I have just written a textbook, actually a Student’s Manual, a Teacher’s Manual, and a Workbook to accompany them. I know that they will probably never be used as they were intended, if they are used at all, but it doesn’t change the fact that completing the project gives me a sense of personal and professional satisfaction.
The problem with curriculum development is that, unless the person who will use the curriculum is designing it his or herself, or if the person who is writing it has the opportunity to train people in how to use it, then it is more likely than not that it will end up on, in this case, a virtual “shelf” in someone’s computer. In the old days, we had print books, now we have “soft copies”. The advantage to the latter is that everyone can access it with the click of a mouse. The disadvantage is that you don’t experience the pleasure of holding something in your hands while you read. Personally, I also find it easier to read print on paper than on my computer screen.
What was interesting about this project is, again, it was something I had never done before nor, in this case, was I ever trained to prepare something like this, so I had to learn as I went. I was asked by the Chair of the Department of English Education to develop some “practical” activities to be used in the teaching of research at Tribhuvan University. The challenge was several-fold: I do not consider myself to be a formal researcher, nor do I particularly like research (or so I thought) unless it is classroom-based so I was, to some extent, outside of my element. Furthermore, the English Department’s curriculum is almost entirely theoretical, except for a couple of teaching practica, and it is quite full. As a result, faculty were reluctant to have me teach a session or two of their classes, which is why, in ten months, I only taught classes in the department for 12 hours, and I did not do those until May, when a new person took over the position of Chair for the department. The limitations of the schedule meant that I had to design something that wasn’t going to take much time out of the existing program of study. This, of course, was sort of a contradiction in terms if you consider the fact that it takes time to develop a new practical skill, such as, in this case, conducting a research project.
I started with the syllabus for their half-course (yes, not only was the research class entirely theoretical, it was the only course which did not even merit independent status as it was combined with testing). I figured I’d do something for the nine types of research they had listed. But in learning about research, I discovered that a few key types of research were not included, so my project expanded from 9 to 16 “practical somethings”.
I ended up using a flipped instruction approach, where students learn the content, which in this case was a skill, outside of class, and then their work is discussed in class.
To make the out-of-class work practical, I used a methodology from cross-cultural training and create a series of simulated research experiences: For each research approach, I created a situation appropriate for conducting that type of research and then ask the students to carry out a series of research-related tasks as if it they were that type of researcher.
I created 16 simulated research experiences in which students were to engage outside of class, using detailed templates that took them through the necessary steps to complete a research project of a particular type. I explained how to integrate the simulations across the curriculum: Every course could obviously absorb 45″ of additional class time. But I knew, and I know now, that, as appropriate and innovative this educational model may be for the context, the simulations will probably never be done for a couple of reasons: First, I was not asked to do this project until the end of my tenure, so there was no way that I could field-test them, work out the kinks, and demonstrate to others how to use them. Second, it would take convincing over a dozen people whom I was previously unable to ever persuade to allow me to teach to try something that was decidedly “outside their box” on their own.
There is no shortage of good ideas in teaching. But people tend to prefer to stick with what they already know, even if what that is contradicts the theories that they are teaching which is the case here since the curriculum is chock full of readings about engaging in many of the teaching practices that I use on a daily basis but which are never used in a typical Nepali classroom.
What turned out to be the most interesting aspect of this project for me was learning about a particular type of research — hermeneutics — and realizing how it was threaded through my life without my even knowing it.
I admit, when I saw hermeneutic and phenomenological research in the overview of research types upon which I chose to base my choice of topics, I had absolutely no idea what they were. I did kind of like the mysterious word hermeneutics, the way it rolled off my tongue as if it had some secret life into which I could enter if I figured out what it meant. Of course, I knew how to say it before I knew how to spell it, and I learned both of these before I learned what it meant.
Simply speaking, hermeneutics is the art of interpretation of words. It gives the analyst permission, no, it demands it, to “read between the lines” in order to discern the significance of the underbelly of the words, to uncover the lifeworld, aka world view, of the person who wrote, or uttered, the stream of words being studied. Since cross-cultural living is, for me, about trying to understand cultural world views other than my own, I was intrigued.
