The Teacher’s Identity: a review of Palmer’s “Courage to Teach”

My first “real” teaching experience was standing in front of a crowd of four year-old children, holding up cards of colors and numbers, and then dancing until my audience was giggling so hard that they forgot they were speaking a foreign language. While not all teachers may have had origin stories as kindergarten teachers, my journey into the teaching profession began quite unexpectedly. What you realize (even as a kindergarten teacher) is that teaching begins with relationship and only after a relationship has been established can learning take place. When the eyes of the teacher lock with the child and there is a spark of trust – then, only then – can learning begin.

As children grow older into adults, they fashion more poetic and artistic ways of learning, but in the end relationship continues to be the keystone, even in university and postgraduate studies. Parker Palmer recognizes this key fact, as the thesis to the book “The Courage To Teach” centers around the community that grows and is watered by the teacher. Even though I teach in a different country, culture, and sometimes language, the relationship between student and teacher is still tantamount, albeit interpreted and visualized differently. Even though expectations for what that relationship means may differ from culture to culture, the student and teacher can never be separated.

As a teacher, I have struggled with the concept of who I am as a teacher. Am I an instructor? Am I a friend? Am I a spiritual guide to help my students reach the next plateau in their lives? Am I the sage on the mountain, or the muse that whispers secrets into the hearts of learners while remaining at a distance to observe a transformed life? Palmer explains that the core of a teacher lies in his or her identity. “Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.” (p. 12) In other words, identity forms the central axis upon which teachers revolve around: how far they can grow, their possibilities of self-actualization, how they relate to their subject material, and the extent to which students can grow under their tutelage. However, teachers are not the impact mechanism which affects students, according to Palmer; rather, once the teacher identifies the work of teaching as a vocation where “deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet,” (p. 30) then the result is what Palmer describes as good teaching. Good teaching is the penultimate goal, because the beauty of education lies in the subject-based classroom, where ideas are met with passion from both teacher and student. While Palmer wouldn’t necessarily say that the content of the lesson is more important than the teacher, neither would he say that the teacher is deserving of authority because of privilege or status; rather, in the mashing of paradox and fulfillment, within that tempestuous storm lies the diligence of purity and true knowledge, keys to unlocking true learning.

Perhaps the most insidious barrier to true learning is the atmosphere of the classroom. Teachers often complain of toxic environments, where students are uncompromisingly stalwart in erecting and rebuilding barriers to learning the teacher attempts to pursue. Sometimes these barriers are as simple as a consistently snide attitude toward the material of the class, and sometimes these barriers are as poisonous as repeated attempts to derail other students through an elaborately orchestrated coup. However, such grand dreams of Hell are merely illusions from the teacher’s fear, transformed into monsters and shadows that if not countered lead to a true malformation of bad teaching, where the teacher loses all credibility in not only the students but in himself or herself as a bearer of knowledge. Palmer classifies this barrier as “the teacher’s fearful heart” (p. 47), and reflects that the only true counter to fear is a change in attitude. Rather than combating the toxicity of the environment, the teacher should treat good teaching not as benefiting the student, but rather as benefiting the teacher. “Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest.” (p. 49) However, Palmer doesn’t say that the teacher shouldn’t attempt to care for the students, as “a good teacher is someone who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken – so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence” (p. 46). In other words, a teacher has priority, but if the teacher is at risk of falling to fear, confidence falters and only the strongest student survives, if survival can even be called a hope.

Wisdom is generally found in paradox. Many view this as the “wise man’s crutch,” with popular sentiments such as “during peace, prepare for war,” or “the wise man knows he is not wise.” Simplistic philosophical algorithms which propound great thoughts by abusing the existence of unspoken space are the sage’s artillery. As a teacher, I am held to account to the things I teach and often see myself on that distant high hill; what the wise man on the hill often fails to perceive however, is that while he chose solitude over community (as many scholars do), he stands out as he is the only one on that hill. According to Palmer, paradox is the key to good teaching; creating environments of tension in which learning can occur. He mentions six different kinds of environments of paradox: protected but open, inviting but dangerous, self-led in community, realistically archetypal, a community encouraging solitude, and a place of active discourse and quiet reflection (p. 76-78). Tension is the key to unlocking potential; tension for tension’s sake does not create potentials, but neither does tension for learning’s sake. Rather, exercising one’s abilities in the medium between light and dark, while aiming the mind at a goal allows one to critically assess the virtual environment, and through that assessment, self-knowledge is increased, which when utilized as a source of energy, helps create bridges over rivers of mystery and encourages us forward into the mist. In the end, the ability to learn can never come from any other but the self. However, the teacher must take full responsibility over the environmental design.

Palmer asserts strongly his Quaker identity, and perhaps nowhere stronger is his dedication to his faith in his preaching of the community of truth. As a teacher, I operate primarily in community but also outside of it – a class is a scheduled activity, required by the state, encouraged by the culture, and associated with shame and honor in the social spectrum. The student has no choice over the material studied, nor choice over the tasks assigned, and no choice over the time of the prescribed learning nor the length of that learning. In a true community the voice of the many act as one, but in a classroom, community cannot be understood in traditional terms; if purported as such, such definitions serve only to act as a rationalization for a more positive teacher and student relationship rather than a communal activity. For this reason, Palmer explores the concept of community not as a commune of individuals but rather as “the community of truth, the grace of great things, the transcendent subject, the ‘Secret that sits in the middle and knows,” and the sacredness of soil that Palmer believes community is rooted in not as physical and objective fact but as the numinous energy at the heart of reality, which binds all together, teacher and student alike. (p. 112) While this definition may seem obscure and philosophical, heis not claiming that community shouldn’t be held accountable as a collection of individuals working in harmony, but rather the spirit of community must be central to the reason why all parties are gathered. In other words – attitude. The classroom cannot be understood as a social requirement without the prescience of why and how that gathering of hearts and minds is necessary for personal growth. Even a person who hates learning must find an apple in a dry orchard if he seeks to become more than what he was; for this reason, community doesn’t spring out of the ground like a well of water; a teacher must, like a focusing iris pointing a laser of light at a spot on a wall, create an atmosphere of an “eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” (p. 105) For Palmer, that conversation deals with a particular subject, but I believe the teacher, as a leader, must also know how to wield the power of the iris wisely; a teacher does not exist in a vacuum.

In our modern society, we are inundated with data. Wikipedia boasts millions of pages of information, our liberal arts colleges offer hundreds of different majors, each major holding under its wings several different disciplines, even a field such as engineering must now be understood as mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, structural engineering, coastal engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and so on. The university has responded to this and does its best to offer as comprehensive an education as possible. Palmer asserts that what has happened in our society because of the rise of data collection is backward; rather than being more knowledgeable, we are less; rather than having more skill, we have trouble knowing how to actually process the data into action. Furthermore, in the university, classes often operate from one of two poles: where the teacher is a bastion of knowledge, or where the teacher workshops the students into pseudo-professors where every emotion or thought has value, regardless of the extrinsic value those ideas carry. Palmer’s solution then, is to offer less meaningless data, but data of value to the community. “The human brain works best with information presented not in the form of isolated data bits but in patterns of meaningful connection, in a community of data.” (p. 130) Hence, the responsibility lies on the teacher to carefully select information for a course that not only is aligned, but mindful that both the learners and the tutor are members of an intricate biological microcosm that grows and changes from the things touched, sensed, and experienced. Hence, the goal of education should neither be the holy hand grenade of knowledge from Heaven’s ambassador, nor should the goal of education be for students to play Battleship with their texts and hope to sink their opponent’s navy. In the center of everything lies the passionate subject, a bendable but intractable member of the learning society which is strategically selected by the teacher while at the same time open to interpretation. After all, the subject won’t go away if a student interprets it into oblivion, but that interpretation may reveal a deeper secret about the student previously unrealized, as long as the student is able to focus on the step-process of the latter obliviated idea.

