At home among strangers and a stranger among my own

Roman Lietz, my lecturer at the Summer Academy on Intercultural Experience established that in order to develop intercultural competency, one must have the ability to talk to each other and to make the invisible visible. Within a conducive university space and with 57 participants from 21 countries, I was finally able to make sense of why I felt at home among strangers and became a stranger among my own.

The danger of a single story
I still remember vividly 15 years ago, I was corrected by a 15 year old school mate about who I was. ‘Esther, you are a Malaysian. You are a Malaysian of Chinese ethnicity. You are not Chinese (from China).’ You see, living in multi-racial Malaysia, I had always described my ethnicity ‘I am Chinese’ to my fellow Malaysians. I then realised that ‘labels’ of who I am may not always determine who I am.

As a ‘Malaysian of Chinese ethnicity’, I did not seem to fit the mould of the typical Malaysian Chinese. For when I speak, think and even act, it was different from the masses of the ‘typical’ Malaysian Chinese. Perhaps it was due to the stereotype of not being able to speak in Mandarin, or that I am taller and physically bigger than the average Malaysian Chinese girl, or was more individualistic than a collectivist.

The problem was that when the term ‘culture’ is mentioned, many of us would associate it to national cultures i.e. Malaysians, Germans etc. I learnt that even within every national culture, there may be a dominant culture as well as sub-cultures. These sub-cultures may be values, attitudes and behaviours that are not necessarily the same to the dominant culture. What a relief (for me!) to finally understand that there can be differences within a single cultural group e.g. being individualistic in a dominantly collectivist society.

As Chimamanda Adichie had warned in her TED talk, if we hear only a single story about a person or country over and over again, that is what they become. So beware the danger of a single story, as it shows people as one thing and one thing only! This may not always be the case, at least not for me!

At home among strangers
I had an amazing learning experience in the company of participants from different countries: Brazil, Bolivia, China, France, Germany, Jordan, Libya, Kenya, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen. We all got along well and immersed ourselves in intense exchanges and discussions.
I had high respect for the other participants as they were mature beyond their ages, intelligent, genuine, did not take things for granted and ever so willing to learn from each other. As in the start of this article, intercultural competency is about communicating with others while making effort to ensure minimal distortion i.e. conversation message understood as intended whether expressed verbally or non-verbally. This is the ability to meta-communicate, which means not only understanding what was being said, but what was being conveyed.

All the participants had come together in the same classroom to acquire intercultural competency. Yet, in my view they were already walking proof of interculturally competent people. They were willing and open to learning, tolerant to ambiguity, had eloquent communicative skills, sensitive and respectful of each other’s differences and similarities without being judgemental.

I learnt that it is important for us not to make assumptions and that whenever in doubt, we should always ask. It is okay to be curious but it is important to be sensitive and respectful. I remember an instance when a male European participant had wanted to greet a female Muslim participant by shaking hands. The immediate response from the female participant was to reject the handshake, but very quickly explained that ‘her culture and religion did not allow this gesture’. This was a clear example of how understanding and awareness of other cultures (and religion) can demand better respect for each other.

When the third culture emerges
Despite coming from different cultural backgrounds, all the participants in my track connected very well. We developed a very special bond and an extremely tight-knit relationship. Unconsciously, we had seamlessly integrated and while we were all busy attempting to adapt to everyone else, we had established a robust ‘third culture’. A culture created by all the participants in the classroom and not just a hybrid of the different cultures put together.

Clearly, this third culture is a construction of a mutually beneficial interactive environment. All of us were able to establish and maintain our relationships, communicate with minimal distortion and collaborate to accomplish something of mutual interest. 

I did not notice the emergence of the third culture until myself and a few others broke away from the original group to attend a separate training in week 2. Immediately, the effects of the missing members (like myself) in the original group were felt both by me and the participants in the original group. Somehow, the classroom ‘did not feel the same anymore’.

Interestingly, I was adamant about imposing this ‘third culture’ on my newly formed group of the separate training such as our established hand gestures to indicate our  ‘agreement’ or ‘disagreement’. I had wanted to protect and preserve this culture I had created with the original group. At the same time, diplomatically trying to welcome new aspects from the new group of new trainers and participants. Perhaps, a creation of a ‘fourth’ culture?

All in all, the two weeks summer academy was a praiseworthy platform that allowed me to put into practice the theories learnt. I was challenged with the different learning methodologies such as experiential learning and real-life case studies, which I had not been accustomed to but ended up enjoying thoroughly. The lecturer and trainers really provided a positive and safe environment, which encouraged me to leave my comfort zone. Though tears welled up in our eyes as we went our separate ways, I light up thinking of the German saying ‘you always meet twice’.

This article was contributed by our fellow AFSer, Esther Teh. Esther went on an exchange to Osaka, Japan in 2000/01 with AFS and has since volunteered in different capacities with AFS Malaysia. Esther attended the 6th Summer Academy (20 to 31 July, 2015) on Intercultural Experience organised by InterCultur gGmbH (subsidiary of AFS Germany) and Karlshochschule International University. Esther attended the Intercultural Competence track on ‘Acquisition of Intercultural Competence’ in Week 1 and AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program’s International Qualified Trainer Workshop in Week 2. The two-week stint in Karlsruhe, Germany was made possible by Yayasan AFS Antarabudaya Malaysia.  Apart from her love of culture, Esther has a passion for sustainability. In her professional capacity as a sustainability consultant, Esther works with companies on running a socially responsible business.

Photo credit: Joyce Lim and Esther Teh

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