Originally, hermeneutics was developed to use to interpret religious texts, such as the Quran and the Hadiths, the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Tipitaka, the Sutras, the Bible, the Dao de Jing, the Kojiki, the Tanakh and the Talmud, the Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, the Agamas, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Book of Shadows, the Avesta. But the fact is that every word anyone utters comes from their particular way of perceiving and understanding the world. Not only that, despite all appearances to the contrary, none of us make sense of our experiences in exactly the same way. We don’t even construct the same interpretation of the same experience, even if we participate in it together. So, as a way to look beyond the surface of what is said, hermeneutics is pretty cool and, once freed from the bonds of religious texts, it can be used to more deeply inquire into the meanings behind any words that are uttered by another person.
In fact, we engage in hermeneutic analyses on a daily basis, whenever we try to interpret someone’s comments in a particular context. Basically, we are, in a way, little hermeneutic elves, digging our way under someone’s words to interpret what they are actually saying. We are on a mission to find the wizard that is behind the curtain of a person’s words. Whenever you say (or think) something like the following, you are launching a hermeneutic inquiry:
What does she really mean when she says…? What do you think?
Or, I know he said he would do it, but did he really mean that he would do it? What should I do?
Or, I’m not quite sure if they really mean what they say. I’m not sure I can count on them…
The truth is that we are all constantly trying to figure out who the wizards are behind the curtains of each others’ words so that we can somehow speak the same language and, in so doing, come closer to understanding one another without any curtains between us. But there is actually no language outside of our wizard selves to use to communicate with one another because as we interpret, we create new meanings. That is, we never know the essence of things, we only know the meanings we have constructed to represent them to ourselves.
Our meanings are constantly being created, they are not static. According to hermeneutic theory, meanings are not given, but develop in conversation, and are socially constructed, and constantly being created in interactions, between people, between authors and their texts.
The literature explaining hermeneutics is interesting: Theorists characterize what can be done with it in great detail, and wax loquacious on what it is, but no where could I find anything about how to actually do it. Until… I became aware that I was having a strong reaction to something someone said in an email, and I wanted to know why… What was it about the lifeworld of the author of the email that challenged me? And so my hermeneutic elf-self started digging in search of the wizard behind the email author’s words.
Email is actually a great source of text for hermeneutic analysis, especially since the medium is notorious for causing conflicts between the sender and the receiver when the latter’s spontaneous hermeneutic analysis results in the receiver completely misunderstanding the intent aka lifeworld of the author at the time s/he sent the email. I have, myself, fallen prey to having a strong reaction to an email sent to me and quickly shooting off a reply without checking to see if my hermeneutic analysis of the words actually reflected what the author of the email was trying to say.
Of course, shooting off a quick reply based on a misguided hermeneutic analysis of what one has read results in misinterpretations being layered over one another as each party continues to try to get the other one to understand what they really meant with their words. If one is not careful, the volley of misunderstood texts, and the emotions associated with each person’s fallacious interpretation of the other person’s words, can escalate until the exchange takes on a life of its own, and the correspondents can’t quite remember what started it all.
The difficulty with trying to find the wizard behind someone else’s curtain of words is that, of course, we all have our own curtains behind which our personal wizards reside and they, of course, color any interpretation we might make of someone else’s words, or lifeworld. Despite a very valiant attempt to decipher the meanings constructed by the speaker that give rise to the words spoken, the intrepid hermeneuticist (yep, I just made that word up) remains limited by what his or her wizard can interpret. This is why we never actually see the essence of things, we just see the meanings that we make. If we’re lucky some of the people with whom we are in contact construct the same meaning that we do.
In fact, the likelihood that someone can correctly reconstruct someone else’s lifeworld is proportionate to the degree to which the two individuals share common experiences and values. So, for example, the likelihood that an American man will understand what his American husband of ten years is trying to say is higher than if he were talking with the wife of a neighbor with whom he has only had a nodding acquaintance for ten years. This is why, presumably, hermeneutics as a science of interpretation developed among people trying to interpret texts that, not only came from a different cultural and religious world views, but also were written in completely different times. Face it, the likelihood that a American Christian millenial would correctly interpret the Indian Vedas is next to none without a lot of hermeneutic training.
