I have never forgotten a phrase I encountered while reading a history of Arabia. The author was talking about how different rulers carved out kingdoms in the trackless sands of a desert peopled by nomadic tribes. The answer was that each tribe chose to be loyal to a particular leader, so that tribe was part of that ruler’s kingdom. This was called “the borders in men’s hearts.”
Today, I think of these metaphorical borders in all of us. We each grow up in a particular society and largely accept the assumptions, values, and beliefs of our home culture. These create a lens through which we see the world, helping us to understand the world and the people in it.
However, when we deal with people raised in other cultures, our home lenses can instead become a framework for mis-understanding others, who may be looking through lenses that reflect different values and expectations.
When I decided to teach overseas, I was immediately attracted to China. Not only did it seem to be changing faster than any other country, China’s changes were changing the world. I felt like it was an opportunity to have a front-row seat as history was made, watching an ancient classical civilization transforming into a technological superpower.
Today, and for the foreseeable future, the U.S.A. and China are going to be the world’s two most powerful, wealthy, and influential countries. The better these two countries understand each other and work together, the better it is for the whole planet. The more they misunderstand each other and struggle, the harder everything will be for the rest. On most issues, any meaningful solution is going to require both the U.S. and China to be on board.
Yet, these two cultures have very different lenses, which complicates their ability to relate and cooperate. What can be done to help these two cultures see through each other’s lenses, to become “bi-focal”, if you will?
We as teachers can help build that bridge of understanding. Education lifts us out of our assumptions, enabling us to see the world in new ways. At BASIS International Schools, we are teaching the future leaders of China. Every day, they are learning not only the same content as BASIS students in the U.S., but also the thinking and communication skills required to master that content. Along the way, they will encounter and examine the expectations and beliefs that underlie the Western approach to learning and life. The cultural insight and experience they gain in our classrooms will inform the decisions they make, shaping the future for everyone.
And bridges can be crossed in two directions. As educators, we are also learning from our students, their parents, and our Chinese colleagues. As we get to know them and their perspectives, it will certainly help us create more effective lessons and be more helpful members of the BASIS International Schools community. But just as importantly, it will help us see beyond our own assumptions and expectations, learning new ways to see and solve the same problems, and recognizing how the same issue may look very different to those from another background. Our insights into Chinese culture can help us to be more successful in life, and enable us to help our friends back home better understand Chinese views and beliefs as well.
Many Americans imagine that Chinese students are harder working, or more obedient than kids in the U.S. I can tell you that kids everywhere are similar–they would all like to learn, but nobody wants to do more homework than is necessary. What I have found is that students and parents here recognize that success is the result of hard work, not just some inborn “talent.” So when they struggle, kids are willing to try harder, rather than give up. Parents are fiercely committed to their children’s education, and give teachers high levels of support and respect. My American students often believed they were headed to stardom on TV or in the NBA. In China, students have more modest goals: a good job that offers enough income to support a family and provide enough time for some hobbies. But the optimism and faith in hard work leading to success reminds me of the “American Dream” I learned about as a child.
Although our students and friends may seem like a small group compared to the huge populations of China and the U.S., each person we reach will be able to share what they’ve learned with many others. By being a small part of bridging the gap, we can each make an important difference. As we broaden our views and those of others, we open the borders in people’s hearts and minds, bringing the whole world closer together.
Andrew Arvesen is a 6th grade English Language Arts teacher at BASIS International School Park Lane Harbour. Visit our careers website for more information about teaching with us and career opportunities.