Sunday, September 30, 2012

Culture Clash

Last week, I dusted off the blog.  This week, I got caught up with Feedler.  Whew, it feels good!

I'm reading a fascinating book right now called "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures" by Anne Fadiman.  I'm only 10% into the book (I don't do page numbers anymore -- this is an e-book!) but have had to stop several times to reflect on ideas related to intercultural communication.

For example, in chapter 4 ("Do Doctors Eat Brains?") the author examines cultural reasons why Hmong refugees have little confidence in Western medicine. After a study of one hospital log at a refugee camp, a nurse wrote that "in comparison to refugees of other ethnic groups, the Hmong have the lowest per capita rate of visits."  The author details numerous cultural reasons that contribute to this attitude.  At the end of the chapter, she shares the experience of an ethnographer named Dwight Conquergood, who volunteered at a refugee camp called Ban Vinai. He had success with convincing the Hmong to participate in various health initiatives (such as having the camp dogs vaccinated for rabies) because he approached them with a respect for their cultural beliefs.  The author concludes the chapter by saying "In his opinion, the physicians and nurses at Ban Vinai failed to win the cooperation of the camp inhabitants because they considered the relationship one-sided, with the Westerners holding all the knowledge.  As long as they persisted in this view, Conquergood believed that what the medical establishment was offering would continue to be rejected, since the Hmong would view it not as a gift but as a form of coercion."

While I like to think of myself as respectful of the varying cultures that my students represent, I can't possibly be as sensitive to them as I wish I were!  I'm thinking about how I might at least stay open to the potential that miscommunication could be a result of clashing cultural assumptions, rather than a learner's "not understanding me".

Post Scripts:

If you're curious, you can read the first chapter of the book (and a review) at the New York Times.

I searched for more information about Mr. Conquergood.  I'd like to follow the book by reading some of his publications and seeing his documentary "The Heart Broken in Half" (about gangs).  I'm sad to learn that he died at age 55 (my age now) from cancer.

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