The importance of hermeneutic skills are especially evident in cross-cultural situations because people from different cultures have recognizably different worldviews, and sometimes it takes years of living in a new culture just to begin to understand how members of the culture interpret — and express — ideas. So, if you know that you are talking to someone who does not have the cultural and linguistic expertise to understand your words as you intend to be understood, then you need to choose your words carefully, or not use any at all.
The email in question, which helped me understand not only what hermeneutics is, but also to realize that we all do it on a daily basis, was from a Peace Corps staff member here in Nepal.
Now Peace Corps has great historical and personal significance for me and, in order to understand my emotional response to the correspondence, I needed to look into my own history with Peace Corps. Writing Kiswahili textbooks for Peace Corps in the late 1970’s launched me into foreign language teaching as a career and later into teacher education. When Peace Corps was first founded in 1961, their was little infrastructure, and certainly no one in the U.S government who had any idea how to train American volunteers to succeed in a foreign culture. So, they did what they always do and turned to experienced cross-cultural trainers who just happened to be people working for The Experiment in International Living, the first American organization to ever send people overseas for home stays.
It was a natural partnership, EIL trained volunteers in the U.S. and then they traveled overseas to begin their cross-cultural adventures. Over time, because of how well EIL staff were able to prepare volunteers, someone at EIL had the brilliant idea to start a Master’s program in foreign language teaching which would expand the export of quality language and culture learning into academia. The new college was called the School for International Living, and it it was here that my fledgling career finally landed me, as a faculty member working with the very people who had brought JFK’s dream for Peace Corps to life.
Suffice it to say that, after forty years of a life driven by the many values that I acquired from my work in an organization dedicated to improving the quality of foreign language and cross-cultural education as a pathway to creating a more mutually respectful global community, I think it is fair to say that I have a great attachment to what I consider to be the essence of Peace Corps philosophy and (apparently) I react strongly when I feel that this is being threatened by someone’s lack of understanding of its significance and its implications for how we act in the world.
The second piece of personal “history” that contributed to my response that I had to the email in question was more recent: In the last nine months, I have had the honor and the privilege of doing daylong trainings with more than 600 Nepali primary and secondary school English teachers. Their dedication to their teaching, despite having had, more often than not, no training in how to teach pervaded all our interactions. Over time, as learned about them from watching how they responded to our work together, I came to appreciate how truly courageous these teachers are, and to respect what they have achieved under some of the worst teaching conditions imaginable.
So, you can imagine my response to words coming from someone from Peace Corps which appeared to be embedded in a world view that the way education is done in Nepal is lacking in some way, and implied the teachers were some how being inappropriate in their responses to volunteers. The email was a request for me to give them “personal contacts” for schools that would let the volunteers do what they wanted to do. It hadn’t been more than a month since the first group of Peace Corps English teachers had entered service after a hiatus of 15 years and, yet, the organization had already decided to use personal networks to identify what they considered to be better settings where they could send future volunteers.
As far as I could tell, the reported difficulties were nothing more than the result of good old culture shock at its best, perhaps brought on by the volunteers entering their new contexts guns blazing, as opposed to doing what we used to tell volunteers to do…. spend your first few months at least getting to know your community, your school, your colleagues, your students, and learning the language and local traditions. That is, don’t run around trying to change everything as soon as you arrive.
Much of the training that EIL did for Peace Corps in the early years involved teaching both language skills and cross-cultural sensitivity training. That is, in addition to speaking a language being a educable skill, so is successful cross-cultural living. The latter, even more than the formed, requires that we learn how to suspend judgment when we enter a new cultural setting and try to interpret what we encounter from the perspective of a host country national rather than through the lens of our own culture. This is easier said than done and most, if not all, volunteers go through a period of what is fondly called in the field of cross-cultural studies culture shock. But usually Peace Corps managers understand that this is what is happening, and remind volunteers of their role to integrate into the community before trying to change it. It was a departure from tradition to conclude that there was a problem with the host culture.
