Monday, April 30, 2012

Red Flags and Culture Bumps

Tea in Istanbul
I have been very fortunate to travel to several countries around the world.  I have traveled for work throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe. I have attended university courses in Amsterdam, Cape Town, Madrid, Brussels, Kampala, and Arusha and I have lived with host families in France, Morocco, Madagascar, and Mongolia.

And in all my travels I have experienced many a "culture bump". A culture bump is what happens when your expectations of how an exchange/event will play out "bump up" against the reality of how the host culture reacts to the exchange/event. Many times a culture bump is signaled by a "red flag" thought, like the ones listed below.

Sometimes a culture bump can result in a negative response.
As in: "Why is everyone laughing at me?" (red flag thought)

Sometimes a culture bump can result in a positive response.
As in: "Wow! Everyone here is sooo friendly!" (red flag thought)

When you experience a sustained series of culture bumps the resultant confusion can contribute to the phenomenon of "culture shock"--which can very quickly lead to depression, the desire to withdraw, and the desire to return to your home culture as soon as possible.

But with a little extra effort you can transform the disorienting experience of a "culture bump" into a lens for deeper understanding of your host culture. The key is to move past the initial surprise of things not going the way you expected them to into a mode of identifying *why* you received a particular reaction. What cultural norms or values are expressed through the reaction? What cultural norms or values are expressed through your *expected* reaction?

Once you are able to identify the cultural values involved you can find common ground between the norms of your host culture and your home culture.

One culture isn't better or worse than another culture, they're just different.

In my home culture (the culture of my home country, my community, my socio-ecomonic class) it is common for parents to spend a lot of time on the floor playing with their infants and toddlers, reading books to them, and guiding them through games/flashcards/activities designed to maximize their developmental potential. Many parents expect that toddlers and babies will sit in a high chair to eat and will fall asleep in a crib by themselves. Parents fret over which method of discipline is best for their child, and often attempt to correct unwanted behaviors.

In my youngest son's home culture, and particularly in his foster-care environment, YH has a small amount of toys and books that he plays with/looks at during specific times of the day. When he was an infant he spent his day cozied in a carrier on Mrs. S's back, accompanying her on her errands. Now that he is mobile he is free to wander around the house and explore, even during mealtimes. If his circuit brings him close to the dining area Mrs. S will feed him bites of food. If his wanderings do not keep him close to the dining area, Mrs. S will follow him around and give him bites as he explores. At night he beds down on a mat in the main area of the apartment, near his foster parents. YH is rarely scolded or told "no"; if his safety is at risk his foster family will intervene but otherwise his behavior goes "uncorrected". If he feels like ripping up a book he can do so without consequence.

One culture isn't better or worse than another culture, they're just different.

As I read through the accounts of families returning from Korea with their newly adopted children I am finding lots of expressions of "culture bumps". Lots of families asking why their child exhibits a particular behavior or why their foster family chose to parent in a particular way. It is important for us to recognize that the children joining our families weren't just raised in another country where people speak another language, but in another culture where the shared values influence parenting practices. This is why your toddler will help clear the table, sweep the floor and fold up blankets. It is why he/she will bow to adults. It is also why he/she will react so strongly to being told "no". It is why sleeping in a room by him/herself, down the hall from your bedroom, can be hard for your new family member.

I know I can never replicate my son's home culture. But I will do my best to pay attention to my "red flag" thoughts. I will do my best to recognize when his expectations and mine "bump up" against one another. I will do my best to help us both achieve greater cultural understanding.


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