Teaching is a personal art. Teachers draw from their lives stories, metaphors, experiences, emotions, and fears, in this complex interplay of personal elements a unique teaching methodology is practiced. Each teacher carries different variables into the classroom, and as such, rubrics, selection of curriculum, even priorities and time schedules differ from class to class. One teacher telling another teacher how to teach better can be explained by thinking of an image of a bird telling a beaver how to build a better home out of sticks. While both the bird and the beaver use the branches of a tree to build their homes, they are not the same creature and have different goals even though both are trying to provide for their families. Given these barriers to discussion, how can one teacher benefit from the experience of another teacher, without feeling the need to clone himself after that teacher? Palmer outlines a three-pronged process, which I will restate as preparedness, sacredness, and reflective paraphrasing. (p. 156-160). Preparedness concerns the full background of an issue, even data which might seem non-relevant. Sacredness is an attitude of pure exploration of situation and methodology. Reflective paraphrasing is the final step in the process where the listener tells the focus what she or he said, along with clarifying questions and non-confrontational observations. While these three methods may be useful in bridging the gap between teachers and allowing them a space in which to conceptualize themselves in a different environment, Palmer asserts the necessity for educational leaders to encourage dialogue. “Good talk about good teaching is unlikely to happen if presidents and principals, deans and department chairs, and others who have influence without position do not expect it and invite it into being.” (p. 160) Palmer’s premise, from the beginning of the book to the end, maintains a healthy accountability for those in power, whether those people are the teachers in charge of their classrooms or the leaders in charge of their teachers. As a person who has influence without position, I am encouraged by Palmer’s words.

The dread word for any teacher is invariably reform. It’s not that teachers are enemies of reform, but reform means change and forced systematic change is not a teacher’s bread and butter; much like the amputation of a limb, teachers view reform as a soldier might leer at a medic holding an axe in his hands. Teachers spend a lifetime developing strategies for use in the classrooms – elaborate rituals, choice texts, personal philosophies that others would find ludicrous outside of the tiny spec of wood, metal, and paper that comprises the classroom. Teachers spend countless hours pouring over evaluations, trying to come up with crazy theories in the sometimes haphazard goal of shaping lumps of teeny, naïve, and hormonal creatures into something their societies can be proud of on both an intellectual and a social level. So when words like “educational reform” get thrown around from other teachers (especially those outside the system) often the result is met with cold distance, apprehensiveness, or even outright rejection. Palmer recognizes the inherent weaknesses of reform, especially as reform tends more or less to be institutional rather than carrying intrinsic value. Hence, for Palmer the strategy is not to find ways of incorporating reform within the teacher’s life, but rather reforming the concept of the movement. To illustrate the reformed movement, Palmer uses four stages: institutional rejection in community, establishing support systems and a shared vision, opening goals and vision for public critique, and establishing a reward system outside of institutional values. (p. 172) Rather than working through the institution, Palmer asserts that a movement has value as “movements have the power to alter the logic of organizations because an organization is, at bottom, a system of social sanctions: do this and you will be punished; do that and you will be rewarded.” (p. 186) However, given the foundation of an institution lies in punishment and reward rather than passion and community, movements are to the institution what a shot of morphine is to a man bleeding on the battlefield: a second chance, a reawakening, and a re-purposing of “the power within each of us that in communion with powers beyond ourselves, co-creates the world, for better or worse.” (p. 189)

As a teacher in China, there are further challenges. I don’t have the space to talk in details, but there are five cardinal concepts of social intelligence of great importance in Chinese society: mianzi (face – impression management/self-presentation), wuxing/wulun (holism – social cognition/information identity), guanxi (relationship – attunement/interaction awareness), renqing (favor – influence/behavioral affectation), and yuan (fate – concern/interest management). Teaching in China affords me space; as a foreigner, I am not privy to the intrinsic culture, but I am aware that the culture where I live is far more attuned to social intelligence than my own and as a teacher I must train myself to be keenly aware or face the consequences. I bring this topic up because while Palmer’s model of teaching works well in a Judeo-Christian culture based in the sophistry of Plato, Aristotle, and Adam Smith, the Chinese worldview towards education is very different, founded in the entirely different philosophical petri dish of Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi. While Palmer identifies areas of improvement for the vocation of a teacher, most teachers would welcome his suggestions even though they might balk at their own responsibility to change; in China, I’m afraid many if not most teachers would find Palmer’s suggestions not only amazingly out-of-touch with the ideals of the teacher, but unusable except in particular situations where western ideas are more welcome and schools have been incentivized to test out alternate theories.

For myself as a scholar living in a foreign country, I have come to recognize that Palmer presents two significant challenges to me: firstly, that in order to function as a teacher in China, I must relearn basic concepts about human action. Not only does Palmer explain the inherent spirituality of the teaching profession, but he does so in a way that revitalizes old ideas in new colors. I must learn this language of human action, how to interpret what I see before me, and how to speak that language in such a way that I know who exactly I am, how my fears root me to inaction or backward thinking, how to approach the paradox of east and west and use that so that I can create a more positive learning environment. Concepts like mianzi and renqing are extraordinarily powerful as relationship modulators, while wuxing, guanxi, and yuan establish even the expectations of my own work. Mianzi and wulun alters/limits the extent to which I can affect change among my students, wuxing and yuan influences the amount of power I have as an influencer without position, and guanxi changes the nature of promotion, benefits, and even the concept of the movement.

Secondly, while I do believe that I have the spiritual gift of teaching, I don’t believe I am currently investing myself in it to the fullest extent.  While the culture is challenging, I am not naïve enough to believe the system would be any better in another place – so Palmer speaks directly to my attitude and the necessity for me to be a light to others, no matter how dark the island may be.

Managing worldview polarity: Gerzon and the art of leading through conflict

Gerzon begins his book “Leading through conflict” (2006) by outlining three different kinds of leaders: the demagogue, the manager, and the mediator, however these simple classifications don’t do justice to his meaning. The demagogue is Gerzon’s example of a leader who operates in the field of conflict but rather than using conflict for organizational transformation, uses conflict for personal self-gain. The manager is the myopic leader who operates primarily in the short-term (p.43-44) and who is limited by his frame of reference (p. 32), while the mediator isn’t necessarily a figure but rather a set of skill development that the manager or demagogue can use in order to transform themselves. One of the key problems at my university has been the demagogic systematization model of leadership for the professors in the graduate and post-graduate programs, wherein to keep their funding they must compete with one another as tiny demagogues in tiny kingdoms. This has created spillover into the students, as they often take the role of the manager and are forced into compartmentalized cultures of short-term bursts, without the power to actually affect the demagogic system one way or the other.

In order to counter this negative environment, I would like to divide Gerzon’s ideas into developmental stages and action-step processes. The four developmental stages are: systems thinking, presence, conscious conversation, and dialogue, while the four action-step processes are integral vision, inquiry, bridging, and innovation. I will give a short illustration of how these work together in my own personal context. I will look at how to manage the the worldview conflict between the national staff and a foreign expert who disagree on educational philosophy, namely in the way scores are given to students, as the Chinese worldview regarding scores often differs greatly with western ideals.

As a mediator (being trained in the stages and steps above), I must first position myself properly so that I can clearly understand each side’s point-of-view (p. 77). This can be achieved as simply as relating to national staff as a third party or even as an observer. Then I must begin the process of identifying stakeholders and relating to each stakeholder the realities of the situation from both sides (p. 91). During this process however, I must center myself in self-reflection so that my actions translate into engagement rather than disengagement or fear with an illusion of apathy (p. 112). Once I have established myself an an integral authority comes the hard work: discovering the source of discontent on both sides through a gentle journey of questioning and using those answers to paint a story, nothing more (p. 124). There are two key developmental stages that must occur within me, however: I must treat each conversation as a relationship (p. 144), working towards mutual transformation (myself and the conflicted party), and I must discipline myself to question even the most basic assumptions I might hold about the situation (p. 172). Finally, there must be an implicit agreement within both parties for the accomplishment of a finite goal (p. 191 as example), as any strategies can only come out of the process of discussion while in recognition that the conflict exists (p. 211).

