably means that their readjustment is much different from the pattern I knew in the USA, where coming home involved increased independence, it was not inconsistent to assume that some of the aging parents of Indian students would succumb earlier than others.

I realize that I still must challenge my conclusions. I may still have missed something else that would be key to my understanding of the experience of these students. There is always more to learn.

Speaking of Learning . . . I’m leaving tomorrow morning for the NAFSA conference in Los Angeles. Watch for “Eyes on NAFSA” next week with highlights of what I learned.

Issue 65: The Smell of School May 4, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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pink_bookWhile cleaning out some files the other day, I came across an old article by Michael Paige in that strange blue-violet type made by a ditto machine. I realized that part of the educational value of the piece, in addition to whatever Michael had written, was its iconic value as a representation of the culture of education in the baby boomer years. Stacy, my incredibly bright and competent graduate school intern, had never smelt the dittoed quiz passed overhead to her by the student seated in front of her, or walked past the principal’s office where the dittos were being run off for whatever class needed them. It was the smell of school, though the odor has long left the Michael Paige article. I know because I automatically lifted the page to my nose. Nothing. Only then did I start to read the article and appreciated the fact that this ditto had been very neatly typed. There were no obvious remnant scratches that signaled a corrected typo. I felt like a curator from Antiques Roadshow, with an impressive knowledge of some ancient technology.

jaipursmall

Jaipur picnic 1991

Much of our experience of cultures and places is sensory, and the sense of smell is one of the strongest ways we experience a place.  My memories of India include the smokey, spicy smells that I sometimes discover lingering in fabric or clothing made in India. And there are emotional memories that this scent evokes, much stronger than the memories evoked by photos like this one, taken in Jaipur late in 1991. The colorful saris against the beige ground are striking, but if I could smell the burnt edges of the naan bread baking inside those barrels again, I would feel myself taken back to that picnic on the mountain.

When people have trouble adapting to a new country and culture, or have trouble accepting immigrants moving in next door, they often complain most strongly about body odors, cooking odors, or the cologne that they may use.  An American host mother once told me about her dilemma of feeling nauseated at the family dinner table by the smell of the Sri Lankan exchange student’s cologne. She didn’t want to say anything to the boy, but at the same time she was so overcome by the odor that she could hardly eat her dinner. It wasn’t enough for her to know that this was just one of those cultural differences.

As Rachel Herz pointed out in her book, The Scent of Desire

“Our responses to the scents of one another profoundly influence almost all our social interactions and relationships. The feelings that emerge when we catch a whiff of someone else can range from unconditional love to repugnance and prejudice.” (Chapter 6)

So what is a host mother to do when she wants to love a newly arrived exchange student but is repulsed by his cologne? In this case, the host mother managed to communicate her feelings without perhaps wanting to do so, but she seemed less able to interpret the students feelings when he seemingly spontaneously stopped wearing the cologne after a few days.  For her, it seemed that a problem was thankfully and quickly resolved.

Although this happened decades ago, I would not be surprised if the scent of that particular cologne still leaves traces in their minds that would immediately recall for both the host mother and the student the way they each felt in those first days together.