We all come to understand the world from our own worldview which is greatly shaped by our culture. Of course the range of cultural differences is greatly varied. When I studied intercultural communication in college, I was struck by how people from different parts of the world view something we all take for granted: communication. For instance, Middle Eastern people in conversation depend on personal scent to facilitate communication. Arabs stand very close to others when they talk so they can get an olfactory sense of who the other person is [very different from America, the culture of mouthwash and underarm deodorant]. Asian cultures discourage the expression of thoughts and feelings. In Japan and China, silence is valued. A common saying is “In much talk is great weariness.” Again, this is very different from our expressive American culture.
When I was given my final degree, I was not sure what I would do in my career but soon after returning to my community college, I knew I could make the most impact in the classroom. However, I thought the chances of encountering many cultural differences would be rare in this small western Kentucky city, unlike the larger city where I went to the university.
Then I encountered Reuben. I was supposed to be his teacher but I think I was his student. You see, Reuben was from Mexico and he was in my interpersonal communications class. When I first saw him in class, I was not sure of his origin but he began to come up after class to talk to me and told me of his home country.
Reuben tried to mix with the other students. He had achieved American citizenship and his English was better than many American students. You could still detect the Mexican accent in his voice.
I remember the first after class conversation we had. He said he was confused by the American students who did not seem interested in doing well on the group activity I gave them. Of course Reuben was in a group with four American students. He described them as “not caring.” He told me he wanted to do the group activity but the other students were not interested in completing it at all. He felt pressure to conform, but Reuben did not like conforming. Reuben was what I called a “go-getter.”
From time to time, we had other conversations and one day he dropped by the office. I could tell he was upset. This was his first semester in college and he seemed to need to talk out a problem so I made time for him. Also I was interested in getting to know his cultural perspective so I listened to his story. Turns out, he was from an extremely poor family. As a child he had four brothers and sisters and a Mother but his Father was gone most of time. His Father was in America working on farms to make money for his family.
Despite his Father’s efforts, life in Reuben’s home was precarious. Many days there was not enough food for the family and Reuben went to bed hungry. His Mom and Dad loved him but Reuben longed for a more secure life, one where he did not have to worry about the necessities of life. This was in the 90’s and immigration was not on the news as it is today. Reuben came to America and his goal was to assimilate. He told me he had a good business sense, making enough money to buy several rental properties and was the proud owner of a nice car. He was amazed at the opportunity afforded everyone in this country and eventually saw college as the next step to improve his life.
However Reuben was in college to study, to learn, to achieve. He was not there to “mess around.” He wanted a better life.
And he just could not understand American students who did not care.
His perspective gave me pause. This young man was so poor growing up and his worldview had shaped him to see our country, our college and my class as a stepping stone to a better life.
By the end of the semester he changed my perspective. I tried really hard not to stereotype but I knew many people who had less-than-flattering words for our neighbors to the south, even in the 1990’s, words like free-loaders, drug dealers, common criminals. Spending time with Reuben would have caused them to question their worldview of people from the Mexican culture.
Ethnocentrism can make working with others difficult and I see it more and more every day in 2018, the idea that our American culture is superior to others.
Yes, culture shapes us. We cannot deny that; sometimes it can close us off to the value of other ways of life, other people who come from different places. We fail to see that another person’s culture can inspire them to achieve. That was the case with Reuben. I have not followed him over the years but I know he graduated with his degree. I remember hearing the Academic Dean at my college calling his name, seeing him walk across the stage to get his diploma [really it was a run rather than a walk]. Reuben was smiling from ear to ear, clutching it like it was the most important document in the world.
To Reuben, it was. I was Reuben’s teacher or maybe it was the other way around.
Maybe Reuben was mine.