at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Category: Cultural Intelligence Page 1 of 3

Food for Learning

Civilizing China

We are all being told how we are supposed to behave.

First our parents (and teachers and peers) tell and show us what sort of behavior is normal and acceptable; later, advertising and various public and educational campaigns try to push us towards their preferred ways of acting.

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On the move...

Joining the International Migrant Workers

It’s a crazy world, where we seek the best decisions, but complexity makes it unlikely we will find anything but bad ones. And also good ones, for as long as we make decisions, we will get new experiences and we will tend to interpret them in a good-enough light.

Shortly after finishing a dual Ph.D., I found myself in quite a need of gainful employment. The situation, however, was not unlike that of Michael J. Fox’s character in “The Secret of My Success”…

For academia, I was not experienced and specialized in just the right way and “obviously” looking for work that had more practical relevance than academic concern; for business, I was too inexperienced and “obviously” looking for an academic position. So, I took the one job I could find, as a security guard.

Even unarmed, more of a babysitter of inanimate objects and an agent of nothing but customer service, it gave rent-a-cop jokes and movie tropes a whole new layer of meaning… or annoyance. And it was an interesting insight into how the ordinary Joe worked and an experience to learn from.

On the move...Now, I find myself on the move to China. Again. I am interrupting my studies to become a teacher (which did not lead to work right now, yet) for a semester and instead join those (international) migrant workers who leave their home and hearth for the prospect of an income.

As the security guard job led to a different understanding of the not-exactly-well-qualified labor market and practice, so this has got me to thinking about the different levels of contemporary migration.

Just looking at China, it’s funny.

You hear about China and work, internally, you hear about poor migrant workers who move from their home towns and families to more-developed cities, live badly, but at least make money. (In fact, laborers with enough specialized experience apparently earn higher wages than do freshly-minted college graduates.)

You hear about China and work, internationally, you hear about expats with or without “the expat package” (and recently, the return of the ‘hardship post’ compensation).

What you don’t hear about so much, except maybe to make fun of them when they are naïve, are those “international migrant workers” (as Isolda Morillo labeled herself in a recent Sinica podcast) who come to China to work at comparatively low pay, maybe gain some valuable experience, maybe just have some sort of adventure.

That, even though many of the journalists in China may well not be the highest-compensated foreign workers there themselves, and even as (or perhaps, because) such international work migration of the relatively poor has become a major element of the international stream of people.

Today, there are an estimated 232 million migrant workers around the world. ILO

Especially when it comes to people who’d describe their experiences online, it seems – ordinary as doing so has become – we somehow tend to assume that those are not the poorest (which, of course, they wouldn’t be), but misunderstand them as at least middle-class.

A “work online, reside where the living is cheap” kind of four-hour-workweeker may be a new phenomenon and typically, at least in the image that comes to mind, a care-free privileged white American male, but they are not that different from poorer and underprivileged migrant workers.

That is, even in all the privilege they do have, they are still, essentially, just hustling to get by, and trying to do so in ways that they at least feel they are in control of.

It certainly is a whole different ballgame to create your own online niche while you travel South America or Asia as a white dude, for example. It is far different from the situation of a poor Mexican who pays a ‘coyote’ to get him (let alone, her) across the US border, let alone of a Syrian refugee or Central African with a dream of Europe who entrusts his life to a human trafficker who asks a tremendous amount of money only to put him/her on the next overfilled boat and send them on their very not merry way across the Mediterranean.

Migration, if more or less forced and more or less about economic reasons, it all is, though.

Most people still just find jobs, fall into a career path, and manage to go on that way. The harder this becomes, the more we seem to wish for the ‘normality’ of ordinary jobs and ordinary career paths, though.

It doesn’t only speak to globalization and power relations that the move in the original Karate Kid movie was just across the country, whereas the remake featured a job-related move from the USA to China…

We will all, increasingly, need to learn to handle situations which tempt or force us to look far and wide – and hopefully, also realize that we can’t just look to other places (given what economic situations worldwide look like), we will also need to shape other ways of living, be they more nomadic and ‘self-rooted’ or more intensely rooted in a place, utilizing and creating more opportunities for making a living and living better.

Probably, dealing with the reality of life at home in this world, messy as it is, will increasingly require it all.

This is not meself :-p

Losing YourSelf in Cultural Intelligence

“You just don’t do things right.”

If you’ve been reading these pages, you should be aware that I’d argue there’s much more “there” here, wherever you are, than commonly said. Too many, ubiquitous, arguments try to get people to travel and argue that it will somehow, magically, make you a better person with more experiences and education. Well, it doesn’t work that way.

