Culture Shocked (2)

I guess no one reads blogposts that are not about the five comment-required topics, but in case you happen to, please refer to my previous post for context and the first story.

I was a hall advisor in my senior year at Bryn Mawr. Before the semester started we had a hall advisor training, and in one of the sessions we talked about past cases the dorm leadership teams came through.

One of them talked about dealing with students from a different cultural background.

She was a customs person, and at Bryn Mawr customs people are a very important part of the dorm leadership; they help freshmen adjust into traditions, college life, and serve as a valuable resource to them throughout their years at Bryn Mawr.

During the move-in week the year she served as a customs person, there was a dispute between two students on her floor. The two lived in a double room, and one of them was Chinese. The Chinese student arrived on campus first, claimed the bigger room of the double, and when the other student came, she wanted the bigger room as well.

The custom person quoted the Chinese student: “In China there is a saying that the person who arrives first owns the success.” She explains the dispute between the two students and the Chinese student’s refusal of a settlement with this Chinese belief.

The thing is, I happened to know this Chinese student in the story. We actually came from the same city in China. When we went out for lunch the other day, she told me about the same story, but from her point of view.

The two students talked to each other on Facebook before the move-in week, and they agreed on the room assignment prior to their arrival. After the Chinese student moved in, all by herself, the other student showed up, changed her mind and wanted the bigger room. This student came with both her parents. The custom person taking care of that hall was of the same ethnic origin as the this student (sorry I don’t remember which). It was the Chinese student’s first few days in America and she wasn’t that fluent with English.

She felt isolated and insecure; they made an agreement beforehand; and she had already put all the furniture in place and room décor on. That’s why she refused to switch room. And in the end, she gave in; they switched room anyways.

That Chinese saying? No such thing. It doesn’t exist. The closest thing to “the person who arrives first owns the success” I could think of is 先到先得, which is a direct translation to “first come first served”.

I told the story to the hall advisor cohort. The director of the training concluded: “We are not here to judge who was right or who was wrong; the important thing is that we try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes when coming into situations like this.”

I agreed. The Chinese student could be biased. The customs person could be biased. I’m certainly biased in retelling the story. We should definitely consider the situation from both perspectives.

But I’m not satisfied. No.

You can’t just attribute someone’s behavior that you don’t quite understand to their culture. You can’t just think someone is rude, unreasonable, incomprehensive, and refuse to further understand what they are saying and just go ahead and explain that with your false interpretation of their culture. You can’t just be like there is a Chinese saying, and this is why she was stubborn and refused to communicate. No.

Cultural relativism is great. You have to understand other people’s beliefs based on their own culture and not judge them against your own criteria. But you are not Franz Boas. You are not a particularly civilized American anthropologist observing the life of jungle men. Oh these people cannibalize because there is a jungle saying that sponsors this barbarian behavior. We live in this modernized, and by modernized I mean westernized, society, and we share some common beliefs. Not everything should be attributed to cultural differences. And in this everyone tries to be politically correct higher education circle, don’t cover up your bias or stereotypes with cultural relativism.

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