When I utilized this method in my work, the following occurred. After positioning myself an an authority on both parties, I was able to gain the trust of both (miraculously). I explained the complexities of the problem to both parties from each point-of-view, namely the Chinese mentality about scores coming from the culture of the gaokao (national exam), and the American mentality about scores coming from the grade-point average system. After convincing both that I truly wanted to be involved in the solution, I began the process of asking where the tension lay. The American was offended by the Chinese staffer’s critical attitude, while she did not even consider it a problem; she felt that was her job. Therefore, I had to present each case to the other and help each agree that mutual transformation was most beneficial, even though I had my doubts about the stubbornness of both parties to be reciprocal. However, to my amazement, both parties were willing to bend once they understood each other’s reasoning, and while a perfect triage wasn’t the result, both were transformed. The Chinese staffer was less critical about her assessment of the American’s methodologies, and the American was less sensitive about the Chinese staffer’s critical attitude. The healing process is still happening, but I believe with the gentle care of a healer, both will come through.

Appendix

ASP Integral vision – positioning oneself geometrically so that all sides of the issue are visible, “Instead of staying ‘in your seat, climb the stairs’ and view the situation from a higher level – ‘a bird’s eye view.’” (p. 77)

DS Systems thinking – finding connections between disparate elements within a complex system, “the consciousness of each stakeholder [must be] raised about the complexity of the issue.” (p. 91)

DS Presence – self-reflected awareness translated into engagement, “Despite the range of methods for catalyzing presence, virtually all of them combine one of two paradoxical elements: disciplined, focused ritual or utterly authentic spontaneity.” (p. 112)

ASP Inquiry – context-driven questioning, painting a story. “True listening involves entering the perspective of another human being.” (p. 124)

DS Conscious conversation – relationship-orientated discourse towards mutual transformation, “when sender and recipient become truly interactive, with each able to shape the relationship, it is no longer mere communication. It can become a conversation.” (p. 144)

DS Dialogue – not a skill or activity, but a capacity, “While they claimed to want ‘dialogue’ they ultimately failed to practice one of its cardinal principals: questioning assumptions.” (p. 172)

ASP Bridging – bi-acculturation process of taking two worldviews and merging towards a finite goal, example of Soviet/American film directors coming together to crush the Soviet/American stereotypes found in their relative film industries (p. 191)

ASP Innovation – ideas come from exploration of conflict, “Mediators are ready to change the rules of the system… they do not ask how to ‘alleviate’ it or ‘minimize’ it. They ask how to ‘end’ it by redesigning the system that causes or perpetuates it.” (p. 211)

“Fix the process, not the problem.” (p. 222)

 References

Gerzon, M. (2006). Leading through conflict. Harvard Business School Press: Boston.

Discovering cultural acumen through social science

Project GLOBE defines itself as: a network of 170 social scientists and management scholars from 61 cultures throughout the world, working in a coordinated long-term effort to examine the interrelationships between societal culture, organizational culture and practices, and organizational leadership. The meta-goal of the Global Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness (GLOBE) Research Program is to develop an empirically based theory to describe, understand, and predict the impact of cultural variables on leadership and organizational processes and the effectiveness of these processes. (GLOBE monograph, Cultural influences on leadership and organizations) Both Mansour Javidan and Robert House are key members of GLOBE and are important members of the content of what I wish to discuss in this article, as they wrote “Cultural acumen for the global manager: Lessons from Project GLOBE.” (2001) Javidan is the current director of the Najafi Global Mindset Institute at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and House is known for being the author of the Path-Goal theory (which attempts to explain the relationship between leader and follower in the workplace).

Understanding GLOBE’s mission statement is important in understanding GLOBE’s stance on becoming a culturally proficient manager in a global organization. In Javidan and House’s article, the authors define cultural acumen as: the knowledge about cultural differences, knowing similarities among countries, understanding the implications of differences, and using and developing culturally appropriate skills. However, while GLOBE maintains that their goals are to “understand and appreciate cultural values, practices, and subtleties in different parts of the world,” their chief source of inspiration for the cultural dimensions comes from Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social scientist who categorized cultural differences around the world into four basic categories, all of which are included within GLOBE’s cultural dimensions along with five additional dimensions.

GLOBE’s cultural dimensions are assertiveness, future orientation, gender differentiation (Hofstede’s masculinity), uncertainty avoidance, power distance, collectivism-individualism, in-group collectivism, performance orientation, and human orientation. These cultural dimensions are what Javidan and House term motivators, or desires in a particular occupation, very similar to Edgar Schein’s career anchors (2006), except that unlike the concept of career anchors which deal primarily in workplace progression, cultural dimension motivators are an unchangeable Spinozan concept that is chiefly defined by the worker’s home culture. GLOBE’s definition of culture, therefore, is: “a set of shared values and beliefs.”

To appreciate Javidan and House’s presentation of GLOBE’s cultural dimensions, one must first recognize that they are writing from a positional bias. For example, in the article Javidan and House address the issue of performance orientation by describing strong performance oriented cultures are moving towards “deliverable results” while weak performance oriented cultures function “without any commitments or desire for results.” Living in a foreign country myself, I will be the first to admit my bias every time I step into the classroom; I feel guilt when I cannot identify and rigorously defend the results of my pedagogy, and I often reflect upon the Chinese staff at my school with a certain amount of contempt as I cannot visually ascertain and intuit that they are seeking results, and therefore view them in a lesser light as being less or not committed at all.

Therefore, for me as an expatriate educator to operate from a bias even though I have lived in this country for almost ten years and then to read about American scholars promoting a positional bias in cultural acumen, I find myself at a loss. For many Chinese teachers at my university, the concept of “deliverable results” is achieved not through the score of a test or even from the personal learning of a student, but rather from the value of the classroom relationship being maintained and the harmony of each in his or her station upholding that station to the best of his or her ability. One of my students flatly told me that when a teacher assigns him homework, he does not do the homework for himself but rather for the teacher, as a gift to the teacher. In such an environment, how can we possibly assign the concept of performance orientation, when what we perceive to be green is actually blue?

Javidan and House describe the concept of uncertainty avoidance as “the society’s reliance on social norms and procedures to alleviate the unpredictability of future events.” Even approaching this description I am at a loss for how to interpret the culture in which I live. The survey example question that Javidan and House utilize is: “In this society [China, for example], societal requirements and instructions are spelled out in detail so citizens know what they are expected to do,” with a question breadth between 1 (strongly disagree) to 8 (strongly agree). In other words, cultures that score high in uncertainty avoidance are “focused on facts” while countries low in uncertainty avoidance operate “without clear conclusions.” Is this really the case?

China traditionally ranks very low on uncertainty avoidance charts, which would insinuate by Hofstede’s definition that mainland Chinese culture is philosophically relativistic and lacks organizational strength (1980). While I have struggled with conclusions in China (especially regarding job expectations), there are just as many unsaid expectations that are just as important and require a different ear to discern. Success and failure in China often revolve not around your ability to function in a given task, but your ability to discern what the task is and then complete the task. China is not any less specifically task-oriented than Germany, except in the language used to communicate the tasks.

Finally, Javidan and House explain that for societies weak in humane orientation “generosity is not a key criterion in the process” (for example, Spain), as “the process and message tend to be simpler, more direct, and less focused on being supportive or caring.” I dare anyone to walk up to a Spaniard or German and tell them directly that they are not being generous with their words, and listen to what he or she might have as a response. Growing up in a German home with a father who spoke German as a second-language, while the surface of the words may not sound supportive, there is a great deal of support in the meaning. As scholars we must take care with our bias that we do not delegitimize another culture just because we do not understand it.

References

Hofstede, G. (1980). Motivation, leadership, and organization: Do American theories apply abroad? Organizational Dynamics: Summer:42-63.

Javidan, M., & House, R. (2001). Cultural acumen for the global manager: Lessons from Project GLOBE. Organizational Dynamics, 29(4):289-305.

The art of cultural conditioning: A query into Geert Hofstede’s early work into culture

Geert Hofstede fascinates me. As a young man, he took a trip to Indonesia and England. The first time out of his native country of Holland, he was struck with how different people behaved, and over the next fifteen years he developed his theory of culture based on the research he performed while serving as a director of personnel research at IBM. During that time, he traveled to various IBM sites around the world and conducted interviews; realizing the vast information bank of culture that IBM had, he asked them if they would be willing to open up that bank for the purpose of more in-depth cultural research. They told him no, so he left the company and joined both INSEAD and EIASM, two centers for academic business research.

