Asia ‘Literacy’ and Inter-Cultural Understanding for Aspiring Teachers

On Thursday 19th September 2013 I had the pleasure of presenting a guest lecture to education students at La Trobe University, studying the 2nd year subject Cultural and Indigenous Issues (EDU2CII).

Australia has extensive cultural ties with the Asian region.
Australia has extensive cultural ties with the Asian region.

In my presentation I introduced some key concepts underpinning my interpretation of Australia-Asia relations—Australia’s geographic position in the world, the myth of a monolithic “Asia”, and the reality of globalisation—before touching on the history of Australia’s interactions with Asia, both positive and negative, from pre-European settlement to the present day.  I then examine Australia’s current economic, political and cultural links with the region, before discussing some of the skills that can be acquired through cross-cultural interaction.  In each section, I asked the students how those themes were professionally and personally relevant to them.

I would like to thank EDU2CII subject coordinator Dr Martha Kamara for the invitation to present to her student group, and extend a big thank you to the students themselves for their warm welcome and attentive participation in the session.

DOWNLOAD: Ben Habib – ‘The Value of Australia-Asia Cross-Cultural Understanding for Aspiring Teachers’.mp3

Lecture Audio.mp3                                Lecture Slideshow.pdf

Ben Habib: Guest Presentation EDU2CII

In the final section of my presentation I discuss the skills that can be acquired through cross-cultural learning.  In 2011 I was invited to Wodonga Senior Secondary College to see a presentation by Kurt Mullane from the Asia Education Foundation on Asia connections and cultural literacy in regional Victoria.  In his presentation, Kurt talked about six key apsects of inter-cultural understanding that are integral for anyone looking to forge links with partners across Asia…

  1. Self-awareness.
  2. Knowledge.
  3. Cultural Consciousness.
  4. Adaptive Skills.
  5. Analytical and Communicative Skills.
  6. Ability to ‘Speak the Language’ (spoken, body and cultural).

I couldn’t agree more with this list.  Kurt framed his list of inter-cultural capabilities in very instrumental terms, as necessary skills for Australians to have as our country futher integrates economically and culturally into the Asian region.  From my own experience abroad in Asian countries, I would add that the development of these skills is also an inner journey.  As I reflected on my own experiences, I found that grappling with learning these skills not only helped my cultural literacy but made me grow into a more well-rounded person.  The following is a summary of my reflections.

Knowledge and Self-awareness

My first trip overseas to South Korea in 2002 was the greatest experience of my life, but it was also a lesson in the pitfalls of travelling to a place one has no clue about.  I arrived in Seoul on a cold February morning with a big suitcase and complete ignorance of the country that would be my adopted home for the coming five months.  Because of my ignorance, I found the culture shock particularly difficult to deal with.  Here was a country that was materially very similar to my own, but which existed in another cultural universe to Australia.

I found the array of social customs related to the Confucian age hierarchy particularly difficult to deal with.  Here I was, a headstrong young antipodean phenom with definite ideas about individual freedom and social justice, and a natural aversion to authority that comes with youth and a critical mind.  I found the age deference suffocating and the timidity of the female students annoying.  I couldn’t stand the gruff manner of the elder men, whose demeanour embodied everything I thought I hated about authority.  I felt very much an outsider in this society.  It is easy to say, though more difficult to internalise, the idea that people from other cultures do things differently from us.  Understanding a country’s history is the key to unlocking the bindings of culture shock.

What I got from exposure to these social customs was some wisdom to accompany my argumentative streak.  As I learnt more about the country’s history, I came to discover that there were reasons why Korean society was organised in this way.  I learnt about the ascendency of neo-Confucianism during the Yi dynasty as a response to the corruption of the previous Buddhist Koryo dynasty.

Other cultures can also be a rich source of ideas and innovation for uptake in our society.  There is much I admire in the communitarian values of Chinese and Korean societies, for example, which would do much to cure the alienation that comes with the rampant sense of individualism prevalent in Australian society.  While I would not like to see the strict social hierarchies of those countries imposed in Australia, there is much we can learn from Confucian societies about social cohesion, reciprocal relationships and living as integrated communities.

Australia cannot escape geography

Cultural Consciousness and Adaptive Skills

What I have now is a basis for comparison with my own country.  Travel in Asia has helped me to better understand what I appreciate and what I don’t like about Australian society, so when I say that of all the countries I’ve been to, Australia is the one I would most like to live in, I am making an informed warts-n-all judgement free of the jingoistic “Australia is the best country in the world” bullshit that tends to proliferate on Australia’s nationally significant days.

One of the greatest aspects for me of overseas travel is the opportunity it provides to step outside of one’s everyday life back and reflect on it objectively.  Being away gives one time for introspection, free from the influence of relationships and the baggage of Australian culture, everyday obligations and life stresses.

When you are overseas and you have a problem to deal with, you do not have the luxury of indulgence in self-pity.  You have to get on with finding an answer to your problems because let’s face it, what other option do you have?  My travel experiences have made me more resilient as a person because I have had to find a way through all kinds of difficult situations on my own, without the help of my usual support networks.

Holistic Communicative Skills

One of the frustrating aspects of with non-English speakers, or travelling in a non-English speaking country and not knowing the local lingo is that you can only verbally communicate with people at the level of a toddler.  Simple things become difficult in the absence of language skills and because of this, even the normal rigmarole of everyday transactions can be incredibly draining.  In this context it becomes vitally important to read body language and use non-verbal forms of communication to make yourself understood.  You have to learn to trust your gut instincts in unfamiliar places and be aware of what is going on around you.  Demonstrating a knowledge of local customs is a good way to show respect and give ‘face’ to your interlocutors.  These are the kind of ‘doing’ skills that can only be learnt through immersion.

Cross-cultural learning is about being modest, being honest about what you don’t know and understanding that there is always more to learn.  Cultural literacy is accumulated over a lifetime and the journey is well worth the effort.

Relevance to you

Further Information:

Asia Literacy Ambassadors Project.

Australian Government: Australia in the Asian Century whitepaper.

Paul Keating, (2012) “Asia in the New Order: Australia’s Diminishing Sphere of Influence,” Keith Murdoch Oration, State Library of Victoria, 14 November 2012.

Ross Garnaut, (1989) “Australia and the Northeast Asian ascendancy: Report to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade,” Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.


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