Still, for everyone who doesn’t just want to be stuck in one place, never knowing how much more there is out there, cultural intelligence is fast becoming an essential skill.

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Asiana-crash-related tweet

Culture (&) Crashes, Asiana Flight 214 and Cultural Intelligence

It’s never nice to hear about plane crashes, but particularly so when one him-/herself is about to embark on air travel. (Of course, the rational mind knows that the drive to the airport is actually the greater danger, but instinct demands its due.)

The crash of Asiana Flight 214 has been striking particularly close to home, however. After a fashion, anyways, not the least in the way that intercultural relations (and often, mere racism and ignorance) are brought to the fore by it, and culture is often pointed to as probable causal factor.

Asiana-crash-related tweet

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Vegetable Patches - and Lotus Pond

Roots Across Places – Home. Gardens.

The great explorers of yore went out to “discover” more of the world, their entourage and later followers brought back plants. In fact, in many cases, the very reasons they ventured into the unknown were plants: spices or tea, for example.

Chilli in China

Chilli in China: the soil may be different, the plant is recognizable

People migrate, they bring seeds for their prized food plants with them, too.

Wherever people live, as long as it’s a place where anything can grow, they are likely to tend to some gardens. Or so, things have traditionally been, and increasingly are again.

The more I’ve traveled and followed my interest in chile peppers and cooking, the more I have been seeing how much gardens and gardening connect not only people and the places they call or make their homes, but also connect people across various places.

Even more so than the cooking, which is an accessible “other,” but oftentimes presents problems when “exotic” and enticing turns into “strange” and maybe even gross, the gardens and their products tend to be universal (and/or known) enough to give a certain level of comfort and familiarity, at the same time at which they are distinct and different enough to be fascinating.

When and where I lived in China, there was the chilli, and I could have been sharing stories about my own growing of the same.

There were tomatoes, perhaps beans or peas. Then again, there was also sesame, which isn’t quite instantly recognizable to the Northern home-gardener.

There were salads, other leafy greens, cabbages which, even if somewhat different when it comes to their exact varieties, are recognizable enough by type.

Pumpkin-like plants might not just have included the pumpkins we know in Europe and the USA, but also the “winter pumpkin”/wax gourd, bitter melon, and similar Western exotics/Chinese staples – but walking past a field with pumpkins and seeing the farmer, flower in hand, playing bee to the plant’s other flowers, was a thoroughly familiar scene.

Didn’t matter much that the farmer, in this case, was Chinese; he could just as well have been anywhere else where anyone grows pumpkins… and it’s an interesting matter to think about.

We have become so alienated from our food, which should be one of the most familiar things. And at the same time, it’s something so good to think about, know of, learn more about, grow and cook, and share stories and seeds.

There’s life in that.

Whether it looks the same as where you come from, or different.

Vegetable Patches - and Lotus Pond

Vegetable patches – and lotus pond for lotus root (and seed) harvests. Not the usual garden/field scene in Europe ;)

Chinese. Language. Lessons.

Recently, Chinese has been in the news quite a bit as a newly popular language among foreign language learners. At least, in a way. Numbers of actual learners may have risen tremendously percentage-wise, but they are still small. No wonder, with Chinese being considered one of the hardest languages to learn.

Of course, that also makes it a language that the highly-gifted, greatly motivated, etc. want to know; preferably getting fluent in three months

And so, as always, there will be the question of what you actually learn, what you put the emphasis in your learning on.
After all, early China scholars were able to read prolifically and discuss the finer points of grammar and philosophy, but often had had no direct exposure to the spoken language, and couldn’t really speak it.
Many modern language learners study Chinese to get by in  China and brag about their skills, and consequently focus on the spoken language, but remain quite illiterate.
Even for one who can understand and speak, read and write, grasp of the language remains questionable.
There are finer points that will remain difficult to get – and how do you consider knowledge as sufficient when native Chinese language users will regularly have to look up how to write a character they don’t usually use?

Don’t fear heaven, don’t fear earth, only fear the foreigner speaking Chinese…

There’s that whole other layer to the language, though: In stark contrast to a language like German, let alone Spanish or, “worst” of all, English, Chinese is strongly connected with its ethnic roots and civilization.

The overlap is so strong that it often appears as if the expectation were that Chinese ability is somehow genetically predetermined: if you look Chinese enough, you are expected to be able to speak the language; and you are not fully Chinese if you are ethnically so, but don’t speak the language.
On the other hand, if you are a foreigner, your very ability to ever acquire the language is seen as limited (and obviously non-Chinese who know the Chinese language with native-like abilities are seen as rather wondrous phenomena.)

