Respecting Cultural Differences

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We, as teachers, hold a position of power over our students. We, as Westerners, hold a position of power over other cultures…. Okay. Who care? As foreign teachers, we should absolutely care because we hold disproportionate power over our young students. Our opinion is influential in shaping their beliefs.

By Samuel Cheung

I write this post not to point fingers, but to start the conversation around an important topic.

We, as teachers, hold a position of power over our students. We, as Westerners, hold a position of power over other cultures. There is a clear power dynamic dividing the West and the rest of the world whereby Western culture is typically regarded as the standard of decency determining what is “good” and “proper.” It is because of this power dynamic that people of other cultures often aspire to be “Western,“ thus reinforcing the binary categories of those who are “civilized” and those who are not.

Okay. Who care? As foreign teachers, we should absolutely care because we hold disproportionate power over our young Chinese students. Our opinion is influential in shaping their beliefs.

Let me start with a personal anecdote. I am a first generation Chinese. My parents immigrated to Canada to provide their children with better opportunities. It was difficult growing up in Canada, where I had to constantly negotiate my Western identity at school and my Chinese identity at home. My classmates commented on how weird my Chinese food was. They remarked that my parents had strange “Chinese” habits. I was told that Chinese was an unpleasant language to the ear. People spoke to me in “funny” imitated Chinese accents. In short, I was made to feel that my Chinese culture was somehow backwards and uncivilized. As a child, this was difficult, and I sometimes felt ashamed to be Chinese.

Nobody should ever be made to feel this way. We, as teachers, should never make our students feel this way. But even the most subtle words or actions can reinforce these beliefs.

As VIPKID teachers, we should avoid passing judgment on our students and parents based on differing cultural practices, norms, and beliefs (ie. picking their noses, not wearing pants, and so on). We should not make fun of the perceived “strange” and “gross” ingredients that go into certain Chinese dishes. We should withhold our standard for masculinity and stop ridiculing Chinese fathers for wearing “tighty-whities” or pulling up their shirts to expose their bellies. We should not judge others cultures and label them as somehow inferior based on our own cultural understanding of “decency”. Our beliefs are our beliefs. That’s it and that’s all. It’s all too easy to fall victim to cultural relativism.

Culture is simply a series of socially constructed norms, practices, and beliefs. It exists only subjectively. We must keep this in mind when teaching in the classroom. We shouldn’t reinforce ideas of Western superiority, and hence Chinese inferiority. We shouldn’t judge students and parents based on our own cultural beliefs and practices. And above all, we must respect difference and diversity.

Today I am proud to be both Chinese and Canadian, but it took me many years to get here. I hope we can work together to make sure our students are proud of their Chinese culture.


Sam has been teaching with VIPKID since May 2015. He currently resides in Ottawa, ON, Canada where he is completing a degree in International Development & Globalization with a minor in Sociology. 

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