Virtues and Weakness, Cross-culturally

I often find that who I think I am, and the things I value, present a completely different image to other people than to myself.  That who I think I am, often is interpreted as something that I personally do not identify with, in the minds of other people.

Cross-cultural communication is a tough nut to crack (in small part because languages and cultures have so many idiomatic expressions!).  What one culture views as pedestrian can be scandalous to another.  What one culture values highly is ignored by another.  A recent example in my life involved describing a picture of a new friend as “gangster”, a harmless semi-joke in my cultural-dialect, but which caused a fairly confused reaction that could have been hurtful.  Thankfully, we both worked to a place of mutual understanding.  One where I won’t call her “gangster” again, and she learned to understand and forgive my not-funny joke.


But often our perceptions of others, particularly “others” of a different culture go as unchallenged assumptions by both the assumer and the assumee. Partially perhaps because one or both are consciously unaware that the assumption has been made.  In other circumstances, the Assumer assumes without seeking clarification from the assumed.  Leading the Assumer to view the actions of the other person through a very different lens than the assumptions that color the view of the assumed.

This is all abstract.  Let me get personal.

Here is a short list of qualities that I find virtuous, and want in myself:
Critical thought

Here, now, are some examples of how what I feel is a personal virtue, are seen as faults or weaknesses.

– A former roommate of mine who I hadn’t seen in a long time came up to me and started with this, “Hey! So you still bitter or what?”  (doubt, critical thought).  It took me by surprise and it also hurt a little bit.  But my non-conformity to some beliefs that he held meant in his mind that I was primarily, bitter, for not accepting those cultural mores.

– A Korean girlfriend once told me she didn’t like having to “lead” with a boyfriend.  That it was the man’s responsibility to make (most) decisions in the relationship.  In an attempt to identify with her beliefs (empathy) I taught her to tell me, “be a man!” whenever she felt I wasn’t being “boyfriendish” enough.

That quickly turned out badly, as I don’t care to “lead” a girl around anymore than she wants to.  (equality).  I believe women are my equals and have an equal say in relationship decisions.  Telling me to “be a man” was essentially the same as dragging my confidence into a dark alley, mugging it, taking all its cash and then spitting in its face for good measure.  I ended up moving in the opposite direction of “manliness” with her.

– I once asked a close Korean friend to watch a TEDtalk by Brene Brown on vulnerability, and told them, “I really like what she says and think vulnerability is a really important character trait for me”.  I wanted my friend to understand me a little better, and they wanted to learn English better, so.. win win.

They watched a part and when I asked them about it they said, “oh yeah, that video, I think it’s about weakness?” (Brene Brown says this is one of the great myths of vulernability, that it is “weakness”).

These examples often make me feel vulernable in a not-so-good kind of way.  As if the things that I spend my time trying to cultivate in myself end up only defining me in a completely different and undesirable way.  But these examples are also more clear cut.  If I were able, I could clarify with each of these friends and maybe come to a place of understanding.  This is because the Assumer (my friends) showed me what they think of my virtues, which hurts, but also offers an opportunity for understanding.

I have in the past, referenced my “fears” as a teacher and also how I understand myself as a teacher.  Those things have certainly changed overtime, but what continues to nag at me, is how what I am doing in this classroom is percieved by my students, their parents and Korean society at large.

And equally, I fear that what my students, their families and Korean society value, may be greatly misunderstood on my part and misrepresented in my mind and words.  Often it is only in hindsight that one realizes the assumptions or opinions one holds against another are fabrications in their own minds, and don’t reflect actual reality, to say nothing of the reality in the other’s mind.

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