Together with the general ethnocentrism that one can often find in China, this makes for an often hard time – and a strange advantage: There is general amazement one should even try to learn the language, be able to pronounce some of it somewhat alright, that is motivating… as well as very embarrassing, especially once one gets to the point of realizing that something is still being mispronounced and consequently not really understandable, but probably gets commented on with high praises, anyways – and with the expectation of the praise being steadfastly refused, in just the Chinese fashion.

At the same time, the foreigner’s obvious outsider status runs alongside the perspective in which anyone who learns the language and attempts to fit into the culture is getting into the assimilative, civilizing, gravitational pull of the kingdom at the center, which makes for an easier time learning and remaining motivated.

So, it’s easy enough to not speak correctly and be difficult, if not impossible, to understand – but it also is not really expected of an obvious foreigner to speak perfectly. Thus, the pressure to achieve total native-like ability gets somewhat diffused by this expectation of imperfection. You’ll always, obviously, be a stranger anyways – yet, you can fit in quite a bit as long as you seek to speak the language and understand (and to quite an extent, submit to) the culture.

Contrast that to the attitude with “easier” languages and more closely related ethnicities, such as the American trying to speak Spanish or French, or the Southern or Eastern European immigrant to German-speaking countries. There, the attitude that arises immediately is that you, the other, aren’t all that different – so, why can’t you speak perfectly and properly? Immediately, just because there seem to be fewer obvious barriers, all differences gain even greater importance – even as they shouldn’t.

Perhaps, the comfortable feeling of belonging we all seek is making us truly stupid when it comes to intercultural (and multilingual) interaction. Sure, it would be comfortable to be seen as “one of them” in an ethnic and/or linguistic group that is an “other” to us – but the place apart, as dangerous as we know and instinctively feel it can be, is a position of power, of translation and bridge-building, as well.

So, learn languages, listen to foreigners with “strange accents,” be that stranger who is struggling to speak understandably, and learn to be happy with all the little progress towards a world that is less small-minded.

You can perhaps never be simply one of them in another culture – but really, you are not even yourself most of the time. Situations change, roles change, salient identities shift.
Add languages and intercultural situations, and – with a bit of training – your self will expand to encompass yet more.

Of Swimsuits, China, and Cultural Intelligence

In a world awash with online porn, it is fascinating to see that a mere four pictures in the latest (2013) Swimsuit edition of Sport’s Illustrated, featuring “ethnic”-looking Chinese as their backdrop, can still cause a ruckus making it all the way to the New York Times’ online blogs.

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I Hereby Pronounce Thee Like a Foreigner

Somehow, in a bout of bad timing, I got quite out of language learning at just the time the internet made it ever easier to seek out other languages. Not only that, with the web there was (and is) even a community of people who define themselves as polyglots and language learners, who support and inspire each other – or brag and make a business of their language-learning ways, but at least still learn.

Me? I’d count two languages in which I’m fluent – and as we’ll see, that’s being put into question – and another… 7? 8? 9?  in which I’ve dabbled and feel like I’ve forgotten more than I ever learnt.

Not me, probably not you, hardly anyone of the great and fast language learners I’ve ever heard.

With all the forgetting and lack of practice/study, like so many others, I’ve been wondering if maybe I am just not all that good at languages. Or maybe, I was quite good at it, but only so much as to never have to invest the time and effort that really needs to be expended, and thus never sticking with it for long enough.

One particular problem that has been raising its ugly head ever more often – and that does not get mentioned all that often in such a direct way – is the strange attitude we find towards the speaking of other languages as/by a foreigner.

To Teach, But Not to Speak ‘Correctly’?

Then, there was the English teaching I did in Latvia: I enjoyed it, but I don’t sound like a native English speaker, even though this is a language I tend to use (certainly in writing) more than my first language, German.

With the German teaching in China, the (almost the same) usual problem applied: As an Austrian, you are a native speaker of German – but of its Austrian variant. Of course, there’s more of a difference between “High” German and some of the German dialects in Germany than between it and Austrian “High” German, but not coming from Germany raises some concerns.
This is particularly funny – and/or aggravating – because other Austrians tend to switch to a less-dialectal form when talking to me, assuming that maybe I can’t understand dialect because I don’t – and can’t really – speak it myself…

Now, having to take a pronunciation course as part of the (English) teacher training I have taken up again, getting feedback on my pronunciation – and having lived in China long enough to have had lots of experience with “getting the tones wrong” – the scale tips strongly in favor of “you just can’t sound right.”

