Have you ever experienced a moment of culture shock in your own country, in your own language and in a context you've experienced many times?
That happened to me recently, and it really made me think more deeply about what we mean by culture in foreign language teaching in general and in Spanish community service learning specifically.
I took my six-month-old baby, Francesco, for his well-baby appointment with our family practitioner. Since Francesco is our third child and we have had the same doctor from the very beginning, I know exactly what to expect: questions about typical milestones, admonitions about safety, a physical exam by the doctor and shots by the nurse. I'm also very aware that culture plays a heavy hand in both the content and style of these visits, but when you're going through it for the third time you do it on auto-pilot.
But there was one small change in procedure this time: they asked me to fill out a questionnaire about the baby's progress. A questionnaire touted as "simply worded and appropriate for parents from diverse backgrounds."
The instructions said, "Be sure to try each activity with your child before checking a box." I began to quickly check off the boxes. Francesco is developing just fine. But then I came to these two questions about fine motor skills:
- Does your baby successfully pick up a crumb or Cheerio by using her thumb and all her fingers in a raking motion? (If she already picks up a crumb or Cheerio, check "yes" for this item.")
- Does your baby pick up a crumb or Cheerio with the tips of his thumb and a finger? He may rest his arm or hand on the table while doing it.
I did what any experienced mom would do: I marked the yes box, left the questionnaire on the doctor's desk, and left the clinic so Francesco wouldn't miss his nap.
What does this have to do with culture?
Diet and culture. These questions were not appropriate for "parents from diverse backgrounds." I have been on four continents and visited many countries. In my experience, only Anglos eat packaged, processed cereal for breakfast. I'm sure that most parents who have managed to preserve the diet from their country of origin do not have Cheerios at home. And are those the only two choices: Cheerios or crumbs? People are judgemental enough about how parents raise their kids. Imagine telling people that you feed your kid crumbs.
Parenting and culture. All cultures manage to raise healthy, intelligent children. But they all do it in different ways. When my other two children were little, we spent a lot of time in Italy at my in-laws' home. I quickly learned that parenting has very different "rules" from one culture to the next. While this is of course a gross generalization, my conclusion based on my experiences with babies in Italy came down to this: Italians want to have clean, beautiful babies. Thus, they spoon-feed their babies for a much longer time than most parents from the US. Letting your kid pick up food and feed herself is messy.
I also learned that soups are considered "healthy" foods for babies and toddlers. Italians (and many other cultures) don't have Cheerios in the house in the first place. And if they did, their babies wouldn't be picking them up off the highchair tray during mealtime.
Finally, there are very few finger foods in the typical Italian diet. Table etiquette, even at home, is more formal than in the US. To eat an apple, you pick it up in your hands, but you peel it with a knife and then cut it into slices before you eat it. Opening wide and biting a hunk out of an unpeeled apple seems barbarian to them.
All to say, letting your child feed himself Cheerios or crumbs is a very culturally specific concept.
Meals and culture. The US is a snack culture. I have known some families that seem to never sit down for a meal--and certainly not all together--because they snack all day long. They snack and watch tv. They snack and walk. They snack and talk. And a lot of parenting advice you read in the US is about doling out snacks to kids so that they won't get hungry and grouchy. Many parents pick up their kids from preschool with snacks in the car; God forbid your kid dies of hunger during the ten-minute ride home.
In other cultures, people eat meals. Together. With whole foods. With more than one course. Taking their time. Then they're finished. Kitchen closed. Floor swept. And the family car's backseat isn't littered with broken Cheerios and rancid milk spills because they eat at the table, not on the go. Why give your baby Cheerios or crumbs when a filling meal is just around the corner?
Consumer culture. Culture doesn't just consist of the nation you come from. We all live in a consumer culture, but I try to distance myself from it as much as possible. The world of baby products is a total racket. Think about the things they sell to us that we don't need. Shoes for newborns. Jars of baby food. (You really can't boil a carrot and mash it with a fork? If you buy jars of pre-smashed bananas you should just open your wallet and say, "Go ahead and take all my money since I'm too busy to peel a banana myself.") Themed nurseries. Cheerios. Buy, buy, buy, buy! The instructions told me that I had to give my kid Cheerios (or crumbs) before I could turn in the questionnaire. I was not going to go shopping for this test. But the consumer culture was implicit in those two items.
What does this all mean? Yes, I know, these were just two simple questions, and I have blown them out of proportion. But just like a photographer blows up a photograph to observe the details, that's also how we can begin to really "see" culture in action.
When our foreign language students are sitting in a classroom, culture consists of photographs in a textbook, a slide show, a trip to a museum, a click on the web or a classroom visit by a "native informant." But when our students interact with native speakers in the community on a regular basis, we have a chance to let students be "culture detectives." To ask them to bring out the magnifying glass and "blow up" the traces of culture--including their own--that all too often remain unexamined.
I certainly don't believe that any culture is better or worse than US culture. I don't think it's better to give Cheerios or to not give them. But we cannot assume that everyone does what we do. Or assume that the "rules" for raising kids and measuring their progress are universal.
I'll cover more on this topic in future posts.