Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I've started this post over several times - but now I'm glad I waited till after my class. I just returned from my class on Cross Cultural Communication. During the class today and during my preparation reading for it, I had several 'aha' moments that I'm still thinking about. I can't believe how much is being packed into this little 1 credit class!

So first, today I was reading a long chapter by Milton Bennett called Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. Bennett's model includes two major stages: the ethnocentric stages and the ethnorelative stages. Within the ethnocentric stages are Denial (isolation & separation), Defense (Denigration, Superiority, & Reversal), and Minimization (Physical Universalism & Transcendant Universalism). The ethnorelative stages are Acceptance (respect for behavioral difference & respect for value difference), Adaptation (empathy & pluralism), and Integration (contextual evaluation & constructive marginality).

It was interesting, I'll be honest, as I was reading through the section on ethnocentrism to see myself a little bit. Specifically, I know there have been times in the past when I probably had a sense of cultural superiority. I think it was innocent, and definitely before I had travelled! And I've also seen instances of Reversal - when a person turns around and thinks all other cultures are good and his/her own is bad.

But then I read the following paragraph:

"In a kind of abstract parallel to the concrete behavioral assumptions of physical universalism, transcendant universalism suggests that all human beings, whether they know it or not, are products of some single transcendent principle, law, or imperative. The obvious example of this view is any religion which holds that all people are creations of a particular supernatural entity or force. The statement, "We are all God's children," is indicative of this religious form of universalism, particularly when the "children" include people who don't subscribe to the same god."

I have been in a bit of shock most of the day after reading this, trying to grapple with it. I am a person of faith and grew up with that particular phrase. I never thought of that as indicative of ethnocentric behavior. On the one hand, it makes sense. Other people, other cultures, have different religions, different realities, different truths. But on the other hand... - I grew up a person of faith and that's where I'm at. I'm not sure what else to say here, though there are a lot of thoughts swirling around. I'm curious what response there is from all of you?

With that fresh in my mind I went off to class. One of the first things the professor did was attempt to give us a crash course in speaking Arabic! She spoke only in Arabic, with lots of gestures and pointing and trying to get us to understand and repeat words and phrases and learn. It was overwhelming. I felt lost, confused, a bit dumb - as did most of us in the class. If only these things were written down! I thought, then I could say them more easily.

As we were discussing the experience that idea came up. But then the professor related that to some of our reading about the Hmong who, until recently, were a pre-literate group. They had no written alphabet and no concept of reading and understanding those symbols. If a person isn't able to read, if they're illiterate, they can't use that extra assistance for learning. They can't write things down or take notes or see something visually.

And the realizations and connections kept rolling on. I did that huge project in one class last quarter about the literacy rates and education in Guatemala. I suddenly had a better understanding of what that meant. I especially remembered that literacy is defined differently in different places. In some areas, being literate is being able to write your name - and that's it!
It made me think of experiences on the bus, when someone is trying to get to a particular address. They know enough English to say the address or place they want to go. If the driver doesn't know where that is the person is in trouble. Sometimes I think the drivers don't realize that was all the English that person might have known. I can see the complete look of confusion as the driver goes off about other streets, other routes to take, where to find those routes, etc. And of course the person doesn't understand and asks the same question again. The communication breakdown is amazing.

Of course I keep thinking of this because of my approaching trip to Guatemala. When I went briefly last year I thought I knew enough Spanish to get along...but I had another thing coming! I was the person standing there, trying to figure out what was going on, realizing I had a very small vocabulary and I could not communicate. It's a scary and overwhelming place to be. And I'm taking myself back there in about 9 weeks!

I should sign off for now and go on to my readings for tomorrow, on business ethics. Oh joy!


@bdul muHib Diherhen said...

It sounds to me like the professor/book is trying to describe any religious absolutism as inferior, for it is not accepting enough.

The problem I have with this approach, one common in anthropology, is how denigrating it is to other cultures and belief systems. It assumes that the enlightened modern West has come up with the correct understanding, regardless of the fact that most cultures of the world have some understanding of absolutism. We are rather unique in our desire for relativism.

To say nothing of course of the lack of logic in denying that there is a right and wrong, irrespective of cultures. Including of course the very paradaigm set up for comparing different approaches to other cultures.

I think it is definitely possible to recognize all people as having been designed to have a place for God in them, and all of them His children, while at the same time thinking that not all children have their Father's best interests at heart. What is needed is a recognition that all of us are in one or the other camp at different times. What is needed is a recognition of the values and lifestyles of these other cultures, and that they can teach me- even teach me about that which I hold most dear, teach me about my God. One needs to recognize that there is right and wrong, and also areas that are not as absolute, and be willing to learn from others about both, with a discerning mind. And the best thing is to be in a place where one can learn from one's enemies about who God is.

ale said...

I could totally relate to your experience with Spanish in Guatemala. Made me think of the big lesson I learned while trying to learn French. I learned it "on the street" in Africa, meaning that I can speak it, read it, and understand it, but I simply cannot write it. I took a few lessons a long time ago but never really learned it. Given that my current work involves writing reports in French, I've experienced for the first time what illiteracy means. What a humbling lesson having to ask a coworker to spell check a two line email...thinking "what a fool I am making of myself" every time I am at a meeting and people look funny at me...It has helped me understand much better what illiteracy means.

What will you do in Guate? work with probigua? I'm Guatemalan, btw.

Great blog.

Aimee said...

Hey Jedidiah - thanks. We should have more conversation someday. I knew you would be able to help put this in perspective. =)

Ale - Yep, I'll be working with Probigua/Child Aid. They have some books that need cataloging in one of their libraries. I'll live in Antigua and commute to Chimaltenango I believe it is. I'm pretty excited. Antigua is a beautiful place (I was there for a few days last year). Thanks for your comment!