The first time out, culture shock can be a bit overwhelming. Even now, after having lived in several different cultures, I have to rein in my “American” opinions when I enter a new culture in order to get through the shock of living in a completely different world and figuring out how to take of myself when nothings “works” the way it does at home. (For a current example in my life, what stationary store in the United States sells eggs? )
I also need to have time to figure out enough about what is going on that I can interact with the people in what might be construed as appropriate manner in the new culture. Actually, the process never gets any easier, but the discomfort associated with it is by now quite familiar to me. And it usually takes about six months until I feel like maybe I can accomplish something without inadvertently and irrevocably insulting someone. Of course, I have one thing going for me during this period of adjustment — host culture nationals expect me to be weird, I am an outsider after all. But the fact is, no matter how long I spend in a new culture, I am always battling my American identity.
So, here I am in Nepal, committed to what I understand Peace Corps’ goals to be as well as holding a deep appreciation for the plight of English teachers in Nepal, and I receive the following email:
Peace Corp has not yet ventured into teacher training for teachers of Nepal, but we assign volunteers to schools to teach English. As you may know, the widely used practice here is teaching out of the textbook, a lot of translation, and teaching to tests. When we visit schools and teachers during our school identification process, they tell us that they want to invite volunteers and try new techniques with them, but later, they want even volunteers to translate a lot. That is why, we are asking friends for help to identify schools where what they say matches with what they practice.
On the surface, the words look harmless enough. But hermeneutically they reveal themselves to arise from a lifeworld which may be, at least to come extent, contrary to what I understand Peace Corps to be all about.
First of all, there is a clear implication by the juxtaposition of teaching out of the textbook, a lot of translation, and teaching to tests to try new techniques that suggests that the author doesn’t think much of the Nepali educational system.
-> What happened to Peace Corps’ value of accepting and respecting different ways of being in the world ?
Then there is also the assumption that something is somehow wrong if Nepali teachers don’t want to jump up and hand their classes over to a foreigner who knows little about their educational system during the first month of a volunteer’s service.
–> What happened to the Peace Corps’ approach of spending the first few months getting to know one’s new community before trying to do anything out-of-the ordinary for that context?
Yes, one of our roles is to act as change agents, but only when our hosts want the change we are offering and I can’t think of any culture in the world where whose members would want to change the way they do things simply because a new foreign arrival says they should as soon as they show up in town. The reluctance to try things that seem strange to us in our cultural context and a suspicion of outsiders to our culture is universal. That is, it is normal. Caution when confronted with something strange for the first time should never be used as an excuse to deny someone the benefit of new ideas that we might have to offer. The problem is not the ideas, but how they are being introduced.
Then there is assumption that the volunteers’ distress with the state of affairs in their new schools is somehow the school’s fault, a failure on the part of the teachers and administrators who work there.
–> What happened to learning to recognize that one’s discomforts comes from one’s world view, that they are not a host country national’s responsibility?
Then there is the assumption that Peace Corps has to change its policies in order to find settings where the volunteers are more “comfortable”.
–> What happened to allowing volunteers to go through the shock of entry into a new culture as a means to help the volunteer transform his or her world view so that s/he can act in more culturally appropriate and sensitive ways with host country nationals?
This last strategy of trying to please the Americans by finding them a setting in the new culture which will feel more comfortable is entirely out-of-character for the Peace Corps that I know. Peace Corps is well-known in the literature on transformational education in the United States as being the quintessential example of educating Americans to be better cross-cultural participants by providing them with what is fondly called a crucible experience — an experience that melts someone down so that they can emerge from the chrysallis of their own cultural ignorance to successfully take emerge as a more culturally aware butterfly. The conflict that the volunteers are having with their host teachers during their first months of service around whether or not they should do translation is simply an example of what we call a critical incident in cross-cultural studies, also known as a culture clash — a misunderstanding that arises when two people from different cultures get into some sort of conflict due to their different cultural perspectives.
