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Encountering Different Cultures

Dilworth Parkinson

Several years ago, my father flew to Japan to visit sister, who was working there at the time. He was taken by my sister and her Japanese roommate to a small town in the north of Japan to visit the roommate’s family. At one point, all the women of the family left to go shopping, leaving my father alone with the aging Japanese father to watch TV. My father spoke good no Japanese, and the Japanese father spoke no English. Both were provided with a plate of grapes next to them on the mat on which there were sitting. My father sat there eating his grapes and trying to figure out what was happening on the TV. He had soon created a small pile of grape seeds on his plate. After a while, he happened to glance over at the elderly gentleman next to him and noticed that there were no seeds on his plate at all, but rather a small pile of grape skins. Although they couldn’t speak to each other, their eyes locked for one terrible moment in which both seemed to recoil and say, “You swallow that, and you spit that out?! Is that normal?!”

Anyone who has had an intense encounter with another culture has certainly had scores of such experiences. We are often unaware that many of the things we do as a matter of course are really governed by rules provided by our culture and that many of these rules are relatively arbitrary. Experiences like this bring us up short, not just because they make us aware of the strangeness of the foreign culture but because they make us see our own culture in a new way.

When we are locked away inside our own culture, it is my easy to come to believe that the way our culture does it is simply the way the world is. We assume unquestioningly that everyone does things this way or sees things this way. For example, we may remain unaware that what tastes good is not a universal human characteristic but varies from culture to culture. Similarly, what is considered art and literature can be very different, even though we might assume that everyone of good taste would see it our way. Islamic art, for example, values highly decorated surfaces, whereas one commonly hears the criticism in Western culture that similar patterns aren’t really art, but something less, such as decoration.

One of the reasons there is a certain romance and adventure in having a close encounter with another culture is that we expect we will find this kind of “strangeness” that will not only help us understand the other culture but will also enlighten our own culture for us and help us recontextualize it or see it in a new way. Having directed a number of study abroad programs, I can confirm that almost all students begin their encounter in a foreign land with a great deal of excitement and romance. They are imbued with the idea that they are going to become bridges of understanding between different peoples and cultures and contribute in this way to world peace and mutual harmony

Unfortunately, it does not take long for reality to hit them in the face. Encountering a foreign culture can be interesting, but it also turns out to be annoying and difficult. Not all cultural differences are as “cute” as spitting out the skins instead of the seeds. One of my female students came to me in a state of semi-shock after her male Jordanian teacher had carefully explained to her why women need to wear extremely modest Islamic clothing. “It’s like going to a barbecue,” he said, “walking by the grills and smelling all that wonderful meat and then having to turn it down because you are a vegetarian.” “Did he just compare me to a slab of meat?” she exclaimed.

Another student was invited by a family to dinner and, wanting to be a proper guest, made a tray of brownies and brought it. He was surprised that the family did not offer the brownies for dessert or after, and he ended up just taking them back home with him. Only later did he discover that his gift had been considered rude, since it is rude to imply with a gift that your host does not have enough food to serve you. It is the custom not to make a fuss over gifts but to simply lay them aside until the guest has gone. He also discovered later that by taking the brownies back home with him—taking back the gift—he had insulted them a second time, and even more grievously. All of a sudden, it seemed to this student that the simple act of accepting social invitations politely had become a minefield and, no matter what he did, he was bound to offend.

Generosity is a highly valued trait among Jordanians, and if you do get invited to dinner, there will be far more food than can possibly be consumed, and it will be pushed upon you mercilessly until you are literally ill. It is not easy to learn to eat just the amount you want and no more without offending your hosts. On the other hand, Arabs are known to privately make fun of American hosts for their food stinginess. They count the steaks, they say, referring to our practice of preparing individual plates for each guest instead of simply putting a large pile of steaks and other food in the middle of the table so that the guest can have as much as he or she wants.

In contrast, egalitarian behavior is a highly valued trait among Americans, and we pride ourselves on treating everyone the same, no matter what their economic status or level of education. It can come as a shock to our students that this trait is not universally valued, but is rather culturally determined. The apartment buildings in middle-class neighborhoods in Amman where our students live have building guards or concierges who typically have little education and are considered to be a type of servant in the local culture. Our students often try to befriend these men, but in the process they often simply confuse them, since the guards can’t figure out why they are doing it and have no category for such behavior. They don’t have a way of inhabiting the servant role and the friend role at the same time.

One of our students threw a barbecue party one weekend, inviting several Jordanian friends from the university. He also invited the building guard, whom he considered a friend. The next time we went to the institute where the stu- dents were studying, the secretary pulled me aside and told me that the guard had been highly offended and didn’t know how to react. She explained that the guard would feel uncomfortable mingling with the middle- class Jordanian friends my student had invited and that even worse, all the guests were to bring their own meat. And although I spent some time talking with the student, I’m not sure he ever really understood what the problem was. He was just trying to be nice and thought he was being treated like a jerk.

As we see, close encounters of this kind can be both exciting and disturbing, highly educational but also highly problematic. It would be wonderful if we could send all of our students off to a foreign country and count on them coming back more open-minded, more tolerant, having become more aware of the unstated rules underlying some of their own cultural behavior. Sometimes, this happens. But recent research on study abroad programs indicates that for no small percentage of students, the experience is a net negative. They come back less tolerant, less open-minded, and more certain that foreigners are just weird. Instead of opening up to the foreign experience and letting it change them, they close off and protect themselves from it, to devastating effect.

