Cultural Differences and Identity
One of my students from EDC (Export Development Canada) told me an interesting story. He was studying for his MBA in a university in China. The program was in English but the students were from all over the world. One of the mandatory courses was on cultural differences. There were about forty students in the class. Their first assignment was to write an email on a given subject that would be neither too formal nor too familiar. The students were asked to use a number instead of their names. After reading all the emails, the teacher put together all those that were similar in terms of the degree of formality. He then called the numbers of the emails that he had placed in the same categories. It turned out that that they were all written by students coming from the same regions of the globe: Africa, South America, North America Asia, Europe and the Middle East. I think that was a very good introduction to cultural differences.
A few years after graduating, my student was working in China as the representative of an American bank. He organized a meeting with the president of that bank and one of his important Chinese clients. Before the meeting, he briefed the American on how to take into account the cultural differences when doing business in China. The guy was a little bit like Donald Trump. He thought he knew better than anybody else. The meeting started with small talk. At one point, the American judged that the small talk had been going on for too long. He jokingly slapped his hand on the table and said, “Now let’s get down to business,” The Chinese excused himself saying that he had to use the restroom. My student turned to his boss and whispered to his ear, “He won’t come back.” In Asia, as in many other parts of the world, it’s important to take the time to establish some kind of personal relationship before starting to do business with someone.
I should know about cultural differences. I have been living with my wife, who is from a different culture, for the last almost twenty years. After all those years, I can say that cultural differences are not paramount in our relationship. They play a very minimal role in the interaction between us. Maria and I have the same basic values. We also share a lot of interests. We are touched by the same things. We laugh at the same jokes. We both love animals and hate the people who hurt them. We like to watch foreign movies to learn how people in other countries live and think. We met in a Latin dancing class, and even if we don’t dance as much as we used to, we still listen to a lot of Latin songs and music. Most of our friends were not born in Canada. They came from Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Japan, India, Portugal, Nigeria, Algeria, Iran, Morocco, Chili, Jamaica, France, the United States, Greece and Romania.
How would we define our identity? I don’t think Maria would say that she is Vietnamese Canadian. She would probably say that she is a Canadian of Vietnamese origin. When she came to Canada, she made an effort to integrate to her new culture, and when she goes back to Vietnam she doesn’t feel completely Vietnamese. Like everywhere else in the world, people in Vietnam are changing. They even use new words that didn’t exist when Maria was living there more than thirty years ago.
For me, I would define myself as a French Canadian. Even if my roots and family are in Québec, it wouldn’t make sense to say that I’m a Québécois after living in Ontario for nearly twenty years. Has moving to Ottawa made a big difference for me culturally? I don’t think so. We live in a sector that is as much or as less French speaking as the area of Québec where we have our cottage. I read the same books; I watch the same TV shows in English and French. Sometimes, when I am with my family in Québec, they talk about a popular comedian or a new TV show that I had never heard of. I wouldn’t know any more about them if I had stayed in Québec; it’s a matter of interests not a cultural difference.
Culturally, I must say that our life is very interesting. Even if we communicate mostly in English, I can speak to Maria in French and she understands most of what I’m saying. I wouldn’t say that she has no problems, but she is able to communicate in French with my family. She knows a lot of French songs that I used to listen to when I was young. She listens to Charles Aznavour when she is cross-country skiing. We try to speak a little bit of Spanish when we go to Cuba. I don’t speak Vietnamese, but I was able to learn a few words and expressions. I listen to Vietnamese songs and I am able to recognize the voices of a few singers. We eat mostly Vietnamese food, but Maria can make very good shepherd’s pies and pizzas.
Another of my students from EDC also told me a story that illustrates the importance of cultural differences in a formal environment. He could also speak Chinese. He was also in a meeting with his boss and a Chinese client. His boss was the CEO of a German company that builds the machines that the Chinese use to make the cheap gadgets that we buy at Walmart and in dollar stores. During the small talk at the beginning of the meeting, the German corrected the Chinese on a very trivial thing that he had said (like the number of stars on the American flag or the number of years that turtles can live). The Chinese businessman considered that he had lost face and left. My student told his boss that it would be necessary for him to start rebuilding his business relationship with his client from scratch.
As a conclusion, first I would say that cultural differences are not as important in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people as they are in a more formal environment like business and diplomacy. If we share the same essential values, the rest is not that important. Sometimes we feel closer to people from other cultures with whom we share interests and values than to people from our own culture with whom we don’t have anything in common.
There's one more thing I'd like to add. While it's fun and interesting to be around people from different cultures using English as a common language, it is also very important for me to know that there is a place where my language and my culture can continue to live and thrive. I guess it's the same for the people coming from Vietnam, Poland, Sweden, Hungary, Greece and Japan and all the other countries and regions of the world where English is not the first language.
It reminds me of a quote by Gandhi. It goes like this, "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people's houses as an interloper a beggar or a slave."
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