In terms of Peace Corps’ philosophy, the angst which the volunteers are experiencing around not being allowed to do what they want to do is not only not a problem, it is actually a good thing as it signals the beginning of a learning experience which, if allowed to run its normal course, will result in personal transformation. This will not happen for them if the people who should be supporting them to go through a culture clash with self-awareness and grace and are, instead, confirming their worst fear that something is wrong with the host country nationals with whom they are in conflict. I have to be honest, this makes me crazy.
The misconceptions do not end here.
Take, for example, the idea that there is something wrong with translation. Translation has been used for centuries as a way to understand what someone who speaks another language is saying. Furthermore, research into multilingualism has revealed that bilingual speakers do a lot of code-switching both as children learning two (or more) languages and as adults speakers using those languages to speak to one another. This process is called translanguaging. And because we know that this skill, if you will, characterizes naturally multilingual communities, many foreign languages teachers have let go of the assumption that foreign language teaching should be done in the target language. That is, translation can enhance the learning experience of foreign language students.
–> So how were the volunteers trained such that they would consider translation to be somehow beneath them?
And where does the notion that using textbooks and teaching to exams is undesirable in the Nepali context come from? Progression through Nepal’s system of education depends upon one’s ability to pass exams that are designed by external examiners, who also write the textbooks, the content of which the exams are based. Whereas in the U.S., teachers usually grade their own students (except when they are taking standardized tests for one reason or another), the Nepali teacher has absolutely no control over the questions that their students will have to answer on their exams. This means that, in order to support students in a way that will ensure their success in education, we must use the existing textbooks and do what we can to prepare our students for their exams.
–> What happened to the idea that we will not do harm to the people living in our new culture?
The issue in Nepali education is not that they use textbooks and take exams, but that the way in which they use the textbooks do not always promote communication and self-directed learning. But this is an issue of process not product (the textbook, the exams), and if we believe it would be better for student learning if we were to change how they are used, we must do this in a way that does not feel like one’s way of life is being rejected or criticized.
As luck would have it, Nepal’s Ministry of Education’s textbooks are actually very good. They have a myriad of different activities which can be used to promote communication while also preparing students for exams. The only problem with them that I can see is that they are not systematically organized. So if a teacher has had no training in how to organize a lesson in a systematic fashion, their only recourse is to progress through the activities in the order that they occur in the book, which is what most Nepali teachers do. That is, without the skills and tools to reflect on what the textbooks are assuming in the design of each lesson, and make decisions based upon insights culled from those reflections, the textbook becomes the teacher, rather than being simply a tool that the teacher can use to help students achieve desired learning outcomes .
In education, their are three variables in a classroom: the teacher, the students, and the subject matter. A successful learning experience does not depend upon the subject matter, rather it depends upon what the teachers and learners do with it.
I think what got my “ire” up the most with the correspondence was the idea that volunteers would not be placed in as many schools as want them just because Peace Corps doesn’t think people in some of them are matching their actions to their words. Of course, the irony was that one could say that, in this instance, Peace Corps wasn’t matching its words to its actions either: Peace Corps is about promoting mutual respect by integrating oneself into a new cultural context in order to understand it and yet, here they were, striking a posture of us versus them, with “us” being right and “them” being wrong.
For me, this critical incident around translation has a completely different significance in the context. That is, rather than interpreting it as a problem, I see it as evidence that people in the schools are trying to honor their word with regards to hosting an American. They are doing what anyone does who is trying to welcome someone into their community — they are inviting them to follow local customs, to teach the newcomer what s/he needs to know to survive in a new context. When I thought about it more, I realized that there is no difference between inviting someone to eat a traditional dish, or wear a traditional dress, and asking them to teach the way that they do. That is, it is not unusual to assume that, if that American wants to try wearing a sari (and all the female volunteers were wearing them in their final group photo), then they will also want to try out traditional teaching techniques.
With regards to the apparent discrepancy between what the schools are saying and what they are actually doing, the truth is that there probably aren’t many, if any, schools where people actually understand the implications of agreeing to host a volunteer under any circumstances. Having an English speaker at a school is prestigious. Most people, under these circumstances, will agree to whatever the person says who is doling out Americans, even if s/he don’t understand it, or doesn’t realized that they don’t understand it, simply because I think it would be cool to have an American on display.
