Anthropological Perspective

I’ve completed half of my internship at EarthRights International and I have four weeks left now. This is a good time to ponder over the things I learnt in my Cultural Anthropology class at IWU last fall. I was just talking to Tera the other day about the cultural differences I learnt that I am now experiencing. To be honest, I’m quite surprised at how comfortable this cultural-exchange experience has been for me.

High and Low Context

One of the first things I remember studying is that there are two kinds of societies: high-context and low-context. It isn’t much complicated, though! The main difference I notice is a lot of indirect communication taking place in a high-context society and a pretty much direct communication in low-context.

Communication involves body language, silence, how close one stands to another, eye contact and so on. Most of these are examples of non-verbal communication, which is one of the main aspects of a high-context society. People take indirect communication into account. They shy away from accepting a present or asking for a favor (as far as I have seen, at least). All the Asian countries, including mine, are high-context.

Low-context societies, like the United States of America (where I go to college), involve direct communication. People are outspoken and they get straight to the point.

I remember interviewing an Asian friend for the same class. I noted the conversational differences he experienced in the two cultures – American and his own. One of his funniest reaction was related to eye contact in American culture. He mentioned how his (high-context) society shows respect through humble gestures. Some of these gestures include giving a light handshake (instead of a firm one “that shows confidence”), not “staring straight into someone’s eyes” to avoid dominance, and keeping a posture (which was different for men and women in his culture).

He also mentioned how constant eye contact made him uncomfortable in the beginning, given how different his home country is from the US. Hailing from a country with similar culture, I instantly understood. What he described is true for roughly 66% percent of rural Indian population. The other 34% also includes some conservative families that want to uphold the traditional values. Although city culture in India is slowly getting “westernized”, it wasn’t westernized enough to prepare me for a life abroad.

I met new people, made jokes that they didn’t understand (Yes, the sense of humor differs, too!), responded too late to a “How are you?” from a random person and craved food from home. I struggled with a new education system, classes and jobs that I never thought I’d do. That basically sums up my first semester at IWU. But this blog isn’t about IWU, it is about my summer away from it in a different country.

Why am I writing about this?

The reason I write about my first semester is because that was when I experienced the first major culture shock. Like I mentioned, coming to Thailand wasn’t too overwhelming for me. I knew the kind of society I’d be living in for two months. This time, I knew how people interact in different settings. I had learned from my mistakes and knew what not to do in a new country. Thus, joining ERI turned out to be a pretty smooth transition for me. I did not have to worry about small talk or learning American slang because now I could talk formally. But there were other challenges.

My previous cultural exchange experience turned out to be similar to this one in one way — I had to try hard to understand what people are trying to say. In the United States, I had to hear and think fast enough to follow. At ERI, I hear students speaking extremely slow (which isn’t bad at all, by the way, for beginners). I had to listen carefully in both the settings. Different accents and tone make it harder but I’ve learnt that they are eager to talk to me and learn from me.

Goals for next month

I remember feeling a little frustrated and my ears got tired of listening English three months after I came to Illinois Wesleyan. Although I find myself in a similar position this summer, I do not feel the same way because I know how intimidating it is for an ESL speaker to talk to a native speaker (or an English teacher!). I had the support of professors and the international office at IWU, a kind of support that helped me get accustomed to the language and culture. I hope to provide a similar support to these students (and be more productive) during the second half of my internship. I am also hoping to learn more about the culture in Southeast Asian countries and share on this blog. 


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