This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “culture shock.” When bombarded with incomprehensible behavior, we have a natural tendency to retreat into our- selves and see the other as a threat. We explain away the strange behavior as stupid or venal and don’t draw the conclusions about our own culture that are warranted. Interestingly, when students experience culture shock, they make little or no progress with the language they are studying, and some actually go backwards. I believe this is an important point. Encounters with foreigners have the potential of being highly educational, but when students close themselves off into a kind of fortress mentality, the educational potential basically drains away. Students who can work through this phase quickly are the ones who benefit most from the study abroad experience; they acquire real, long-lasting life skills related to the tangible benefits of withholding judgment, not jumping to conclusions about other people’s motivations, being tolerant of differences, simply loving the people they are dealing with even when it is hard, and being willing to be changed by their encounters with them. These life skills build habits of mind and heart that prepare students to face life’s challenges. It takes humility to really learn about others and about yourself, and you must remember that every close encounter with a strange culture can lead to as much insight about your own culture as it does about the other.

One of my study abroad students a few years ago became extremely fluent in the language, far above the level of the other students. I decided to interview him and ask him what had happened. Previous to the study abroad experience, he had been a reasonably good student, but certainly not at the top of the class. He thought for a moment and then said, “I just kept liking Arabs. Most of the other students got tired of dealing with the conspiracy theories and other attitudes they couldn’t understand and started limiting their contact, from both a time and an emotional standpoint, but I just decided to keep enjoying them and spending as much time as possible with them.” I believe that his analysis was correct. Love, combined with humility, is the key to succeeding in study abroad.

As an educational endeavor, our goal in designing the study abroad program is first of all to give students the linguistic and cultural skills they would need to be able to have these kinds of encounters in the first place and then to provide some guidance and support as they negotiate their way through them. But in the end, as much as we would like to, we can’t guarantee the outcome. Just as in the Book of Mormon, after years of war, some of the people become more soft, more open, more humble, more easy to be entreated, and more likely to rely on the Lord, while others became hardened, less loving, and more likely to look out for number one.

I’ve spent time thinking about what it means to be an educated person and what we at BYU are trying to accomplish in seeking to educate students. The institu- tion and the faculty members have high, and perhaps somewhat romantic, hopes for the effect that the experi- ences you have here will have on the rest of your life. As much as we wish it weren’t so, we are aware that after a few years, you will have forgotten many of the facts that you learned and perhaps will only have a vague memory of the books you read. Unpracticed linguistic, mathematical, and other skills will atrophy. But our hope is that you will have somehow acquired a general orientation toward life, habits of mind and heart that will serve you well both in your career and in your per- sonal and religious life. Our hope is that you will have learned to learn, learned to be lifelong learners, people who humbly realize they don’t know it all and may even be partially mistaken in the things they do know, but who are confident in their ability to listen to others, see things from another point of view, and modify their own assumptions as that becomes necessary.

This is important not just for dealing with foreign countries and romantic, faraway places and cultures. It doesn’t take very long in a marriage for one to discover that one’s spouse is a foreign country, that we bring to the marriage vastly different assumptions, and that it takes tolerance, listening, patience, humility, and love to work though that, just as much as it does to negotiate a foreign culture. Likewise, coworkers, bosses, local church leaders, and neighbors can be as opaque and unpredictable as a Jordanian building guard, with just as many land mines keeping us from really understanding them and effectively working with them to accomplish good things.

Life is an adventure and often a surprise. I’m going to conclude with two stories from a friend whose husband spent many years in the Middle East. Once, she had to stay behind for medical reasons. When she thought she was sufficiently recovered to travel, she started her journey to join her husband. By the time she was changing planes in New York, she was clearly having trouble. A Jewish woman at the next counter asked if she needed help, but she said no, she was OK. Barely able to walk, she dragged herself up a stairs to get something to eat, and then started feeling worse and worse and prayed for help. At that moment, the same woman came up to her and said she had a strong impression that she needed to find her again and offer help. This time, my friend accepted the help and was able to spend time in a special lounge, lying down, before the flight left. But interestingly, my friend reported being mildly surprised that the Lord would answer her prayers through a Jewish woman. It changed her view of her own religion to realize that.

This same friend, several years later, was living with her husband in Saudi Arabia. She was having very severe back problems and at one point was home alone and in really terrible pain. At that point, one of her Muslim neighbors knocked on her door and asked if she needed help. The neighbor said she had been doing her prayers and got a very distinct impression that she needed to go next door and check on her neighbor. Once again my friend got the help she needed, and once again she was amazed, and changed, by her recognition and realization that God answered her prayer and needs by inspiring a Muslim neighbor woman.

As we each reflect upon how to be effective lifelong learners, life’s adventure will bring us face to face with people and institutions that are easily misunderstood. Rigid or ideological thinking seldom gets us very far in such situ- ations. But when we withhold judgment, do not jump to conclusions about motivations, and patiently work through problems and issues, honestly trying to see things from the point of view of “the other”—in short, when we love and are willing to learn from others—we will be well served, and the world will become a little bit better place.



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