And really, why would we ever expect someone to know what to do with someone who came from a world that they did not know? Our stated aims of Peace Corps for its volunteers is three-fold: For the Americans to learn to understand a culture from the perspective of its members, to allow host country nationals to know more about Americans and American culture, and, to provide technical assistance. How could anyone know what to do with an American, if they have never done it before, or even seen an American before, which is the case for many. I will never forget the wide-eyed man at one of my trainings who looked perpetually surprised, when asked him the question at the end of the day “What did you learn today” answered:
I learned that a woman can have short hair. I didn’t know that women can have short hair.
In that moment, his wide, shocked eyes suddenly made sense.
How could he have absorbed anything about what I was doing pedagogically speaking if simply seeing me was a shock?
I had to be satisfied with the fact that I had opened his eyes up to a wider understanding of what it means to be a woman, i.e. we can have short hair just like men do. It’s never a bad thing when someone wakes up to a new way of seeing the world. No matter how trivial it might appear to someone else, each eye-opening experience takes us closer to the ultimate prize of personal enlightenment. What touched me the most was that he had the courage, midst everyone else reporting what might be considered somewhat profound insights into teaching and learning, to tell me what he was the most important thing for him about being able to work with me. His comment was, and always will be, one of my most precious memories of my time in Nepal.
I understand the volunteer’s frustration with not being able to do what they think they should be able to do. It took me months to realize that the reason why no one had anything for me to do at the university where I was assigned in Nepal was probably not personal but rather was cultural. They simply just didn’t know what to do with me. And why should they? They’d never had an American scholar before, what use could I possibly be in preparing students for exams about which I knew nothing? They didn’t know any more what to do with me than the teachers at the public schools receiving volunteers know what to do with them.
The difference that I see between my circumstances at the university and the volunteers’ is that, at least, the schools are trying to include the foreigner in classroom teaching. This did not happen at my university until the Chair of the department resigned and a new one took over. He was willing to let me do what I had wanted to do since September — teach hour-long classes as a visiting teacher that would complement the existing curriculum. Of course, the students loved what I did; I don’t know what the faculty thought. But by then it was already too late, spring break was upon us after which I would be leaving. But the point of all this is that it took me six months to even set foot in a classroom at all. Given that Peace Corps volunteer tours are two years long, there really is no reason to rush into anything when they first arrive at their sites.
The truth is that I think Tribhuvan University agreed to have me come because it is prestigious to have an English Language Fellow from the U.S. Embassy, in fact, the Regional English Language Officer said as much to me when we were discussing my lack of work to do and why this did not concern him: Having a Fellow is prestigious. When we send an ELF to an institution, we are showing them how important they are to us. That is, there is diplomatic value in our having sent you there which is not diminished if you do not do any work there.
–> So I was simply window-dressing in the chess game of U.S. public diplomacy? I wondered…
This was difficult for me to accept, and it may be the same for the new volunteers. That is, we assume that we have been invited to come because of our professional skills when, in fact, the most salient aspect of our identity for the Nepalese is our “native speakerness”. It was difficult for me to hear time and time again from my hosts how happy they were to have a native speaker around. Rarely was the quality of my work mentioned.
–> What about my expertise in the field of language teaching? Doesn’t it mean anything at all?
For someone who prides herself on working hard, tailoring what I do to each context in which I find myself, and offering innovative learning experiences, it was a hard pill for me to swallow to realize that no one really cared what I was doing, or how well I was doing at it (or not), just as long as I was doing (or not doing) whatever it was in English. I had never felt that someone was just “putting up” with my working because it was cool to put me on display. In a sense, I was, indeed, simply window dressing for everyone else involved in the encounter — the Embassy and the university. But the fact is, this is a perfectly valid reason to invite a foreigner into one’s midst. That is makes me uncomfortable is my problem, not my hosts.
As a final comment, I make note of the fact that this hermeneutic examination of the lifeworlds that formed the foundation for both my words and the words of my correspondent, revealed that this cross-cultural encounter via email is a quintessential example of a cross-cultural critical incident, aka culture clash. In fact it was a four-way one, beginning with the Nepali teachers’ responses to the Americans, the American’s responses to them, the PC staff member’s response to their response to the Nepali teachers, and my response to both his response and theirs (admittedly reported by a third party).
The truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong with what the Nepali teachers are asking of the Americans, or what the volunteers are asking to be allowed to do instead, or in what the staff member is asking me, or in my offering an alternative explanation for the original action taken on the part of the teachers. We all have different wizards pulling the strings behind the curtains of our words. It is interesting to see how, out of the two “outsiders” observing the original conflict from afar, the American is defending the “honor” of the Nepali teachers in the original culture clash — while the Nepali is defending “honor” of the the volunteers. To be frank, I haven’t figured out the hermeneutic optics of our respective behaviors. They are what they are.
The truth is that no one but the American volunteers and the Nepali teachers will be able to work out their differences. This brings us full circle to PC’s purposeful decision to throw Americans into an experience that will, if followed to its natural conclusion, result in their lifeworld undergoing a transformation.
As for the culture clash in which I am directly involved, the truth is that I may be clinging to the past. Peace Corps is almost seventy years old. The people who designed the original approach to cross cultural training are long gone. The Peace Corps of today is managed by the several generations that followed the one who built the organization during the sixties, especially since Peace Corps’ policy of limiting employment to five years, every five years, has resulting in a very short organizational memory. The goal was to make sure that the organization didn’t collect too much “dead wood” in terms of staffing over the years, but the outcome is that the organization, because it is continually being renewed, it is a well-known fact that it is subject to a lack of institutional memory which makes it very easy for some of features which distinguished it sixty years ago to be lost in the present. Peace Corps staff are constantly remarking on how they keep having to re-invent the wheel.
In the final analysis, I am probably a typical example of such “dead wood”, clinging to an ideal, and the practices that were associated with it, that is over sixty years old. In the end, my correspondent is correct — we are indeed judged by our actions, not by our words: I did decide to reply to the email inquiry I received. I decided that, dead wood or not, I had to at least try to advocate for volunteers to be sent to any schools that want them, rather than just to schools where they would feel immediately comfortable. But in so doing, I acted in an unthinkable manner — I, a woman, questioned the lifeworlds, and the actions that were arising from men in power. Yikes! I guarantee that this is not something that is usually done in Nepal nor, I am sad to say, does it appear to be acceptable behavior in the U.S. government. That is, I have consciously and knowingly acted in a way that would be frowned upon in both cultures. Voilà and a new critical incident to analyze in some cross-cultural training simulation, all of which require cross-cultural hermeneutic analytical skills to process, is born:
What happened? Why do you think the American replied to the email in the way that she did? What did her action tell us about her interpretation of thy situation in which she found herself? Why do you think this?
Is there another interpretation of the situation than the one she had? What is it?
Can you think of something else she could have done? What would you have done in this situation? Why?
How do you think the her correspondent reacted to her action, and her words? What else could he have done? What does his reaction tell us about how he interpreted her actions? Why do you think this?
The possibilities are endless: Cross-cultural encounters of any type are an opportunity to hermeneutically look both at ourselves and those with whom we interact.
I did not expect a reply to my email, but I hoped that I would be wrong and that my correspondent would, at the very least, recognize that I had only the best interests of both the volunteers and the Nepalese at heart when I suggested that he not try to use “personal networks” to determine who would benefit from the services of a Peace Corps volunteer. But my correspondence was only greeted with cyber silence. No one wants someone to question the motivations for their actions when they attempt to corral that person into thinking “their way”. No one really wants someone else to see the wizard behind their curtain of words. For each of us, our personal wizard is our dearest life companion, and not available for analysis.
Of course, the final irony of this all is that the organization to which I referred the gentleman in his search for schools to host volunteers reported to me that they had told him the same thing when he approached them — that personal networking is not how they determine which schools will, or will not, be offered trainings. In the end, what I thought was my dead-wood-Peace-Corps take on the situation proved to be wrong. For one shining moment of cross-cultural exchange, the Nepalese teachers and I had the same wizard behind the curtains of our words.