Respecting Cultural Differences


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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  1. Excellent points you brought up. I grew up multicultural as well not only from being multi-ethnic, but my parents traveled when I was young I was immersed in a different culture and language as I began school until I was in the 3rd grade. Then came, a revolution, with only a few weeks learn to read and write in English; though I spoke English I had never been exposed to it’s written form. Changing cultures at a point in time, 4 years old, when most people are forming their cultural framework was a real eyeopener. Knowing the language when I came back was not enough. I found myself breaking unknown boundaries most people aren’t even aware exist such as how close or far to stand next to a person when talking, the meaning of holding hands and when and where that is appropriate, a simple “tsk” sound that means “yes” in one culture but could sound to an American teacher like you are objecting or insulting. Though I spoke fluent, and highly refined English, I did not know the nuances of the culture.

    The more I think about doing this VIP Kid thing, the more I deeply hunger to know more of the nuances and perceptions of the Chinese peoples. Please share any of this you can. You have, are, such a valuable resource.

  2. Thank you for this important and needed information, so many of us latinos had face this type of disrespect which takes years to out grow it. Now as an adult, I am able to help others embrace their life style and be at peace knowing they are unique and special in their own ways.

  3. My girlfriend though Australian grew up in China and Malaysia. She has really helped me point out cultural differences that I was aware of but some I did not realize how important they were. Understanding of making lessons very enjoyable. I feel now it is important as their is so much academic pressure on Chinese students.Chinese students tend to spend majority of lesson time on academic subjects even at a young age whereas in the United States students have lots of fun based lessons such as PE, music and Art.

  4. In all the years I’ve spent traveling and working, I’ve come across people from all walks of life. The one thing that I particularly like about your company, is the emphasis on correcting without insulting. I’ve worked with people whose ages ranged from the very old, to the very young. One thing that stands out the most to me, and is a trait that is universally recognized, is that no one likes to be told how bad they are. Without question, people and animals respond to positive reinforcement, and will retain their knowledge for longer periods of time. Childhood and learning, should never be a punishment.

  5. Please continue to write and post articles on cultural differences, especially on areas important to Chinese culture. It is very helpful as a teacher to know as much about Chinese culture as possible. It helps us relate to our students and their parents better – and it helps to prevent us from making a mistake or saying something accidentally offensive. I love teaching students but I also love learning about other cultures! Thank you!

  6. Great article. Aspects of Chinese culture should be respected and presented in a positive to the student. Is there a place for teachers to report inappropriate classroom behavior other than in the feedback to the student’s learning partner? It may be considered a “cultural difference” or an issue that is borderline but I have a parent who is verbally and physically abusive to their child. The student is excellent during the lesson until the parent enters. Then they stop participating, wait for the parent to give them the answer and look visibly upset. Additionally, the parent corrects the student continuously to the point were I can’t get a word in nor can I actually hear if the student makes an error. Sometimes, the parent is incorrect in their own “correction!” I have seen the parent strike the student on the head. I have read this form of “corporal punishment” is practiced in China but I refuse to take part in a class where a student is being hit. How can I stop teaching this student without cancelling my classes with them?

    • Hi Elizabeth. I want to assure you that the safety and security of our teachers, students, and parents is a top priority and that we take these matters very seriously. Please contact our team directly at and our Trust and Safety team will investigate further. Thank you.


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