Hofstede’s most well-known academic work, “Motivation, Leadership, and Organization: Do American Theories Apply Abroad?” (1980) is a classic, as his paper introduced the four cultural dimensions that have since been applied to almost every rigorous study of culture: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism-collectivism, and masculinity. While many other researchers have expanded on the four (Javidan & House, 2001; Jackson, 2002; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998), Hofstede was one of the first academics to create a toolbox that academics could use to deconstruct and reconstruct a culture using a few simple tools, an analytic process which he called “cultural conditioning.”

Cultural conditioning, according to Hofstede, is the collective programming of a people group, according to family structure, education, religion, government, associations, law, literature, settlement patterns, scientific theories, architecture and buildings. These cultural conditions act as variables that differentiate one culture from the next, resulting in stark divergences between how a society views class structure (power distance), strength of organization (uncertainty avoidance), strength of identity (individualism-collectivism), and societal progress (masculinity).

His research took place between 1967 and 1973, using a 150-question survey, with 60 of those questions related indirectly to values and beliefs. Based on the results from approximately 2200 participants in 20 different language groups, along with an additional 400 managers queried between 1971-1973 Hofstede collated the index data for each question for each of his four dimensions of culture, finding statistically significant correlation among 31 national indicators. While it would be impossible to discover the source of Hofstede’s four dimensions (without asking him, of course), I find the need to associate a discrepancy of bias to Hofstede’s results given his indexing method used in the initial data collection, as data was collected inductively rather than deductively and inductive studies represent a certain bias on the part of the researcher.

More importantly, however, are Hofstede’s identification of particular cultural variables (a research track that seems to be lost in his later research) with leadership, motivation, and organization. For example, Hofstede explores the differences between Freud’s self-obligation (Austria) and Maslow’s self-actualization (United States) as differences in national motivation. He goes on to present three different leadership practices based on significant scholarship: Machiavelli’s strategic manipulation (Italy), More’s strategic idealism (England), and McGregor’s strategic participation (United States) as indicators and value systems of leadership. Finally, Hofstede addresses differences in organizational theory, using the examples of Weber’s formal structure (Germany) and Mao’s mutualist structure (PRC) of organizational management.

Hofstede’s original question of the relevancy of American theories in other countries is valid and important, but sadly a question that he doesn’t seem to ask again in his later research. Hofstede’s later research plays on his four cultural dimensions to such an extent, that the beauty of his initial analysis of variables is lost, and he becomes stuck in the miasma of his own Dutch cultural conditioning of identification rather than observation. I am not dense enough to recognize that were it not for his study of the four dimensions he would not have recognized the cultural variables, but his initial study was tainted with bias. For example, his description of the four cultural dimensions could be classified with the following table:

  Weak Strong
Power distance Classless Hierarchical
Uncertainty avoidance Relativism (dissipation) Organizational strength
Individualism-collectivism Lack of self Strength in identity
Masculinity No progress Progress

In many ways, Hofstede is a spiritual successor of other Dutch philosophers such as Spinoza (who claimed that people could not deviate from their design), Huizinga (who argued that history’s primary variable was cultural artifacts rather than more traditional concepts like war and disease), and Romein (who wrote that history had to be integrated in order to be valid). Hofstede attended the university of Gronigen as did Huizinga, although Spinoza (in a less official capacity as a participant in their study groups), Huizinga, and Romein all taught at the University of Leiden. Nevertheless, the bias that Hofstede presents in his cultural dimensions (strength versus weakness) is inimitably visible. Hofstede misses the key difference in his bias: that sometimes weakness is strength, or sometimes perceived weakness has nothing to do with perceived strength. As a general frame of reference, the four dimensions of culture have the inherent danger of misinterpreting the paradigm of a culture as being somewhere it is not.

References

Hofstede, G. (1980). Motivation, leadership, and organization: Do American theories apply abroad? Organizational Dynamics: Summer:42-63.

Releasing the anchor of self-perception

The first time I heard the word career was in a high school business class. “You want to make sure you choose the right career, something you are really passionate in,” she said. “If you choose the wrong career, you may later come to regret that decision.” At the time I was sixteen years old. For years, I had been traveling with my parents to Amway conventions; most of these adventures I spent a majority of my time in the hotel room watching movies, swimming in the pool, or exploring the hotel for any secrets it might hold, but in recent years I had begun to attend the actual seminars, and when I turned 16 I bought my first IBO Kit (Independent Business Owner) and then presented my “business opportunity” to my biology teacher, Mr. Cross.

Mr. Cross was known as one of the strictest teachers in the school… or perhaps even the universe. Never smiling, his brow always settled in a comfortable suspension-bridge shaped arc, his bright eyes behind a set of thick glasses, his tall spindly body hovering over students like an ominous shadow. So I decided that he would be my first, because I do enjoy a challenge. I didn’t know it then, but he was also my last. No, he didn’t dissuade me from becoming a millionaire, but he did allow me into his home, he spoke with me not as a teacher but took me seriously, and he wasn’t intimidating at all. He revealed to me something that would later become part of my ethos: that being a teacher didn’t mean that when you left school you carried your job on your back, but outside of the classroom, a teacher was as real as any other man, someone who sat on his couch in his pajamas and watched late night sitcoms, or someone who despite bringing piles of work back to grade, relaxed with some jazz and a cup of tea. The career doesn’t make the man, I learned. The man makes the career.

Fifteen years later I stopped struggling. I became a teacher.

Edgar Schein, more famous for his organizational opus, “Organizational Culture and Leadership” (1992), also was the author of a self-assessment called “Career Anchors” (2006). Schein begins by describing the inner career as a “self-image of competencies, motives, and values” (Loc 85), where competencies are defined as talents and skills, motives defined as aspirations and hopes, and values defined as character, beliefs, and priorities. For Schein, the anchor is a self-assessment which allows a person to understand the drives of his or her inner career (the self-image), and then once understood can more easily manipulate the external career (horizontal, vertical, or inward steps toward advancement) to better suit the purposes of that particular anchor (of which Schein lists eight). The anchor acts as a stable force which provides momentum and direction for movement in an organization or company and allows the worker self-direction and awareness of why he or she is drawn to particular types of work, or why the worker’s dissatisfaction erupts in overcompensating time spent in hobbies, second jobs, or leisure activities (Loc 160).

As confusing and fragmented as it is, experience more than any other power transforms our abilities and goals. Schein focuses on self-assessment and believes that by defining and clarifying one’s primary career anchors, he or she can become more fully developed. Schein lists eight career anchors: 1)technical/functional, 2)general managerial, 3)autonomy/independence, 4)security/stability, 5)entrepreneurial creativity, 6)service/dedication to a cause, 7)pure challenge, and 8)lifestyle. For an organization to be truly efficient and utilize their staff, they need to treat career anchors as strengths. 1)Specialists should be utilized in areas that requires concentration and focus, 2)problem-solvers should be given direct access to conflict, 3)agents should be the external arm of the organization, 4)pillars should be embedded deep in the organizational and offered opportunities to solidify and recognize loyalty and thereby keep the organizational solid, 5)creators should be given the freedom, incentive, and support to be innovative, 6)influencers should be placed at strategic locations in the organization to serve in capacities which drive organizational ethical standards, 7)warriors should be positioned in the hardest zones of disagreement with goals firmly communicated and rules of compromise fully explored, and 8)integrators should be the barometers of health in an organization, queried at periodic times to make sure the organization is healthy and thriving. By transforming the self-assessment of career anchors into action-oriented positioning, an organization can more fully appreciate the diversity present instead of using the self-assessment tool as a repatriation tool or mere encouragement for a single worker to take his or her career more seriously.

Our self-perceptions are the primarily limitation of the career anchor as a tool. Before I took the assessment I read through his book and came to the conclusion that my career anchors be service/dedication to a cause, entrepreneurial creativity, and autonomy/independence, as I identified strongly with those three in my personal belief system. However, after taking the assessment, I discovered something surprising: my three top career anchors were actually service/dedication to a cause, lifestyle, and technical/functional. Initially when reading through the descriptions of lifestyle and technical/functional, I scoffed at both but for different reasons. I believed that people who tested as lifestyle were more concerned with a life free of responsibility, and that people who tested as technical/functional were droll and boring. However, I realized that my own self-perception was flawed, and that my actions were a stronger reflection than my ideals.

