PME 851: Module 2: Part 1: Thinking about and Visualizing Culture

When I think of culture, I usually think about the surface aspects of culture, as seen above. The iceberg concept of culture is a perfect way of truly looking at culture beyond what is visible, or expected. I find it hard to pinpoint my culture. I was born and raised in Canada, and my maternal grandparents were born in England and my paternal grandparents were of Scottish origin. Due to this fact, we would often have shortbread cookies, scones, hot cross buns on Good Friday, and my grandmother insisted we take Scottish dancing as children. Besides the odd British phrase I picked up from my grandparents, that is the extent of my British culture. When I think of Canadian culture, it brings to mind the Indigenous cultures, the French Canadian traditions, and the British ties all in one. As Canadians we are so spread out, so diverse, and yet there is a truly Canadian identity that is hard to describe. Yes we can be kind and polite, but it is so much more than that. Generally, Canadians have a great sense of humour, and one of the reasons is our ability to observe our neighbour, and ridicule them. It has been said that Canadian comedy is one of observation. Another facet that binds us, is our insistence that we are not American. As I child, I felt like Canadians were a lot like Americans. I’m not sure if it was because I was young and naive, or because it was true. Now, I feel like we are further apart than ever in terms of our values and beliefs. I have American friends who I love and cherish, but the country is so divided among party lines, that it feels much more hostile and intolerant than Canada. This is not to say that Canada does not have a lot of work to do. I used to believe the story we told ourselves about being more tolerant and welcoming to all nationalities in Canada, but I have since learned that is not necessarily true. We need to look no further than Quebec and Bill 21, which is the ban on religious symbols. How can we as a nation pride ourselves on tolerance, but not allow a woman in a hijab to keep her teaching job? Why did I only learn the word “carding” by reading a Desmond Cole article? As Canadians we like to believe the story that we are tolerant and that racism happens somewhere else, but unfortunately that is not true.

I found a definition of culture that defines exactly what I believe culture to be: “The cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.” (Retrieved from people.tamu.edu/~i-choudhury/culture.html)

I do believe in Canada, that not everyone defines themselves in the same way. Many people identify more with their province, as in Newfoundlanders, for example. Other people don’t even identify as Canadian as in some Indigenous groups who identify themselves as Cree, for example, rather than strictly Canadian. I love having such a diverse heritage, and yet I do feel a little lost in explaining it. At International night at our school, the Canadians and Americans look a little casual in our t-shirts when others are wearing their elaborate clothing from their culture. I would describe Canadians as hardy people who put up with great fluctuations in terms of weather. We are generally friendly, and are willing to help people out who are in need. We are diverse, and yet there is something singular that binds us together. We are often educated, funny and laid back. I believe Canadians to be humble and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. One weakness is we don’t appreciate our Canadian artists until they become big in the U.S. or in Europe, with the exception of Quebec, as they seem to truly appreciate their home grown talent. I have been thinking about what being Canadian means since the pandemic and I think I would use the word “privilege.” Canada can afford to help people and businesses out in times of crisis and they have the money and the efficiency to procure a vaccine for their citizens. In Ukraine, people are not so fortune. Over 200 000 Ukrainians have signed up for a one time pay out of 8000 UAH (about $360 Canadian) for the entire pandemic. They also don’t have any vaccines right now. They have signed up for the Chinese Vaccine, Sinovac, but no announcements have been made for the roll out. They have also signed up to receive vaccines through the COVAX network in March.

Conceptions of Beauty

I wouldn’t say I have had any experiences like Marcea had in Malaysia, in terms of not finding anything but whitening creams, but I have certainly struggled to find the products I need. When looking for sage at the grocery store, I asked many people who thought they could help me, but in the end I left without the sage. When speaking to my Ukrainian teacher, she told me to go the apteka (pharmacy) to get sage. This was strange for me, I would never have thought to look at a pharmacy. The day we arrived in Kyiv, my husband’s boss picked us up from the airport and wanted to take us out for dinner. Our luggage got lost, so he first took us to buy some toiletries. We couldn’t read any Cyrillic, as our posting had changed from Beirut, to Izmir, Turkey and finally to Ukraine. We weren’t given any language training and both of us were working full time. We learned the alphabet before we came, but finding products in a language you cannot read is one thing, but finding products in an alphabet you cannot read is quite another. There was a bit of a time crunch, and many brands I didn’t recognize. That situation forced us get better prepared before our next shop. We would write down items in Ukrainian and Russian, since both languages are used here and we would use the camera feature on Google Translate. The only issue with Google Translate is if the product used a stylized font or handwriting. Here is a small bottle of what I thought was hand cream that turned out to be a scrub. I keep buying it now, my mistake has turned into buying a product I didn’t know I like.

While I have had embarrassing encounters with people in my time, due to my weak language skills, I know I am very fortune to pass as Ukrainian, and not have to struggle with discrimination, which can happen here. My friend who is from Sri Lanka was joining me for a yoga class and she wanted to take an Uber. I told her the metro was much quicker and she hesitated, but I insisted. She later told me she had been spit on the last time she took the metro. I felt terrible that I insisted, and I didn’t even think that was a possibility, but then again, why would I? When you don’t personally experience discrimination, you can believe that it doesn’t happen. Ukraine is a very a very homogeneous society, so you rarely encounter anyone who isn’t white. There may be the occasional person you see from Central or South Asia, who often come to Ukraine for medical school. When we were evacuated back to Canada, I realized I really miss seeing a variety of ethnicities.

