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Days of Future Past: The MAIIC overseas residency

July 8, 2014
Dr. Zhenyi Li

By three methods, we may learn wisdom.
First, by reflection which is noblest.
Second, by imitation which is easiest.
And third, by experience which is the bitterest.

The saga of X-Men starts from Hatley Castle and continues in the depth of time and space – same as our MAIIC overseas residency. Sitting in between the past 2013 residency in Qufu/Jinan and future 2014 in Hangzhou, I am reflecting and preparing the “days of future past”, which coincides with the new X-Men movie title.

Each overseas residency is a journey across time and space. In November 2013, students and faculty arrived at Qufu, where Confucius was born about 2,500 years ago, by superb high speed trains from Beijing or Shanghai after thousands of miles flight from Canada: transportation modes Confucius never experienced. Everything was different in our eyes. Like in X-Men, we could not stop asking “who are you people?” and “what kind of place is this?” The language, food, and behaviours of these local people were strange and hard to comprehend, appreciate, and digest. Our biggest questions, instead of focusing on them, were on ourselves: “why am I here?”

The reason spending our second residency far away from Hatley Castle is obviously different from X-Men’s mission to “go back in time and try to change things”. Neither is our intention to predict “there is a war coming” and to order everyone to “be sure you are on the right side”. We design and facilitate these overseas residencies in China and India for one simple objective: to apply what we have learned on intercultural communication in the field.

Time, in fact, is much harder to cross than space. That is why we often rely on movies to take us for an imagery journey across future and past. Space crossing, on the other hand, is not so meaningful academically if no planned research projects were conducted in the process. Our residency in Qufu and Jinan in 2013, however, helped us to realize that time and space could be crossed by examining interactions between cultures.

A man passed away more than 2,500 years ago still talks to us not only when we visited his temple, mansion, and graveyard; but also when we talked with the people influenced by his thoughts, values, and behaviours. We started to understand that carrying the same family name “Kong” as Confucius did was not an accident for more than 70 generations over two millenniums. They inherit and continue passing on the tradition, the culture, and the time. This means we can travel back in time simply by interacting with people formed by a culture which has its age. There is no need for a complicated machine, shining uniform, or special tunnel. What we need to do for a day of future past is to sit down with a Mr. Kong, appreciating his ginger candy and hospitality, in a sunny day, after a visit to his ancestor’s tombs. We do not have to care about the language barrier, the different skin colour, or the air quality at that moment. We all knew that he cared about us, grabbed all chairs he can manage to find from the other stores next to his for us to sit on, provided all candies he produced at a discounted price he can offer, and forced his son to translate as much as possible on how much he appreciated our visit.

“I am superbly glad to host you, my friend from far way.” said Confucius. Be a host is an honour as Confucius taught his people. More than 70 generations and 2,500 years later, we experienced such a teaching in life from one of his offspring. It is not magic or high-tech movie illusion. This is real: we can travel days of future past simply by interacting with people from different cultures.

I have been pondering on the analogy of “culture as an iceberg” since I started to teach intercultural communication. The image of a floating iceberg is often used to illustrate how little is visible when we come across cultures. The visible tip of an iceberg is often referred to food, music, costume, and behaviour; while the invisible majority of culture representing those below the water includes values, thoughts, and attitudes. To many intercultural learners, this analogy is sufficient for them to examine a misunderstanding occurred due to cultural differences: many things clashed below the water and we shall not only name those above water as “cultures”.

I agree that the analogy and application above are helpful for new learners in the field of intercultural communication. However, I do not think it represent the reality and cannot explain many other intercultural scenarios. For example, a 70th generation grandson of Confucius chatted with us via a smart phone in the Chinese social media app named QQ. How will we use the iceberg analogy to illustrate the intercultural interaction?

In today’s world, I have seen more and more icebergs merged their tips and floating together in one ocean, thanks to telecommunication devices and networks, high speed trains, and jet planes. In a small town such as Qufu, one can easily find KFC and McDonald’s and current Western pop songs in a KTV. Some of us were picked up by wealthy families in their Mercedes or Volvo to have lunch with them. It became difficult to identify different iceberg tips. Or in other words, visible cultural differences are disappearing much faster than any time before. Intercultural scholars can no longer conduct their research simply by taking photos of cultures and show how different people behave.

There is, however, still ways to experience and examine the differences. For example, we can start from six basic activities in everyday life almost all people will do no matter which culture they have. These activities are clothing, food, shelter, means of travelling and communication, entertainment leisure and recreation, and learning.

On clothing, we can observe what and how people wear for what purposes in what kind of occasions from clothing, shoes, eyeglasses, handbags, jewelry, and probably to perfume if applicable.  We have learned some people bought luxury brands far beyond their monthly salary just for recognition from their circles. Isn’t that a perfect example to explain what collectivism is and how deeply it rooted in that culture? Being a member in a group is more important than being yourself. That also explains why luxury goods merchants expanded their markets in China much faster than they do in many developed countries.

On food, we can see the fusion of cuisine takes place while ethnic foods still dominate. Stomachs probably will join the acculturation and globalization trend much later than brains and bodies. Isn’t that interesting when the iceberg analogy was proposed, food was supposed to float above the water; but now we find acculturation probably start below the water? We really cannot assume the tips never clash. Nor should we assume the bottoms of icebergs can never merge.

On shelter, we have had chances to visit university student dormitory, local families and real estate showrooms. We saw how they live and what their preferences were. We also noted their ways to differentiate public and private spaces, to set up territories, visible or invisible, between roommates or neighbours, and to negotiate current needs and traditional beliefs like fengshui. We found for many Chinese it was actually not too hard to adjust and adapt to Western ways to think and handle needs on space. Should we posit those are universal and all icebergs float to the same direction?

On means of travelling and communication, we saw much faster trains, much crowded buses, much more jammed traffic, much popular use of cell phones and internet, and much more frequent and diverse diaspora of immigrant workers from rural areas and families with relatives immigrated to Canada and other countries in a civilization where Confucius suggests no one should travel far away from hometown and parents. We also saw tight censorship and close monitoring in this country where VPN is not unusual and surveillance cameras hanging in every corner like grapes. How will we visualize these changes in an image of many icebergs forming and transforming in today’s ocean of globalization?

On entertainment leisure and recreation, we sang with local people in a KTV, visited their bar and parks, and danced with retired people in public squares in chilly and dark evening. We also noticed more Chinese chose to take the gondola while Westerns hiked up Tai Mountain. We saw professional athletes scoped medals from international games, luxury fitness centres were packed, and golf courses emerged while obesity and diabetes become a national concern. Does iceberg analogy suffice explanations here?

On learning, we taught English to young children on a Saturday. Many of them have surname “Kong” as Confucius did. Not many, however, prefer his philosophy to foreign languages. Studying abroad and obtaining foreign degrees are their goals. Every classroom was named after famous Western universities like Harvard, Oxford, and Royal Roads – of course. We were almost convinced that people would jump from one iceberg to another until we saw adults in that place stopped learning after obtained a degree. Kids are supposed to take a full time job, including weekends, to learn, with full support and sponsorship from parents and probably grandparents. Not adults. To learn also does not equal to study. Rote memory still surpasses creativity and critical thinking. To pass and achieve high scores in examinations such as TOEFL, IETLS, and SAT, is the goal for students and the benchmark for a successful school. On that, we saw the distance between icebergs.

In conclusion, we have many ways to travel days of future past as intercultural and international communication learners, particularly in our overseas residency. Much more than Mr. X-Men, for sure. So enjoy your journey, in your work and life after graduation, in your current courses when you are in our program, and join us if you haven’t applied.