For years I struggled with the concept of career, ever since I first heard the word in my high school business class. I was a bookseller, a secretary, an undertaker (yes, I was), a videographer, a poet, a columnist, a projectionist, a lobbyist, a security guard, and a day care counselor. Nothing seemed to fit. “The rest of your life,” my high school business teacher might have said, “is defined by your choice of career.” Of course, she was wrong. Our lives are not defined by our careers; rather, we define our careers. The day I realized this, I was standing in front of a mirror, and on the other side of the mirror I saw Mr. Cross staring back at me, but with one difference: I was smiling.

References

Schein, E. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E. (2006). Career anchors: Participant workbook (Kindle version). San Francisco: Pfieffer.

A personal mythology

Depending only on our assumptions to understand a culture is dangerous. Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner (1996) state that the only way to manage cultural change is to use stories to rewrite our assumptions about implicit culture. In this short essay I am going to talk about assumptions I had about Chinese culture (based on my initial reactions to experiences I had), and then relate several stories that changed my mind, and through these experiences explain some of the key differences between an American upbringing and Chinese culture.

“The Funeral”

When I first came to China, I had an opportunity to attend a funeral in the mountainside. Even though this was a funeral, I was curious to know how funerals among Chinese Christians differed from funerals among American Christians. You see, I come from a culture where the dead are mourned in personal silence. God, for Americans, is a mystical calculator they keep in their pocket, who I have often imagined has the voice of the late Richard Harris; a great, mournful voice, apologizing for the blood of the world, and a bright piñata for our confusion and angst, opening his arms to the barbs we throw in our pain and guilt. However, in China I experienced a different kind of God, one that surrounded the crowd on the mountain in a warmth only because we were together, and uplifted each person there with the peace of a prosperous and unique future, promising each family a future of peace while also promising each family a future of struggle.

The United States comes from a strong background of Puritan beliefs, capitalistic philosophy, Enlightenment idealism, and postmodern sensibilities, while China comes from a background of Confucian ethics, taoist emotionalism, historical precedence, and socialist methodologies. Every artefact of culture invaded my brain and tried to make sense, but continually failed: Russian winter jackets, German cars, French superstores, Korean movies, American fast food, Japanese televisions, and English accents: for a country that prided itself on an immense history and sterling culture, how could so many other cultures have so much power? In the United States, Chinese culture had been relegated to cheap restaurants, Japanese culture to cheap cars, and European culture to out-of-date emotionalism, but in China foreign constructs held immense power. In China, the political, military, and artistic systems were Russian imports, the economic model an American import, and the social system was a fragment of Marxist ideology and failed dreams, touched with a bit of ancient Chinese sentimentalism. The values and underlying beliefs of the two countries were not even comparable, and that fascinated me.

“The Cup”

While I was working as an English teacher at Peking University, I was invited to be a guest judge for an English-speaking competition, and later as an honored guest for the televised finals. In the story above, I spoke about internal characteristics of both China and America (values and underlying beliefs), but in this story I will speak about the external characteristics (the arts). Art in China has a long history of emulation, from the long-standing tradition of learning how to paint landscapes by copying the masters, to the art of calligraphy, a beautiful discipline where the artist instills his or her passion into the brush and the tiniest variant of movement in the shape of a word is considered beautiful and unique. As I was sitting in my front-row seat at the televised finals of the competition, this emulation became magnified in everything, although strangely the emulation was not from the Chinese masters but from American television shows.

Whenever I look back on the recording of the competition finals, I swallow a bit of my pride. Every object on the set, everyone sitting in the arena-benches in the audience, and every activity the participants took part in looked American… except when the camera panned to me. Bigger than everyone around me, dressed in a yellow tweed jacket, and clapping and smiling out of sync, I was noticeably different from everyone else in the audience, who were sitting quietly with their hands in their laps, trying to blend in with the background, not making sudden movements, but becoming a part of the portrait of intense expectations. The CCTV Cup was a realization that even as a spectator, my basic instinct was to act like an American, to move to my own rhythm, even when the rest of the world was clapping at the same time.

“Work is Work”

I was nervous; previously she had refused to see me, take my calls, or even recognize my desires to communicate with her. Just a week before, we were on good terms; suddenly we were enemies, beholden on opposites sides of a battlefield without a choice. She could not look at me; I could only wonder what I had done wrong. “Family is family, work is work,” she told me in her office, sighing and shrugging her shoulders as if she held a great burden. “When you work in China, you must understand this.” A week before, I walked up the aisle of a conference hall of the Saixiang Hotel in Tianjin, a city not far from Beijing. When I embraced hands with my bride, I had little idea that my school, unbeknownst to me, forgot about the date of my wedding and scheduled a very expensive class on that very day, and because there was no teacher to teach that class, the school not only lost a huge amount of money but also a great deal of face, and something had to change.

According to Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner, cultures deviate between universalism and particularism in the development of rules, and the use of internal and external control mechanisms to enforce those rules. China, for example, is highly universalistic when it comes to developing rules but incredibly particularistic when it comes to enforcing them. Furthermore, the influence of Taoist philosophy on Chinese culture has engrained among people a dialectic of natural movement between dark and light, or that people naturally transform from something into something else rather the American perception that people are born a certain way and can never change. Nothing good can last, and nothing can really last; therefore, the only things that last are the things that must change and in changing they last. After I was let go from the school, I spent a long time in mourning and anger, even though I left one of the most dismal schools and ended up in the highest university in the country, not even one day after I was let go. The American in me was stunned, but no one else seemed surprised. The American in me demanded retribution and punishment, but the Chinese seeping into me transformed that rage and frustration into the most amazing thing: forgiveness.

“The Walking Street”

More than the impersonal attributes of rules and control however, are cultural issues that affect a person’s self-perception as well as emotional state. Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner also relate the cultural values of individualism and collectivism (self-perception), and neutral and affective (emotions). Growing up in the United States, I learned some very difficult lessons about not allowing other people to define what I believed about myself, and that I was fully in control of my emotions: no external force could or should govern my state of mind, unless I allowed it to. Like most people, I believed what I knew to be the truth; that either people thought that way, or wanted to think that way because they knew in the darkest part of their heart, they also knew it to be true.

Consider my surprise, then, when I took my teacher for coffee. Over the last couple of weeks, I felt there had been some tension between us, and being that she was my tutor, I wanted to make things right. I should have realized something was off when the moment we stepped outside of the cab, she started walking on the opposite side of the street, and when I moved toward her, she reacted and asked me to stay a few feet away from her, but to keep walking. Perhaps she wanted to play the part of a spy? No, actually. She was embarrassed that others seeing her would think she was my girlfriend.

Later that afternoon, after buying her some ice cream to assuage her frustration as well as drinking a cup of coffee to try and force my brain to interpret the events of the day, she told me that not only had I embarrassed her in class by asking too many questions, but that everyday she felt a creeping doom when she had to mentally prepare herself to teach me. And here I thought I was the model student! I had been praised by my professors in university for my unflinching dedication to learning and truth-seeking, but in China I was considered a brute, little better than a hoodlum looking for an easy pinch (a term of endearment, I thought). However, for many people in China, self-perception is a reflection of perceived expectations from other people, and emotions are contextually defined by those same perceived expectations. I thought that by inviting my teacher out for coffee, I could make it right, but it wasn’t until I realized that by trying to make it right, I was constantly making it worse. Only after I changed how I acted in front of her in the classroom, was she able to change how she acted in front of me.

