Differences Make the Whole Richer
Reflections on International Education
With Help from a Morning Market in Harbin, China
Guowen Wang (王国文) and Jay McDaniel
On any given morning in China, you can walk to a local street market and see people selling vegetables like the woman in the photo above. We went to the market at 7 this morning to take a look and buy some vegetables. As we walked we realized that we have several things to learn from the vendors and from the vegetables, too. We offer a little farmer's market philosophy, Harbin style.
One of us (Guowen Wang) works with students from all over the world in his role as an administrator for international exchanges at Heilongjiang University in Harbin; the other of us (Jay McDaniel) is a university teacher who has extensive experience in bringing American students to China and welcoming Chinese students to America. We work together often. Jay has been to Harbin many times, and it is one of his favorite cities.
Each Student is Unique
Over the years we have often talked about international education, and we have come to believe that one of the most important things we offer the world -- whether we are teachers, administrators, and staff -- is to be good listeners. We want to talk about listening in a moment. But first we offer a word about sunflower seeds.
Many people in China, and some in the United States, enjoy eating them. At first glance they look all the same; and in many ways that are indeed similar. After all, they are of the same kind, not unlike the way in which some of our students can be of the same culture.
But if you look carefully at each seed in the photo to the left, you will see that each is unique. They are like snowflakes; no two are alike.
This is part of what we mean by "novelty." We simply mean that each person is unique, like a snowflake or a sunflower seed, even if they look alike. There is a lesson in this for those who might too easily stereotype "Asian" and "Western" cultures.
Seeing Beyond Stereotypes
Some comparative psychologists distinguish between Asian cultures, which they call "collectivist cultures" and Western cultures, which they call "individualist cultures." They say that Asian people find enjoyment by being parts of families and larger groups, and that Western people find enjoyment by feeling individuated from groups. But we want to emphasize that "novelty" transcends this binary distinction. Asian students can be outwardly collectivist but they are inwardly individualistic; and Western students can be outwardly individualistic but inwardly collectivist. There is something about each person that is neither collectivist nor individualistic -- something deeper -- and this something is the person himself or herself. In Western philosophy today it is fashionable among some to speak of each person as having an "otherness" which requires respect and which cannot be collapsed into relations with others. This can sound like a plea for individualism, but we think it is as applicable to "collectivist" as well as "individualist" cultures. It is a recognition, as we say in China, that harmony is not sameness.
If there is wisdom in what we say, then it follows that one skill we can bring to international education is a recognition that even when students come from the same culture (Russia, the United States, China, England, Sudan, Italy, Korea) they are individuals with lives of their own. No student can be reduced to her culture; she is also more than this. This moreness is her novelty.
Readers of this website know that this theme of listening is very important to process or "Whiteheadian" thinkers. We believe that one of the problems with modern education around the world is that it focuses so much on offering a service for students, that it fails to recognize that listening itself is a service. When people feel listened to, they feel worthy of respect and, sometimes, become better listeners themselves.
We can listen to other people in one or both of two ways. One is by imagining ourselves inside their shoes, looking out at the world from their point of view. It is especially important to understand what is important to them: that is, to understand what Whitehead calls their subjective aims. Psychologists call this perspective-taking.
The other is more immediate. When we are in the presence of other people, we can be sensitive to their moods and feelings. Psychologists call this empathy. Its natural expression is kindness. Empathic people want others to feel better.
Taken together, these two capacities -- perspective taking and empathy -- comprise what we call listening. Our suggestion is that the ability to listen, and a willingness to listen, are among the most important capacities good educators can have: whether they are administrators, teachers, or staff.
Curiosity and the Enjoyment of Novelty
But listening is not enough, and this is where more vegetables come in. When we were at the morning market, one of us (Jay) was especially struck by the sheer novelty of the vegetables and produce being presented by the farmers and vendors. Guowen had seen it before; he lives in China. But for Jay it was a new and for him there was something remarkable in the newness. He saw vegetables he had never seen before in his life, such as the ones on the left. And typical of the Whiteheadian spirit, he found the novelty delightful. He asked Guowen to give him the names of everything he saw, and he was curious about how each vegetable would be used in food preparation.
It occurred to us that each culture is like a distinctive vegetable or fruit, with a color and flavor of its own. Not all cultures are to everyone's tastes; but all cultures have their own kind of beauty. This is another Whiteheadian idea. It is that individuals and groups of people are diverse expressions of different kinds of beauty -- kinds of harmony and intensity -- of which the universe is capable. Curiosity, then, lies in being interested in the different kinds of beauty. While all cultures have their strong points and weak points (and often these two go together) there is no need to judge different cultures as "right" or "wrong" or "good" or "bad." It is best to see them as different kinds of beauty, each of which makes the whole of life richer, with their strong points and their weak points.
Additionally, we both want to add that all cultures are changing and evolving over time. They are not static. Twenty-first century China is no less China than twelfth century China, although it is indeed now a hybrid of traditional and modern impulses. When international students come to China and see its large cities and meet its people, so many of whom are influenced by Western as well as Asian traditions, they are seeing China. Chinese culture, like every culture, is a 5000 year old journey whose future is not yet decided. It is important not to reify cultures as if they are, or must be, fixed and static. Cultures are always changing.
And in truth cultures are always hybrid, too. Biologists tell us that every fruit and vegetable that we see in a morning market is the outcome of a creative process called evolution, which is itself a process of continous creativity. Their was once a time when the fruits and vegetables at the morning market did not exist on earth. They emerged as hybrids from preexisting forms of plant life. And biologists add that most forms of plant life emerged naturally, without human intervention, since human beings did not even exist for most of evolutionary history. This is another idea important in Whitehead's philosophy as in Chinese thought. It is that nature is more than human life and that nature exhibits a continuous creativity. Human cultures are part of, not apart from, the creativity of nature itself. Even onions are in process.
Delight in the Differences
All of this has implications for international educators. They -- we -- need to see our students as unique and thus more than their cultures, while at the same time appreciating the ways in which they are shaped by their cultures as they now exist. They are learning to look at the cultures from which they come in fresh ways, in light of the experiences we offer them.
This happens often when American students come to China. Their attitudes toward America change. They see what was familiar to them -- American approaches to life -- in new ways, some critical and some grateful. And the same happens with Chinese who study in America. They learn to see China in fresh ways. They then become agents through which their respective cultures evolve. But of course China and America are but two of the many different cultural traditions that inhabit the world today, all of which have something to offer. We close with some images of the fruit and vegetables at the market this morning. Let each represent one of the many cultural traditions or sub-traditions which, taken as a whole, make the whole of the earth richer.