Culture Clash

Yesterday the most interesting question (to me) asked in preservice training was part of a list of stressors. We were to check off the top three stressors we’re experiencing at this point and interestingly they were worded somewhat strongly so I couldn’t actually say yes to any of them. One example was I’m worried about not learning the language or some such, to which my response is I’m not COMFORTABLE with my language learning to date, but I’m not worried about it. Apparently the items on the list are significant stressors to some trainees, including I’m worried about not receiving mail from home and so on. I suppose in a sense all of them related to attitudes, as the thing that may become intolerable to a trainee will relate to meeting our needs or to our attitudes about what we have a RIGHT to. The trainers asked us to say what was the top stressor, and most folks chose the language item, as I had after rewording it to be gentler. At any rate the item I thought was most interesting was “I’m tired of being culturally sensitive.” There were a couple of people who raised their hands for that one and I’m sad for them.

That seems to be key to adjustment to Thailand (or anywhere else, right?)

So. My first wave of concern was for those who raised their hands, as I want them to be able to recover and maybe they will, but my second reflection is that everyone will have that moment sooner or later. Maybe. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing. We can fatigue a muscle from overusing it and it gets tired faster if it hasn’t been exercised a lot in the past. If the metaphor holds folks with a baseline cultural sensitivity that’s higher will fatigue later, but they are still likely to fatigue. (That’s over-generalized, of course, there are also random factors in people’s moods that can be in play.)

And that brings me to the pit at the heart of the peach. It seems to me that parts of a new culture are easier to accept and other parts are harder. There are style differences between cultures which are easy to accept and there are values differences that I might not care too much about. And finally there are values differences that are going to be pretty hard. A trainee identified one yesterday when Dr. Rit was explaining that there’s a lot of domestic violence in Thailand and we may hear screaming and yelling from a neighbor’s house. The trainee voiced what has to be an essentially universal reaction of an American, what do we do in that situation? We have to leave it be. We’re not here for that. Which is clearly true. Our efforts will not change the culture and any efforts to address it would cause someone to lose face, almost certainly destroying our working relationships and making it impossible for us to be effective doing what we ARE here to do. The Peace Corps actually sends folks home if they’re so culturally insensitive as to thoroughly undermine their ability to work productively with Thai people. This is eminently reasonable. So the task is to adopt the Peace Corps’s value structure, doing the job is our first priority and that requires cultural integration and cultural sensitivity, even when we have to become actors and not show revulsion to something that violates our important values.

Maybe the flavor of this conflict comes down to a definition of development. (Peace Corps has a solid definition, but the way, and I’m setting it aside for now and using another definition that’s only slightly different…) I’ve taught human development courses. I’ve asked students to figure out what development is, and if that question stumps them I ask a simpler question: what’s the relationship between development and change. Development has to include change, but not every change is development. So human development is a change in the direction of greater complexity, adaptability, and organization. It’s a change in the right direction. What’s the right direction for a culture to change and who’s to say what the direction should be?

My answer to that is personal, of course, but here goes. I subscribe to the UN’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights, so I think when we nudge our own culture toward a greater expression of those rights we’re heading in the right direction. I support changes in our culture in the direction of valuing education more, and the arts, and so on. I certainly have a right to nudge my own culture in the direction I think is positive, and frankly anyone who isn’t doing that is shirking. In Peace Corps it’s a bit more challenging, but I think this is the resolution: we only go where we’re invited and we only do what we’re invited to do. That’s respecting the host country nationals.

Yesterday one bit of content focused on development ROLES we will play, including distinguishing between functioning as a co-trainer and as a co-facilitator. The distinction was that as a a co-trainer we work with host country nationals to train, given a clear request for a specific knowledge or skill. If folks know what they want to do, we can help them gain skills to do it. By contrast serving as a co-facilitator means working with host country nationals in dialogue on the quite different task of understanding issues, identifying resources in the community, recognizing opportunities for development, and setting priorities that are the host country nationals’ priorities. It follows immediately that there will be occasions that a Peace Corps volunteer wants to go directly to training when the priority setting hasn’t been done, except in the volunteer’s mind as Hey! I know what change should occur here, My priorities are the right priorities is a tempting perspective, but destructive.

Tying this back to the culture clash theme, I will have fatigue in accommodating to Thai culture, at some point. My values and Thai values will conflict. At that point I have a right to my feelings and must manage them in a way that doesn’t hurt other people. Peace Corps is trying to get us ready for that day, so there will be useful days on the other side of our sensitivity fatigue.

(Did I mention that I think the training objective, the curriculum, and the staff are spectacular? )

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1 Response to Culture Clash

  1. Lyn Bockmiller says:

    Well Pat you will always here from home from me because Iam intrested in what you are doing and will let you know that your on the right tract I can tell by your teaching at in your classes you understand the problems other people are having and know how to handle it I hope I make sense but by read what you said your doing very well keep up the good work. Lyn

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