To better understand a local culture, people usually are immersed in the local context and are engaged in the local activities. Here is a story of how a Georgian, Smith, learned to understand a foreign culture through travel in China.
Before the travel, Smith had some impressions upon China. For example, he heard that the Chinese governmental officials were unfriendly to the Christians; they might suspect a foreigner as a spy and put him/her into jail. He was afraid the Chinese people did not like foreigners because they were different.
No matter how many times his Chinese friend Fan explained to him the current situation in China, he barely could understand it well since he heard many negative comments about China from TV, newspapers, and friends, and he had a stereotyped image of China and Chinese.
Smith was welcomed warmly by Chinese people. When he went to shopping, the staff in the stores smiled at him, gave him a cup of water, and happily learned several English words from him; when he was on the bus, a policeman gave his seat to him; when he was walking on the street in a small city, a man shook his hands with Smith and told him how excited he was to see a foreign friend in a small city; when he was on the train, the innocent passengers were so curious about him and his country and asked him so many questions.
Smith talked to many local people and asked them questions about China, Chinese culture, and also some sensitive political and economic questions. In a group dinner, he told people there what he read about China in magazines. Everybody laughed and told him that is the situation 50 years ago. He asked the questions about corruption, the Chinese economy, the currency issues, and also the international relations between China and other countries. The young people discussed those questions with him with great interests. They also asked him questions about America and how Americans thought about China.
Smith also had an opportunity to visit a local government in Shanghai. He was not treated as a spy, instead, he was greeted warmly by several government officials. In a tourist place, some young students greeted him, talked with him and practiced their English with him. A policeman stood beside him. Later he said the policeman wanted to “spy” on him in case he said something harmful. Fan explained to him that the policeman, like other Chinese, was just curious about a foreigner, and wanted to know some new and fresh information from him who is from a foreign country.
“Human thought is basically both social and public…Thinking consists not of ‘happening in the head’…but of a traffic in what have been called…significant symbols” (Geertz, 2000, p.45) such as words, gestures, music, drawings, etc. which “is disengaged from its mere actuality and used to impose meaning upon experience” (Geertz, 2000, p.45). Instead of having the symbols embedded in the local context to understand the meaning of the symbols and the social realities presented by the symbols, people usually interpret other cultures and social realities within their own culture fabric. This usually causes misunderstanding of the other culture. People disengage the culture from the local context and universalize their understanding of other cultures within their own culture structure. This misinterpretation of other culture is especially reinforced when people’s thoughts are shaped by their own political, religious preferences and the media with particular positions.
Smith had the similar situation before he traveled to China. His understanding of China and Chinese culture was built within the fabric of his culture, the mainstream media reports in his country, and his own religious preference. His talking to the local people, experiencing the local people’s emotions, gestures, facial expressions, and engaging in the active dialogues and social interactions with the local people helped him understand a new culture and its social reality. End.
Here is a video about how to understand a different culture through collecting the documents about a culture, interviewing the immigrants, and the students’ self reflections. Enjoy!