As I read the article by Michael Allan, the part that really resonated with me, and it was something that was mentioned by other people in the class, is how culture can effect the way teachers are treated around the world. This is not something I had given much thought to, but it does make sense. It must be hard for students to get used to, and they must walk a fine line between fitting in with their peers, and behaving in a way they feel is right or proper. I felt so badly for the student in Extract B, as they were struggling in school, and they were not getting the support they needed and yet the expectation at home was that the student would get straight A’s. I just got off the phone with an educational counsellor, since we are moving to Singapore, and she was letting us know we qualify for tutoring if our son is behind in school or has missed something due to the cross country posting. I think again about how lucky we are to have supports in place, and people looking out for us. Yes, we have picked up and moved across the world and it hasn’t been easy, but I admire those who do it all without the help of an Embassy or at least a company that takes care of some of the paper work or the moving costs.

The student in Extract A reminded me of a book I read in university by Jamaica Kincaid called: A Small Place. She said that some people would visit her native Antigua and think they had gone on a real adventure and met so many wonderful people. Yet these people didn’t leave their resort, and they met people who were just like them. She asks some tough questions like “Did you notice the library is closed?” or “Do you know people laugh at you?” She talks of the resentment of people showing up on the island of Antigua and turning her banality in their paradise. The student in Extract A didn’t really get out of their comfort zone, and didn’t find a rich learning experience. They looked for the people who were just like them, and claimed to enjoy getting to know people from a variety of cultures, but in a very superficial way. It is only through experiences with people of different norms and cultures do get to look at yourself and think about your behaviours and beliefs.

Module 2: Part 2: Navigating Across Cultures

I have been lucky enough to navigate across numerous cultures. In Prague, the expectation was that both hand should be on the table when you are eating. In Canada, I prefer to have my right hand on the table, and the other hand in my lap when I eat. I was told regularly in Prague that people like to see both of your hands on the table. After 20 years, I occasionally find myself thinking about where to put my hands. It’s strange how some cultural norms stick with you.

In Ukraine, people push and shove and aren’t very good at maintaining a line. My theory is this is a carry over from the Soviet Union, and if you were polite and waited in line, you simply would not get bread or whatever you needed. I am very Canadian and prefer to give people a wide birth. If I do that here in Kyiv, people will just cut in front of me assuming that I am not in line. This is the same situation when driving. I have had to go against my own cultural beliefs and become more aggressive and not give so much personal space. This was in pre-COVID times, as now I rarely go out now, and I give people all the space in world.

One of the most aggravating occurrences is flying anywhere with Ukrainians. The minute the plane lands, people get out of their seats and start collecting their belongings. I’m not talking about the minute the seatbelt sign goes off, I am talking about the wheels touching the ground. I was shocked the first time I saw it. I can’t imagine the consequences of doing that on a Canadian airline. The flight attendants don’t say anything and I have gotten used to being one of the last people off the plane. There is no use in even trying to get up, because it will be a losing battle and a lesson in frustration. So I have had to remind myself it is going to happen, I will be last and I will be okay. I am such a rule follower that I want someone to tell them to sit down, but I have learned to calm down, relax and let the mayhem happen.

A culture that I think is very misunderstood is the French culture. Many people say that the French are so rude that they can ruin your vacation. I have always been nervous about visiting France due to this reason. I was born and raised in Alberta, and my French language experience was less than stellar. We did not have the opportunity to use any of our limited French and therefore, I have lost most of French skills. My husband speaks French and he was a great asset on our trip. One observation is the French like greetings and manners. If you spend the time to say “good morning,” or “good afternoon,” “please” and “thank you,” and try some French, I found it all went very smoothly. I think we in North America are accustomed to saying “I’d like a large coffee to go,” for example. I think in France if you just added the greeting and a please, you would be fine. Also, I am a real dog lover and I ingratiated myself to many a Parisian by speaking to, or complementing their dogs. People in France love their dogs and are more than happy to speak to you about them. I like the pleasantries and I don’t mind using them at all.

Take Aways for my current and future practice

Considering that not everyone who identifies as British, for example, feels and behaves “British” if there is such a such a thing, will definitely help me in my teaching practice. My son’s friend is from the U.K., but he has never lived there. He has visited, and like my family, theirs was evacuated to the U.K. for four months in the Spring. I don’t know if that counts, in that being somewhere during a pandemic is not like being somewhere without a pandemic. There is a lot of surviving going on rather that thriving. We went to parks and outdoor spaces and for the most part we avoided indoor spaces unless necessary.

I think some of the Canadian stereotypes like us saying “aboot” and always saying “sorry,” aren’t really all that accurate. If I extrapolate that and think of people who have not really lived in Canada, it may be even less accurate. Always keeping in the back of my mind that students who move around, or have parents from different cultures or nationalities, may be conflicted in their sense of identify and know I need to focus on seeing the child, like I would in Canada, as an individual with unique needs and qualities. Our former Ambassador’s daughter switched from the French School here in Kyiv to my son’s international school. She would come home and ask her parents “Why do they always want to know what I think?” She was used to the French school, where there wasn’t much room for opinion, reflection or questioning. She had to get used to a new system. She had to learn how to modify her behaviour to fit into a new system of learning. Teachers need to understand that their students may not volunteer, they may not ask questions and that doesn’t denote a lack of interest, but they may not be used to the style of teaching and learning that is expected of them.

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