“The Teahouse”

One winter, I visited a friend who lived in the city of Xi’an. A prominent surgeon and Party member, a couple of years before he stayed with my parents in California while he was doing a residency as a foreign expert and cancer researcher at Stanford University. He quickly became a close family friend. While visiting him in Xi’an, I believed that like great family friends, we would spend some time together, visiting the sites, having dinner together, and speaking of my family back in California and his life there. However to my surprise we spent most of the time entertaining his friends, drinking in teahouses, schmoozing up to officials, and only speaking to each other in the car as we moved from place to place. By the end of the trip, I was so confused, upset, and in pain from the massive headaches I suffered from the large amounts of tea I drank, but more importantly, I was jaded by our friendship, believing he had used me to uplift his position as a Party member so as to ensure his status as the “surgeon with the exotic foreign friend”.

Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner speak also of three very important cultural concepts: specific and diffuse (responsibility), achievement and ascription (status), and past, present, and future time (orientation). My experience with my friend allowed me a unique glimpse into a special situation. My reactions were pure examples of American perceptions of responsibility, status, and orientation. As a friend, we should (responsibility) have spent the time together, growing closer and laughing about old times, thereby solidifying our status as friends, and securing the future of our relationship. However, in the mind of my friend, he would owe me far more by the simple act of allowing me an opportunity to show him off to his friends, and that action would ensure for decades to come his appreciation and dedication to us as friends. Furthermore, the status I would afford him would be “change in the bank”, so that in the future if I needed a favor from him he would be more than happy to sacrifice his time and effort to help me, something that even my greatest of American friends would likely need a lot of convincing to even consider. Once I had realized this, I was embarrassed, but I suppose I can write that off as being too American about the whole situation.

“The Man with the Turtle-Skin Glasses”

My first year in China I worked at a kindergarten. My boss was a big man built like a football player, with broad shoulders, a belly of iron, and huge, square-framed glasses that he claimed were covered in turtle-skin (he said with pride). I remember walking into his office for the first time and being surprised: he was sitting at his computer desk, playing Counter Strike, a popular computer game where the player acts in the role of a counter-terrorist officer and runs around a map shooting terrorists in the head. He was older, in his fifties, respectable, but when I walked in he motioned me to sit in a wooden chair beside his desk and continued playing his game. When he was done, he turned to face me and asked me if I liked Chinese food, and what did I think of the cold buns they served in the school cafeteria for breakfast. I was too stunned to reply; eventually I gathered up my energy and said it was good; I waited for some time, but he didn’t have anything more to say, so then I collected myself and after making up an excuse, went back to my room, about ten feet away just down the hall.

As a final conclusion to this short essay, I want to talk a little about leaders and followers. I wouldn’t necessarily say my boss was a good leader (he had to flee the country two years later) but he was an ordinary leader who did what he believed was expected of him. He was an authority, he was rich, and in general he didn’t have a lot of expectations of others except to not embarrass him and work with the other staff. He was always there, but rarely did he make his presence known unless circumstances demanded, but if his presence was made known his shadow fell over everything. Aside from being less personable, he was more or less like any other non-exceptional leader I had ever known. He expected his staff to fulfill their duties, and they expected him to tell them what to do. Sure, certain intricacies were apparent: the lack of discussion when he made a decision, the sardonic and cleverly worded remarks from the staff when he wasn’t around (as well as some moaning), and the fear of what it might mean to have a relationship with him. We are all people of flesh and blood and more or less respond in similar ways. If we let it, culture has power over us, but if we master it, culture is merely another language to learn.

Transforming values

Society is fundamentally ruled by the powerful, who maintain their power by offering others security. The powerful offer physical security, personal security, familial security, and quite often moral security that is based out of how that particular powerful group views the family and how they view the interplay between different members of the community. Opposing this “security” is more often viewed as a threat to the whole and put down immediately. The Pope was a shining example of how a leader could offer both moral authority and security, while at the same time stand out as a monstrous vehicle of power and dictatorship, “the leader of the world.” However, the United States was one of the first forces to truly challenge the papacy, and they did so through offering not only moral authority but intellectual authority through their espousal of freedom as a human right. During the beginning of the United States, scholars and thinkers were obsessed with the motivational forces that ruled over the human soul, and today, those motivational forces have evolved to values-based leadership. Leaders recognize today that people mobilize not only from the recognition of their own human rights, but from leaders who offer a living model of those values of human rights.

“Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / but leech-like to their fainting country cling, / rise like Lions after slumber / in unvanquishable number — / shake your chains to earth like dew / which in sleep had fallen on you — / ye are many — they are few.” (Shelley, 1819) Even in the 19th century, popular culture had begun to embrace the idea that values could transform the world. Shelley’s criticism that leaders were so distanced from their followers that they were blind, unfeeling, and stupid, was a bold thing to say when rulers still felt they had divine authority on their side. The idea that followers of a divine authority actually had chains was less a statement that people needed freedom, and more a claim that people had a right to live their own lives without being chained in the dreams of a leader who was blind.

Are one set of values any better than another set? How can you make a differentiation, without making a judgment? For example, we look at modern-day Sharia bound cultures, where women are forced to wear headdresses and covers so that they are not seen in public, when in fact many of those women support that culture and when westerners criticize those cultures, the westerners are the ones who are in turn criticized for being immoral. Do leaders need to stand for the values of their followers, or do they need to reframe those values and transform those under them? Should the leaders in closed countries such as China and Saudi Arabia seek to transform their countries to become more like other countries and their values, or should they seek to solidify themselves in favor of their own people’s values?

I often struggle with knowing where my values lie in the country I live. I am an ex-patriot, and for many people I come into contact with I am the first ex-patriot (or foreigner) they have ever met. When they see me and watch me, everything I do becomes everything the other world is. If I cry or scream or smile, I begin to form their own minds about the actions of people who are not Chinese. If I cheat or steal or sin, that is added to the value system of other countries, at least in the eyes of those who are watching me, in the exact same way that I erroneously attached the ethics and values of China to Tracy, that tiny little Chinese girl in my second-grade class, or how I also erroneously attached a judgment of Iran by observing the parents of my friend whose family fled to the United States in the 80s. However, I am an image of the West, and there is nothing I can do about that. The values I espouse become the main line in inquiry for anyone I meet, unless that person is lucky enough to meet someone else and grow their judgment set. As a leader however, the values I espouse are even more important, not because it should matter to me whether or not someone has a favorable opinion of the values of people from other countries, but because that will affect my effectiveness in reaching that person and trying to help them grow.

Intercultural immersion: synthesis

There are certain moments of sublime clarity I remember from my childhood. Sitting at home at the dinner table, the wax from two red candles burning between a baked turkey and a Chinese rice dish, and the prayers of my mother before the meal asking that God would watch over not only my brother and I during the school vacation, but also the Chinese family that lived with us as they were adapting to life in the United States. I remember visiting my friend from Iran and eating dinner with his family, studying the golden-framed paintings all over the house and trying to understand why a family would place so many sculptures in so many places. I remember a missionary from Thailand coming through the front door of our home, handing me a ball woven of hard bark, and telling me that this ball was a soccer ball for the village children where they worked, and every time I kicked that ball I saw myself in dusty fields with other kids, sharing together in sore, reddened feet and the abounding laughter of enlightened joy my peers could never experience in their insular lives. These experienced were profoundly formed by my experience growing up in a family where foreign cultural values were embraced alongside the basic American values of expressed democracy, Christian service, and the manifest destiny of spreading the love of our faith to the corners of the Earth. There is both a sanctity and a blindness to manifest destiny though. Historically a masonic concept, over time manifest destiny has come to mean more than spreading a democratic faith to the far side of the dusty world, but has transformed into an American ethic that provides both our salvation as a nation as well as the seeds of our destruction as a people devoid of weakness and riddled with ethnocentric attitudes in the vain quest to bring light to the huddled masses of shades outside our borders.

When I graduated from university, I had that same fire to reach the world for truth (perhaps I still do, albeit in a different way). Freshly christened with two shining degrees (and an online certificate) I took a plane to China, eager to embrace my destiny as an educated neophyte granted the wisdom only $200,000 could have bestowed. I believed in the fundamental goodness of the learning process, in the transformative power of Christian light to reach across national boundaries and yank people into a more pure outlook and even in the prospect that English could transfer that same manifest destiny from myself to my students. I had traveled to over sixteen different countries and been given a unique perspective on the world that most people would be envious of, and came from a cornbread American family that had the blessings of both urban and farmer philosophy, along with the revelatory message of Christ for the world. However, as Elmer (2006) and Lewis (1996) both stipulate in their respective volumes, I carried my culture on my metaphorical back, with the intent to teach rather than learn, to bestow rather than grow, and to perform rather than reform. The most striking difference between Elmer’s servant model and the model I took abroad was that Elmer’s servant serves through lowering his face to the ground and submitting, while in my first couple of years in China I was a paragon of virtue who expected the natives to submit to my knowledge and grow into a new paradigm. In a word, I was a monster, albeit a gentle beast who preferred to embrace before consuming.

