Developing cultural awareness

While reading about other cultures is valuable, it has limits as an educational tool and doesn’t fully prepare you for the experience of actually ‘being’ in a different culture. You can do research online or by reading travel guidebooks, but you will still remain in your comfort zone without the emotional changes and challenges that take place once you find yourself alone and surrounded by a different culture.
I remember walking the streets of a lesser known inland Chinese city and suddenly being startled by cries of “laowai, laowai” coming from across the street. I understood the meaning of laowai–foreigner–in Mandarin Chinese, but I was still surprised that it was considered acceptable to yell that at a foreigner in public. Of course, many of the other locals on the street at the time (which was everyone) stared at me, which of course made me feel more than a bit conspicuous as I picked up my pace to pass everyone with a smile and wave. You see, all the research I had done before going to work and live in China hadn’t fully prepared me for dealing with such an awkward public situation, but it did make me aware that keeping a sense of humor would be a valuable asset in future encounters which might otherwise have turned out to be uncomfortable for both me and the locals I encountered on a daily basis.
Gaining some degree of cultural awareness doesn’t depend on having advanced degrees or being highly intellectual, but in my view it’s accessible to anyone with a keen sense of ‘personal’ awareness and who’s willing and able to spend time living within a foreign culture. Skillful observation of the target (foreign) culture as well as critical examination of your own cultural upbringing are also prerequisites. At its heart, cultural awareness rests on  an individual’s ability to ask the right questions about both their own culture and the new one.

Anyone Can Be An Amateur Anthropologist!

A good starting point for an amateur anthropologist might be to recognize the differences between ‘collectivistic’ and ‘individualistic’ as these are often the first major distinctions made when categorizing various cultures. People who are raised in collectivistic cultures, such as those in the Arabian Gulf, often make decisions based on what’s best for the family unit rather than the individual and tend to share similar opinions, whereas those who grow up in individualistic cultures, like the USA, are more likely to make decisions that are based on the desires of the individual. Of course there are many exceptions within each specific cultural population as well. In other words, individuals don’t always fit so neatly into those boxes that we continue to use as a tool for classification (thanks Linnaeus!). Recognizing and considering these differences can go a long way toward keeping you calm when the reality of a situation doesn’t match your expectations. Let’s try applying that principle to macro-level international scenarios and see if that changes our views.

Why is it important to be culturally aware?

If you’re a business executive marketing products internationally, it obvious that you need to learn as much as possible about the culture in which your products will be sold.

But I think there are deeper and more humane reasons for learning about the culture and way of life of others. I’m encouraging anyone who reads this to ask the hard questions about the choices you make each day within your own culture and consider the effects those choices may have on the lives of others across the world. I also believe Americans need to ensure that we shoulder our share of blame for crises from the Middle East to Latin America. If we have any degree of self-awareness, we must admit that the American government’s policy of protecting ‘American interests’ abroad at all cost has contributed mightily to the planetary chaos we’re currently experiencing, and therefore our future actions must be based on what benefits ALL, and not just Americans, Brits, Russians and the list goes on.

It’s absolutely astonishing to me that George W. Bush admitted he didn’t know the difference between a Sunni and Shia Muslim before his regime’s preemptive war on Iraq! How could this have been true when the CIA and State Department are teeming with so-called cultural experts who have lived in the Middle East and should have been advising his administration on foreign policy and the repercussions of such dramatic actions? But instead of considering the cultural mix they were about to upset, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld went full steam ahead with their invasion, and now, almost 13 years later, Iraq is still in turmoil. I understand many people share differing opinions on this topic, however, I worked in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan and taught both Arab and Kurd students and heard the all too real stories about the death and destruction that was unleashed after the fall of Saddam’s Sunni-led government. I firmly believe that the possibilities of cultural acceptance or backlash should be a guiding principle in all foreign policy decisions. In the case of the Iraq War, more carefully considering cultural outcomes could have saved hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and American lives along with a staggering cost of at least two trillion dollars as determined by a 2013 Brown University study.

Going Forward

One of the things that President Trump said in his inaugural speech that caught my attention was that ‘we’re all in this together’, but I wonder if he was only referring to Americans in general, those citizens who were born on American soil, or based on the executive orders he’s issued during his first week in office, maybe he was only referring to white American. As an international business tycoon, you’d think Trump would be able to grasp the extent to which all nations (and their citizens) are inextricably dependent on each other economically. For example, I’m putting forth the view that working together with Mexico to ensure it has a strong economy that can provide decent jobs for its citizens would go a lot further toward curbing illegal immigration to the USA than any expensive wall that can be built.

Do most Americans realize that the minimum wage in Mexico just increased in January 2017 9from $73 pesos PER DAY, approximately US $3.65, to $80 pesos PER DAY which is approximately US$4.00 with the current exchange rate of 20 Mexican pesos to 1 US dollar! How many Americans would put in 12 hours of labor for $4.00? In addition, most Mexicans work 6-day weeks but still can’t make ends meet. Is it any wonder they often risk their lives to make it across the US border in a desperate search for better wages in order to support their families back home?

Mexico is not alone in depending heavily on remittances sent back to family members from jobs abroad. The list of countries who export their labor is long but includes China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Bangladesh. According to Bloomberg, citing a Pew research study, those remittances totaled $US 500 billion in 2012, triple the amount sent back home by migrants workers in 2000. We can also add countries such as Iraq and Syria where those with the means–often the middle class and well-educated–have been forced to flee their countries due to war and conflict. If the West really is serious about limiting immigration, then it must work with these countries to improve job opportunities for their citizens at home as well as work to end internal conflicts, being fully aware that our foreign policies can cause conflicts or add fuel to the fire of existing ones.

Of course, it’s usually easier and more politically popular to simply apply a short term stop-gap measure than to remain engaged for the long term in an effort that might provide more permanent and fundamental solutions to problems. It’s up to Americans and other Westerners to either work together with the developing world to find solutions to global problems or be isolationists and try to go it alone, simply hoping the problems don’t arrive on our shores. In my view, the global economic crisis should have taught us all the lesson that what affects one major world economy (and the lives of citizens) affects us all. Let’s ensure that our leaders are aware of the valuable lessons we can learn from history. Will we let go of our arrogance long enough to open our minds to the possibilities of a new and better future for ourselves as well as others?

peace, henry

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  1. I enjoy your ‘man on the street’ insights. There truly are important, humane reasons to be conscious of the choices we make, knowing that in one way or another they do affect people in other countries. More than ever our little planet is becoming a global community, like it or not.


    • Thanks Kristy for your comment. I certainly share your concern about the importance of the choices we make on a daily basis, especially those of us from wealthy countries who tend to use more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources.


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