Human connection across cultures

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One crucial rule of American pavement etiquette is the too familiar “How are you?” “Good!” street dance. Two people walk towards each other and perform this verbal tango as soon as they are in hearing range. This usually invokes some muttering and non-substantial words in response, resulting in a non-conversation that ends with a quick “Nice seeing you!” as the two hurry on.

To Americans, this exchange is ritual— an act of habit and politeness that probably won’t go away anytime soon.

“Before coming to America, I didn’t even know small talk existed. It’s still weird to me to this day,” Indian exchange student Raj Chauhan said. “[People] don’t even slow down. I was taken aback, what was the point of that conversation? If we’re going to have a conversation it should be a real conversation or no conversation at all.”

While the concept of small talk may seem universal, it is embedded in Western culture. Small talk is just one main difference between American customs and many others. While we share many of the same emotions, it is interesting to analyze how we, as humans, choose to interact and convey those emotions. Cross culturally, it is human nature to connect. However, how we connect through our culture is another question.

International students on Cal Poly’s campus experience new ways to love, display vulnerability and cultivate relationships every day as they observe campus life and their peers. This month, The Wire sat down with two international students to explore both how they are individually affected by American culture and how they have learned to adapt.

Love, for example, is expressed in a plethora of ways depending on the culture we were raised in.

“Americans are way more emotionally vulnerable and share more than I personally would with my family. For my family, I know they love me to death but we don’t have to say that.” Chauhan said. “Instead of ‘Goodnight, I love you’s,’ we go to bed and just know we love one another.”

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the terms high-context and low-context culture in the 1970s to describe a culture’s style of communication. In high-context cultures, the rules of communication are not explicitly stated but rather primarily transmitted through contextual elements such as body language, a person’s status and tone of voice. In contrast, low context cultures rely on explicit verbal communication.

From a sociological study done at Harvard, the phrase ‘I love you’ tends to be used less in a high context cultures where “expectations are high and well documented.” While in the Western culture—a low context culture—relationships are often managed with ‘I love you’ reminders to reassure others of their importance.

English junior Ashlynn Ritter served as the Communications Officer for the International Student Friendship Club and has also noted these differences. “We are talking about polychronic cultures versus monochronic cultures. For the most part America is a monochronic culture. We really can only exist on a linear timeline. We all have packed schedules because time is money. We’re just trying to get as many things done and as a result we can value time over people sometimes. That can explain why we have the ‘Hey, how you doing? Okay, gotta keep going to class!’ conversation.”

Architecture freshman Bo Li is an international student from China. Americans’ ease of saying “I love you” struck him as confusing. “Saying I love you to my parents feels weird,” Bo Li said. “But it’s not because I do not appreciate or feel that emotion toward them.”

He further explained the reason for this lack of verbal self expression dates back to Confucianism. It is inherent in Confucian society for people to respect hierarchy and differences in status much more than Westerners, who tend to be more egalitarian and open towards strangers. “You should respect all of your elders which means your are not on the same level as them.”  

Americans may utilize the L-word to casually bookend a conversation, but the Chinese phrase ‘Wo ai ni’, which translates to ‘I love you,’ is a much more blunt and powerful signifier of commitment, rather than affection. More typically in Asian cultures love is expressed in other ways such as making a child’s favorite dish, spending quality time together or, most importantly, through the age-old Asian question of “Have you eaten yet?” translating to “I truly do care about you.

This cultural difference also translates into how vulnerable and open children are with their parents. Both in India and China, parents focus on cultivating independence.

After being exposed to Western culture, Chauhan sought to find the balance between independence and openness with her parents.

“I acknowledged in the middle of my study abroad experience, I do not communicate that much with my parents and I was okay with it, but there are times where I really needed to and my culture or my usual dynamic with my parents didn’t allow for that.”

She noticed that many of her American friends had a more open relationship with their parents. If they were stressed over finals, a phone call with mom was a simple solution. Dating advice? Ask mom!

Inspired by this, Chauhan yearned to share the same intimacy with her parents.

One day, when back in India, Raj Chauhan had her first emotional breakdown in front of her parents. “I had a straight up conversation with them where I kind of burst into tears. At first, they were surprised and didn’t know how to act, but in the end were obviously loving, accepting and happy that I shared.”

While experiencing and exposing ourselves to other cultures, we can, at times, find ourselves stuck between different versions of ourselves.

“I think a lot of the communication barrier was because I had been speaking English for so long that some things became more comfortable for me and even though I understand English, it’s weird for me to speak in English to my parents,” Chauhan said. “Being bilingual brings that into the picture totally because you have different personalities for different languages.”

Bo Li also experienced language discrepancies.

Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone will lead to awkward situations, but Li argues that is how you learn and grow. “When I first went to Poly Deli, I didn’t know any of the sauce names so I would go and point to the sauce and simply ask the worker, ‘What’s that called?’ What’s this called?’ I know it’s awkward, but you kind of have to do it.”

What happens, however, when you find a new version of yourself that does not align with your traditional culture? How do we bring our newfound perspectives into our original culture? Many Cal Poly students may experience this after studying abroad. Post-travel, many Cal Poly students gush about how they have found new perspectives or how studying abroad changed their life. However, it is crucial to figure out how to take those lessons learned and replant them into a familiar society and culture.

Both Chauhan and Li shared the importance of finding a new piece of yourself and keeping that with you cross-culturally.

“I want to bring my attitude and ability to appreciate nature back to China. I had never rock climbed or surfed before, but here, I am able to do that.” Every week, Li has explored a new activity. Whether it be mountain biking, camping or rock climbing, he has found a new passion and version of himself.  

“My parents never pushed me to go outside. It was always about academics. Not even art or sports are pushed on us like they are here. So I ask myself why am I so brave? I’ve never done these things before. I am nervous, but I am excited. I can play video games inside at home any time but this is not the life I want, this is not what I came for.”  

Chauhan, through Western culture, has also found a new confidence in herself. Her yellow, radiant dress complimented her glowing skin as she shared how she felt more empowered and confident by dressing westernized.

“People are okay with exposing more of themselves here, but in India, you must be reserved. After studying here for almost two years, I’m starting to like the clothes here more and I’m personally not planning on fully transitioning back to my traditional dress.”

Chauhan urges those who experience new cultures, to embrace both rather than choosing one or the other, and find yourself between the two.

For example, her new bikini. “I wouldn’t even think about wearing a bikini in India, but I just got a new swimsuit last week that I am so excited for!” Raj said with a glowing smile. “I want to share this part of me with people back home, and I’ll probably even send a selfie to my mom but maybe not the family group.”

Noticing cultural similarities and differences can allow us to better understand one another. No culture is “right,” but rather we naturally accept the narrative we are taught growing up. While the experience of being abroad may come to an end, interdependence and the meshing of cultures does not.

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