To Learn – Or Not to…

Aside from the oft-wasted effort at remembering verb conjugations and such, it is pronunciation that makes you stand out like the obvious foreigner  and that is all-too-common an issue that makes people give up on other languages.

The challenge in learning another language is not only that the foreign language learner has to get his/her head – and tongue and jaw – around sounds which don’t exist in their first language. No, not only do other languages potentially sound barbaric in the original meaning of the word – a barbar being someone whose language sounded just like the supposedly ignorant (of e.g. Greek or even, already, Sanskrit and earlier Indo-European) and stammering “bar bar bar” sounds of others.
No, even when speaking the other, better language that is foreign to you, you may (probably will) still sound like the barbarian at the gates, butchering some sounds of it – unless you are one of those rather rare people who can master another language’s sounds completely.

Making yourself at home in this world does not necessarily require  that you know languages other than the one spoken in your surroundings (usually the one you grew up with), anyways; and even if you need or want to fit in somewhere else, or just simply want to be a part of the wider linguistic and cultural diversity  of this world, a non-native pronunciation will make it obvious that you are not – or “not really” – at home in that other area, that language.

Or so it seems.

What True Sound?

The funny thing is that native speakers need not sound truly “better” to not be called out on their pronunciation quite as much.

Of course, they do speak differently.
A foreign language speaker will probably be recognizably different from any native speaker, and thus stand out.
Native speakers, though… just go from Harlem to the Hamptons, from one social class to another, and people will sound different. Put a British speaker together with an Aussie and an American, and even if they all spoke “proper” English, it would be considerably different – not to even begin to think about an Indian or Nigerian who may have grown up with English as (one) first language but will sound rather different again. Wrong, even – unless, of course, you realize the context.

Where racism is strongly discouraged, linguistic discrimination is just normal, though.

“Just learn to speak properly.” There’s a difference between the two, of course, since you can learn better pronunciation and you may simply not be understandable if you get things wrong. There’s also a level where it becomes ridiculously stupid to discourage or get discouraged because of pronunciation differences, though – and we find that view, too.

After all, just go somewhere another language is spoken, see what the difference is between you only speaking your own first language and trying to find someone who speaks that, or you being there and speaking the language spoken there, even if somewhat badly…

Culturally Intelligent Language Attitudes

It’s just one of those (many) ways in which the world doesn’t necessarily subscribe to our desires – but to know more, live better, not get mired in stupidity (worst of all, the stupidity of our own resistance to doing things so we learn and live better), we’ll just have to deal with it and go on anyways…

Still, with languages, the contradictory attitude is quite perplexing, as well as problematic. You don’t sound like a native – whatever that would really sound like, given all its diversity – you are standing apart. At the same time, at least you speak the language, and if it is fluent and correct enough, it’s all well. Except when it’s not.

Cultural intelligence, in this context, seems to be something that arises best only when both parties in a communicative situation know the trouble with learning another language and thus agree to overlook the “barbaric” sound of an other in favor of communication.
For one person, one language learner, alone, there’s just one way to be culturally intelligent about it: give it your best, but don’t get concerned about a perfection that doesn’t really exist.

Funny thing in this context, to harken back to the online, paragon, language-learners:
They typically don’t even learn too much of the writing, just of the speaking. They typically define fluency not the way it’s officially done, but simply as being able to participate in a conversation over a longer time without totally lacking in words or understanding.
The pronunciation? Typically, obviously imperfect – but who cares when you managed to get to decent-enough conversations in a new language in three months, and it’s the tenth language you’ve tackled?

Of course, it won’t help me with my pronunciation-for-teachers course. That, too, has a funny side to it, though: there are so many teachers and teacher-training students who should have taken that course, but still don’t all sound “like a native” – and often enough, make enough other mistakes as well. It seems to be the very focus on perfection, which they then also transmit to their students, which keeps them from simply communicating as well – and typically, understandable – as they could, all for the self-consciousness caused by the constant nagging thought about their imperfect grasp of the language.

No native speaker has the perfect grasp of all of their language. That’s why we can tell what region of our own language area someone comes from and what social group they may belong to, and that’s the reason why children learn their first language for the longest time at school (and may still have more to learn if they go on to study a particular discipline and all its vocabulary and phraseology at university).

So, learn, communicate, make yourself uncomfortable – and get at home in this imperfect world, imperfect as you are. Just speak.

Looking onto dance class

The Expat Tango

Recently, the trend in writing about China seems to have become focused on the theme of exodus. Long-term expats are leaving, and telling all about the reasons. Mark Kitto – already famously? – gave one reason in the very title of his article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese.

