How do Asian students feel about receiving a hug when the occasion demands it (in our view)? Is it offensive to open up a gift in front of the giver? Are students uncomfortable about being called on in class? Should teachers expect their students to make eye contact? Are there things teachers do that students find offensive? These were some of the questions that I and my fellow English as a Second Language (ESL) volunteer teachers wanted answers to but weren’t sure whether or how to ask. Let’s face it, when we have students from many different countries in every class, we aren’t knowledgeable on every aspect of each person’s culture. So I volunteered to put together a panel (which was held last evening) of current and former adult ESL students for a program of “Cultural Conversations” between students and teachers.
I introduced the session by sharing a system of categorization I had heard in a workshop on race and culture. Picture four categories spread along a continuum, starting with “unconsciously incompetent” at the far left, followed by “consciously incompetent,” then “consciously competent,” and ending with “unconsciously competent.” The idea is that although operating in the competence zone is most desirable, we may find ourselves falling in any one of these categories with any given student on any given day. The goal of the evening was to leave everyone consciously competent when it came to understanding some of the many cultures represented by our students. The panel consisted of two Chinese, one Korean, one Japanese and one Spanish-speaking student.
I was a little nervous ahead of time, because I knew only two of the five panelists, and experience has taught me that sometimes this format works well and other times it doesn’t, particularly when the panelists are too shy to say more than yes or no. Fortunately, this time the speakers had no trouble expressing their opinions and the audience of teachers paid close attention to them. As a result, they left better informed about their students. The student panelists were pleased that someone had asked how they felt in class, how they wanted to be treated, and what they expected from teachers.
What I found most satisfying was that both teachers and students seemed to be completely open to learning about and accommodating each others’ cultures. The Japanese and Korean students told us that when they first came to the U.S. they felt uncomfortable about hugging, but over time they had come to like it. The Chinese panelists said they and their peers were open to trying out new things in this country, including hugging. Students recommended that teachers give a lesson on how to write thank-you notes, after one speaker told of being thrilled that neighbors had hosted a baby shower for her where she had received many lovely gifts, only to find out later that she had to write thank-you’s for each one. Panelists told teachers that they should call on students even if they had not raised their hands, since Japanese and Koreans would never raise their hands. We all agreed on one universal phenomenon, seemingly true regardless of culture, age or gender: if students are lowering their gaze in class it is because they don’t know the answer and are praying that the teacher won’t call on them. All the panelists said they had been shocked initially to see someone opening gifts in front of the gift giver, but had figured out that this was an American custom and was not intended, as they had first thought, to check out the quality or type of gift being given. And speaking of gifts, I think everyone left the program knowing they had received a gift of better understanding of cultural differences overridden by many similarities.