When I began to teach at the Chinese university, inwardly my desire was to serve the students. At the beginning and end of each class, I queried the students as to what they wanted to learn, as the administration “had no expectations” (outwardly, in any case) and my singular desire was to both communicate the love of Christ through my actions of intensely desiring to help the students perform their language abilities beyond even my highest expectations. I desired to serve, and still today I carry that same dream, although Elmer (2006) has taught me that to truly serve, I must carry no attitudes of greater-than but instead always approach foreign culture as a less-than, and Lewis (1996) has taught me that regardless of appearances, the people I am interfacing with have grown up in a reality so far beyond my understanding that I could well be on another planet trying to convince the natives that green was red. In order to really reach the other side of the gorge, I have to first give up my image of what I think the other side must look like, close my eyes, and once I reach the other side of the bridge, carry no expectations except for my own necessity to listen to the sounds and take in the colors.

Strange, though. I grew up in California, near San Francisco, a city that once upon a time was 90% Chinese. Asian culture is almost second nature to most people in California, but it is also different. Over the last hundred years, political upheavals, wars, famines, deaths, and the passing of generations have altered the landscape of culture, to the point where I wonder sometimes if two or three generations ago the culture was even relatively the same. Lin Yutang, a Chinese scholar who wrote in the early 1900s during the first Republic of China, writes about Chinese culture in his book “My Country, My People,” and while many of his descriptions seem apt, they are also off-putting, bridging culture with words but separated by time. Lewis (1996) remarks about Chinese culture, expressing the power of taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism over people’s lives (Loc 9199), philosophies which are barely even recognized among today’s Chinese youth (due to Mao Zedong’s policy of using the volumes of Confucius from people’s homes as kindling during the Cultural Revolution); culture transforms over time and eventually fades, replaced by the shared experienced and trauma of a people (Loc 10068).

Many times I feel like Joseph, the Hebraic hero who found himself sold as a slave to a rich landowner in Egypt, and years later became the second highest-member of Pharoah’s court. Elmer (2006) provides a wonderful illustration of Joseph, encapsulating his cross-cultural work into a model: acceptance, trust, openness, and serving (Loc 1965). The divide is wide, but with perseverance, patience, and humility the divide can be crossed, even when culture changes faster than one might hope and the cross-cultural worker finds himself struggling against the tides of an ever-changing sea.

As a cross-cultural worker in China and an educator, I often find myself existing in the China Hand paradox. A China hand (Zhongguo Tong) is a foreigner who has lived in China so long, that many people (even Chinese people) are quick to acknowledge their vast experiences and wisdom of even Chinese culture; having lived in China for almost ten years, I most qualify for this illustrious title and the respect it engenders, even though my cultural awareness still lacks. How can I become a servant in a culture that desires to elevate me? I am reminded of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, kneeling down and wiping away the grime of dust, touching broken toenails, cleansing wounds and blisters, pushing the dirt-covered sweat from gnarled hair, perhaps even removing pebbles and rocks from between the toes. In a society of cleanliness and purity such as Israel, for a man of honor (a king, even) to step down and wash his servants’ feet must have been considered abominable, a breaking of custom and culture, much like what cross-cultural workers feel when they make the initial breach into an alien land and witness people doing things they had never even considered as proper behavior. My dream is to be like Christ, to be a servant first, and to truly respect the Chinese culture in a way that only Jesus could. To be a servant means to serve my family first, breaking out of the American perception of the man of the house and moving towards the Christ-like habit of serving others first without the expectation that my humility will engender my greatness, but rather humility for humility – a state of mind, and a pattern of living.

Intercultural immersion: an evaluation of personal variances

In my analysis of Elmer (2006) and Lewis (1996), I looked at the basic philosophy the two men brought to the conversation of cross-cultural work, focusing on the need for understanding a culture beyond just book knowledge, but having an intimate awareness – an empathy – of how that culture operates on a worldview level. In this second paper, I will discuss how these perspectives transform my own life as an educator and a cross-cultural worker, by discussing pertinent issues from both books, as well as illustrate some problematic issues that have occurred as a result of my transplant into Chinese culture. Most importantly, however, I will discuss the power that I wield as a cross-cultural worker, in not only shaping others around me but being transformed intimately by the collection of new ideas foreign cultures introduce.

Before I came to work overseas, I had several academic degrees: two bachelor degrees (one in English and another in Biblical studies), as well as two certifications (one for teaching English as a foreign language and one for international business). I also had studied the Chinese language extensively before coming to China for my professional career. I was not only highly qualified, but motivated to pass on that knowledge to others. However, one stipulation Elmer makes is that education in different countries carries different expectations (2006, Loc 879). In the United States (where I earned my degrees), certain expectations are held for both students and teachers: academic originality, reflected critical thought patterns, and willingness to participate in opinionated discussions. However, in China those three aspects of education do not actually exist, as students in high school are encouraged to emulate rather than create, elaborate rather than criticize, and listen rather than speak. Such basic principles built into a system that for a thousand years operated and evolved independently of other cultural educational systems provided a stark challenge as an educator, and still I struggle with today. I continue to struggle inwardly in putting aside my philosophy of education, in the hopes of helping the process of transformation inside my fundamentally different students.

Even if, however, an educator such as myself can grasp the invisible lines of cultural variants, the problem arises of actually understanding why. Elmer (2006) uses the example of learning not only from but learning with the target culture (Loc 1143). Empathy (learning with) functions separately from sympathy (learning from): while sympathy is an acknowledgment of a different experience from the perspective of oneself, empathy is an insertion of oneself into a different perspective; cross-cultural work requires empathy, because while sympathy will allow the cross-cultural worker to react more positively to situational problems, empathy allows the worker to transform a basic ethic to a new worldview, while retaining elements of the old. Elmer gives the example of Isaiah 28:33-39, in which God’s care for even the most common of workers (a wheat farmer) is so specific that the Lord of Creation steps down from his throne to instruct the farmer in the most basic of work, from planting barley to grinding the grain. The model of the wheat farmer is the model for the cross-cultural worker, who in working with others (who operate from a totally different outlook) must take the care to truly understand them to the detail that God takes with the common farmer.

Book knowledge and empathy can take the cross-cultural worker into the living room of another culture, but they cannot change the worker’s insecurities about stepping into a world that disagrees with his or her outlook. Lewis (1996) mentions that one of the most dangerous areas for cross-cultural workers exist in black holes, mental blocks that exist inside a mind that prohibit analysis of other cultures because of the isolation the worker received while living in his or her particular geographical home. “They wallow in powerful, all-encompassing ‘cultural black holes,’ core beliefs of such gravity that they cannot be questioned” (Loc 1859). Take the simple example of spitting: according to ancient Chinese philosophy, public spitting is similar to the practice of blowing one’s nose in the United States, a healthy activity that promotes flow in the body. On an empathic level, I can understand spitting on a public street because the pollution in China is so dangerous that walking outside for a few hours results in preparing a new wash (given how dirty the white shirt becomes), and so even thinking about the grime that is breathed in through the lungs on a daily basis is bewildering. However, I still cannot bring myself to spit on a public street, because of the barriers formed in my mind during the first and second grade of elementary school, when students who spit on the ground were sent to the principal’s office for a time-out; a cultural black hole, so strong as to induce a physical response of repulsion and a mental judgment when I see someone spitting on the sidewalk in China. The process for closing black holes is awareness – understanding how and why a worker responds a certain way, and then slowly working through a strategy of deconstruction and re-construction; identification is paramount, and after identification, the real work begins.

