Workshop in cross-cultural understanding

I never liked long walks, especially on chilly evenings: what felt dreadful to me was coming home in the raw twilight with nipped fingers and toes. My heart bound by the loneliness and cultural shock on the bus to university which arrived much later than the designated time in the schedule. Norwegians tended to sit alone and not next to me. After a long lesson I could not endure the great hunger so rushed to the café to get a Norwegian sandwich, which seems to me simply two pieces of thin bread. My stomach warned me I needed warm noodles and much more meat. I do not understand how the Norwegian girls survive with such a small amount of food at meal time. By then I went back home and on the way bumped into the other international students from Europe and the UK- they looked cheerful and made funny silly sounds of chickens and pigs. What followed was the familiar question, ‘How are you?’, in reply I gave a very polite and well-elaborated answer driven by my Chinese instinct, which entertained and also shocked them. But it turned out to be too long for them and I could see impatience in their smiles.

I wonder if some of these moments are familiar or sound odd for you. Anyway, it is part of the reflection of my life experience here in Tromsø. It is part of my culture, reflecting my beliefs, my eating habits, and my expectations in social etiquette in my home city. There is no right or wrong. Cultural understanding is a process of learning in life, according to the sharing in the workshop run by anthropologists Rachel Issa Djesa and Line Vråberg in the student counselling centre on 22th October 2016 (Saturday). It was attended by international students of different nationalities from many different places – France, Germany, Czech, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Iran and China.

In order to get an insight on what is cultural understanding, at the beginning of the workshop Rachel and Line challenged the participants with a very deep and broad task – drawing our own understanding of culture? The process and results were funny and thought-provoking: culture as a pyramid, an iceberg and a human eye.  It demonstrates that culture itself is a common thing for humanity, the meaning of it is dynamic and diverse.

Cross-cultural understanding involves taking something for granted not for granted. Getting acquainted with new people, we get used to asking what others’ names are, but we rarely develop a deeper talk about the meanings of the names and how they relate to themselves. In the workshop, we were invited to ask each other’s name and its origin or story. Names- like any other observable elements in a culture such as language, food and music- can be compared to the tip of an iceberg which are explicit to us. However, the meaning and history of it is not something we can see or which can be compared to the lower hidden part of the iceberg according to the Iceberg Cultural Theory by Edward Hall in 1976.

It is controversial to conclude that culture should be perceived as a thing like an iceberg, but the metaphor suggests to us that we reflect on our common ‘mistake’ in cross-cultural understanding. We tend to make assumptions on a particular culture by noticing what is explicit and they have now become stereotypes. Communication and respect is therefore the key to understanding and breaking the ‘ice’: Norwegians do not sit next to you in bus not because they dislike you but because they do not want to disturb you; if the Chinese do not hug you in greeting this does not mean they do not like you, but simply because they are shy; Southerners are not so passionate about sun because they have enough of it there…etc.

Being foreigners here in Tromsø, have you ever honestly identified yourself as Norwegian? Rachel Issa Djesa, who comes from Africa and has been staying here for over 20 years, has made a documentary film for Ph.D visual anthropology studies, this film was shown during the workshop – ‘I am what I am.’ For many others, a Ph.D degree is simply status of education, but for her it is a way to feel liberated from male dominance in her town in Africa. In a film screening in Paris, her film made some audiences burst into tears, they might have shared the same feeling of hers as a confused foreigner and stereotyped phenomenon in the host country. On the other hand, her film antagonized some audiences. After all, she courageously admits that it does not matter for as it is her own personal reflection: cultural understanding is a continuous process of making ‘mistakes’ and learning. ‘It takes a whole life,’ remarked Rachel.

Text: Mo Yong Xin