There is a lot to be said for his argument, and quite something against, but it’s the general theme of home I’d like to take up.

After all, somehow, even  people proposing international, nomadic, location-independent living often talk about the pleasures of living free and unencumbered by ties to any place – but all the while, the notion of “home” figures prominently in their lives.

Sure, there are some who just tick off the countries they’ve been to, the places they’ve lived, without much of any apparent care for where they find themselves. Sure, there are different things that are important to different people – and if you seriously enjoy being in the mountains, but were born and raised in flat land (such as me, here), you may want to consider moving.

It’s often less about living nomadically and being free from ties, so much as it is about the latter, though: an attempt at finding a place to call home, a place that just feels right.

Looking onto dance class

They dance – but are you a partner or an outside onlooker?

Well, a move can help with that. At least, a different context may make for a different frame of reference.
Go somewhere else, and things look different. Whereas you wouldn’t buy foods on the street where you come from, because that’s what you do only in a sterile-looking supermarket (which is boring), it’s normal and even pleasurably exotic in another country (regular digestive problems notwithstanding). It’s all (at least more easily) accepted somewhere else, and the fun and exoticism may make it more of the home you imagined sitting “at home” in a place you felt you knew only too well.

There’s quite something to the notion that you may not simply be at home somewhere, and especially where you grew up. I’m a strong proponent of the view that it’s better to feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in the place of one’s origin, rather than feel comfortably at home without ever experiencing any other place (and its people and culture).

Even the average corporate expat willing to go abroad probably didn’t feel quite “at home” where s/he grew up, studied, lived, and thus has a rather less “natural” tie to any such home.

If we are not simply at home in some place, if there is no home – here, or out there – just waiting for us, though, then that applies everywhere.

So, the problem is when the exoticism and excitement about a place becomes an expectation that things should be better there quite naturally, and that, if you feel rather better there – maybe even at home – things should just go exactly your way.

To the extent that we idealize a place, we impoverish it, reducing reality to a list of shortcomings.

There’s the rub. It takes two to tango, and as the stranger, you must make yourself at home. Yet as the stranger, you may not be accepted.

Power plays between people and countries, openness or closedness of societies, racism or other notions of superiority and simple ethnocentrisms, expectations and experiences,…  all come into play – and the expat who moved somewhere because he/she loved that country/culture so much may find that the feeling is not, or not always, reciprocal. Add in that the allure of the exotic fades away and the negatives may come to outweigh the fascination, and discontent can easily be bred.

China has been one of the best, and most difficult, examples of that.

The country is big and diverse, and thus offers great fascination, and it is a place with a landscape and climate for just about everyone. The people are typically curious and hospitable, and may even follow the notion that you are somewhat Chinese as long as you (struggle to) learn the language and fit into the culture. Of course, as everywhere, cultural conventions can make for a bit of a shock – and it’s typically not those stereotypical things like dog meat, but things like the unexpected openness with which visible differences between people – which would typically be talked about only in a circumscribed way, if at all, in ‘the West’ – are discussed: tallness, supposed handsomeness, soggy midsections, big noses… And when the situation somehow changes to a disenchantment with the foreign(ers), these obvious differences single out any foreigner, and the side of China where you are always on the outside if you weren’t born here and look, speak, and think like a Chinese can quickly come to the fore.

There is, of course, also your own set of priorities. China is on the rise, and China is and remains fascinating. Having lived in one place, even if it should be a part of China diametrically opposed to where you grew up, the fascination will be replaced by familiarity, though – and that may be comfortable (if not broken by rising ‘outsiderdom’), or a reason why other aspects, such as ‘outsiderdom’, but also pollution, career opportunities, etc., become more important.

As many of the expats now leaving have noted, once you have children, rampant pollution of air and water, food scandals, insane traffic and test-based schooling, along with legal uncertainties inherent in outsider status (and in China, also the status as citizen) easily become just too much.

As those who stay have started commenting, China is and remains fascinating, has more job opportunities for those who can navigate its market and offer something that is needed.

To me, the lesson is that one needs to make him-/herself at home, anyways, anywhere, as much as one can and wants to. And one needs to make him-/herself sufficiently uncomfortable, so to speak, to not only fall into an everyday monotony, but continually learn and do something more, better. Disenchantment comes everywhere, no place – and no person – is perfect. Handling that is a big part of what life is about.

Only part of all that is up to the individual, though; social acceptance in smaller social circles, for example, but not by the general population. It takes two to tango.

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