[Note from 10-26-09: For some reason this article gets a lot of hits. It is not and was never intended to answer every detail of how Karen adjust to life in America or other Western developed nations. It was intended to satisfy a homework assignment in an education class where I had to discuss a cultural difference in an educational context. Should you wish to know more about refugee adjustment please follow the tags below to find similar articles. If you still can't find what you want, feel free to e-mail me and I will consider taking a stab at answering questions.]
I recently enrolled in a program to obtain teacher certification. This, naturally, involves taking education courses. At times, this involves listening to lectures and doing homework from various angles to address issues of multi-culturalism. For someone like myself, this can be interesting or at times it can be hell, for instance when the teachers assign papers that clearly show the authors don't have an f-ing clue about multiculturalism and suffer from that common conceit that if given enough exposure all people everywhere will inevitably behave like good-hearted, suburban liberal do-gooders. Only with different snacks and dances. Oh how little they know and how much they have to learn about life.
This is an excerpt from my recent homework assignment.:
The author says, “Failure to understand the cultural context of any given situation may escalate the behavior.” What does this mean?
In this case, I agree with the authors. But I think it's important to also state that the purpose in understanding the cultural context of a problem situation is to assist in correcting it, not in excusing it.
Let's take an example, again from my experiences with Burmese refugees.
Sometime ago I offered a group of three Burmese refugees, all members of the Karen ethnic group, a hill tribe that lives in Eastern Burma and Western Thailand, a ride to Troy in my car so that we could participate together in an activity. One sat in the front passenger seat next to me and the two others sat in the backseat behind me. Upon arrival, one of them, a 20 year old man who been in the USA for only a few months and during that time had helped me a great deal with the labor required for one of my projects to assist refugees [Note: he helped me a lot with the furniture van at the refugee center. Great guy.], held up a tin of breath mints that had been in my carry bag, showed them to me and asked, in heavily accented English, “Hey Peter, what are these?” I explained that they were breath mints, a type of candy, and offered him and his companions one if they wished to try. What was stranger was the realization that he had been digging through my handbag inspecting my belongings as I drove without my knowledge or permission. This is not acceptable behavior in American society. However it is in traditional Navajo society. [Note: I spent ninth grade among Navajos.] And furthermore I was able to logically deduce that if the person who had been digging through my bag had had a malicious intent, my breath mints would have been secreted into his pockets, taken as loot, rather than displayed to me with innocent questions as to what they were. And I'd always trusted the person in question (except when he's bragging about his many, many girlfriends –I decided long ago that his definition of a “girlfriend” is pretty much any appropriately aged female who enjoys talking to him, and, of these, he has many which is as it should be because he's a great guy and very likable). Therefore I decided what was within my cultural framework a violation of privacy was within his cultural framework merely an act of innocent curiosity and let it slide.
If this act had happened in a school setting, and the person in question does dream of someday attending college in America, then punishment would have served no purpose as the person who committed the societally unacceptable act was not familiar with the behavioral norms of mainstream American society. Instead, a better way to correct the situation would have been to express it in terms of cultural differences. My experience with Karen people is that although they are in many ways a bit unsophisticated, their experiences as minorities in both Thailand and Burma, as well as time in ethnically diverse refugee camps, have taught them very clearly that different cultures follow different norms of behavior. Therefore they respond well to explanations of this type.
To offer a second example, using a different young Karen person, this person had a pair of problems where he would call me and solicit my assistance and advice. I found this very frustrating as the problems followed the same pattern and both calls came at about eight P.M..
“Hey Peter, I have a problem.”
“What is it?”
“Tomorrow at 10:00a.m., I have two appointments scheduled for the same time. What do I do?”
In one case, it was actually three places he was supposed to be at the same time. People who were authority figures in his life had come to him and asked him to be someplace at the same time as a different authority figure. Having no idea how to deal with the situation, he had told them all yes and then tried to straighten out the situation the evening before when none of the authority figures could be reached. Uncertain as to how this could be done he had called me. This was a very frustrating situation for both he and me as there was no easy way to deal with it, but the key response is to first, metaphorically put out fires and reduce the amount of damage that will happen, and then work to prevent it from repeating. After the second time, a few repeated plaintive whinings by me of “didn't I tell you that you have to remember you can't be in two places at the same time?” a more logical, systematic approach to correcting the situation had to be undertaken. Therefore I got ahold of an inexpensive appointment book, gave it to him, and showed him step by step that if he had an appointment he should write it in his appointment book and then if he had a second appointment at the same time he should, immediately or as soon as possible, decide which one was the most important and then call and reschedule or cancel the other one. This, interestingly enough, fits within his cultural framework as Karen kids, even in refugee camps, are raised on pirated Hong Kong movies and this resembles something a successful, highly important Chinese businessman in the Hong Kong films might do. He is, in fact, quite proud of his appointment book and found the lesson quite useful and has mentioned it to me more than once.
Most recently arrived Karen, as well as many other ethnic groups, could easily demonstrate trouble meeting appointments. The key to preventing this is to stress the importance of appointments and also educate on what to do when two people wish you to be in the same place at the same time.
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