Just like Lewis (1996) and Elmer (2006), I suffer from stereotypical viewpoints. When Lewis describes Americans and Australians, not only is he crass but offensive (Loc 1749), and his description of the Austrians’ only national accomplishment being their obsession with paper recycling is meant in good humor but comes off like a stand-up insult (Loc 4144). Elmer’s encouragement to make “two or three local friends” (Loc 1359) is as insipid as it is ignorant (try twenty or thirty for real perspective), but regardless of these glaring holes in reasoning, all cross-cultural workers suffer from these problems, regardless of the worker being an American in China (such as myself) or a Chinese national or immigrant working in the United States. To deny these manifestations is to deny reality; that even the most educated, kindest soul carries baggage that they he or she never asked for, but is part of the basic building blocks of the intellect and must be trained accordingly.

Elmer’s call to model Christ (2006, Loc 1606) helps in this regard, as well as his recognition of the mystery that surrounds other cultures (Loc 1929) being a powerful and destructive force if not accepted willingly as God’s grace. Lewis (1996) explains that the power of history and the collective unconscious which exists within people groups is a force that all cross-cultural workers must not only be aware of, but submit themselves to, because the legacy of a people dramatically shapes “thoughts, attitudes, actions, values, plans, an a unique mindset” (Loc 10068) that most are unaware of, even if they have been educated in their own worldview. For myself, I must constantly be vigilant against generalizations, be continually humble in identifying my lack of understanding regarding foreign points-of-view, and live my life in constant prayer that God shapes me so that I am a force of healing rather than a force of fire when I interact with people who are most likely unaware of why there is friction but intensely aware that there is friction.

Multidimensionality in the follower dichotomy

James MacGregor Burns, for most of his life, has been known for his writings on transformational, transactional, and visionary leadership through his biographies of notable presidents. Burns even won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, making him an accepted expert on American leadership during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He also believes strongly that leaders, especially visionary leaders, are the cornerstone to change, as evidenced by his strong support of repealing the American constitutional amendment to limit terms of office. For this reason, when reading Burns’ theories, we must take into consideration the extreme importance he places on the singular individual in the sea of complexity. Burns’ model of multidimensionality in the follower-leader spectrum is a fascinating study of the various layers that exist in change agency, particularly those of systematic change.

​        Burns’ model of multidimensionality centers around the central conflict between two parties: the opposers and the innovators. Between the two parties lies the inheritors, or people who stand for the status quo. Innovators introduce radical change to the status quo, while opposers introduce gradual reform. Outside agents known as partners then mobilize opposers and innovators into smaller organizations known as coalition builders, who go in one of three different directions: as supporting agents of opposers or innovators, or into break-away factions known as splitters, moving in a different direction than either opposers or innovators. Sometimes splitters will return to the inheritors, but most of the time they form nonfunctional organizations that end up moving into passivity.

​        In addition to this already complex array of ideological individual groups, a group known as the passives sit outside the action, watching, observing, and only taking action in the form of inaction and only from operative incentive from coalition builders. Some of these passives move further away and form isolates, passives who want to take stronger action and become short-term followers of the coalition builders, but in the end are too separated from the process to make any significant difference and end up being alienated from the core group.

​        Traditional theories of the follower-leader dichotomy generally focus on a single follower and a single leader, whereas Burns’ model displays a huge array of various kinds of followers with differing incentives for action. He stresses that situation (context) and agency (leadership capabilities) are important in distinguishing the level of strength for each of the inheritor sub-groups; situation and agency must constantly be evaluated, and the sub-groups can drastically change if the context shifts or leadership changes hands.

​        Burns’ model focuses primarily on visionary leaders such as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and the nature of the US presidency as examples and warnings for models of transformational leadership. His positive models, however, are dictatorial, singular, and heroic, extremely strong in trait-based leadership. For this reason, I question whether Burns’ model of transformational leadership can be applicable in today’s late modern world, where traits such as servanthood, collaboration, role-based leadership, and the learning organization are a focus of many businesses, and the heroic qualities of the 20th century contain too little accountability, both legally and financially, to be acceptable models today.

​        Abstract models are tricky, because they can be misinterpreted and misused without context. Burns uses the example of F.D.R.’s presidency to explain multidimensionality. In my own experience, multidimensionality exists although because the contexts I operate in are different and the leader is different, the way I interpret sub-groups of the inheritors is going to be altered. For example, in my university the inheritors are the older teachers, enmeshed in more traditional methods of teaching. The innovators are more like the isolates, as they are not respected by the traditional authority or given power to make changes, while the vast majority are opposers (who seek gradual reform, by referring to the status quo and moving towards the outside innovators but not recognizing they are moving in that direction). Splitters are generally composed of innovators who have not been accepted by the inheritors or opposers, and the true people who have power in my situation are the partners. They have the most power because they control the flow of information from the innovators to the opposers, and finally directly into the belly of the beast: the inheritors.

​        In my situation in China, the dichotomy between leader and follow is still just as complex, but the rules are different. Multidimensionality exists, and for the leader in China it is terrifying. The rules are constantly changing, and leaders not only have to have a strong sense of where the various coalition builders are, but have to be keenly aware of the partners behind the scenes. In that way, leaders are not leaders as we know of in the west (as instigators of change) but more as moderators of various groups as they charge into the future, trimming the branches here and there to make way for the power of the partners as they, over-time, transform into the inheritors.

An American theory of everything: Mutual self-actualization clothed in self-determination

I admit, I find Maslow’s triangle of appreciating needs satisfyingly secure as an American. Abraham Maslow, a psychologist and professor at a private college in New York City, was an extreme individualist. He was the first scholar to clearly state that human need was more than just material; he elevated psychology into spirituality. The psycho-spirituality of Maslow’s self-actualization, beginning with basic physiological needs, then increasing to security, belonging, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization, was an answer to many prayers for a more evolved form of psychology that moved beyond the trait-like (and dogmatic) approach of behavioralism and tried to forget about the mythic and slimy fallacies Freudian psychology brought; Maslow brought humanity back into psychology.

​        The application of self-actualization to leadership is when a group of individuals together seek to become self-actualized together, thereby creating a space for mutual self-actualization. The leader, recognizing this basic drive for people to self-actualize, also pursues this with his followers and together they are able to move towards the penultimate point of human spirituality as a unit and a team, but ultimately is fueled by a personal desire for improvement. The commitment of mutual self-actualization within an organization is a commitment to a value than is higher than anyone one person, but has the capability to help each person “become everything that one is capable of becoming” and turn each person into change agents whose self-determination contingency (upon the group value) becomes a destiny. The keystone to the mystery of self-actualization is a concept known as effectance, which is an ability which if utilized properly, people can remain undeterred by the events that surround them if they have learned how to train themselves to continual growth in paradox. Effectance is the most important skill to have when pursuing self-actualization and any leader should be well-acquainted with the theory and methodology of training people to strengthen their effectance.

​        Maslow’s ideas, as heroic and idealistic as they sound, contain one major flaw, and that flaw is actually the strength the ideas are built upon: individualistic self-determination. When he was 20 years old, Maslow married his cousin and left his parents forever. He could not stand the sight or even the thought of his mother, and he hated his father for most of his life. As a child, his father had physically abused him, and his mother had both mentally and physically abused him severely. He hated himself as a child; a victim of extreme antisemitism, he forsook people and hid in the library, abandoned the faith of his parents and became an atheist (later seeking to revisit faith by comparing his self-actualization with an actual spiritual experience), and when he finally was free of his family, became a sexuality researcher for most of his life, trying to discover why a woman in a sexual relationship with a man, felt the need to show dominance over him through manipulation or ‘castration’ while at the same time yearn for his respect. He finally deduced that human sexual behavior was almost identical to primate behavior, and through these conclusions deemed that needs were less based on the materialistic needs of the enlightenment and more based on self-propagated conception of a deeper level, because he had noticed in his monkey studies that their sexual behavior was primarily driven less by natural instinct and more by social attitudes.

​        Two singularly important issues arise from this discussion. Firstly, in cultures where individualistic determination is not only taboo but undesired, his theory of social attitudes desiring self-actualization falls short. Secondly, the fact that his theories were derived primarily by analyzing sexual attitudes of domination and submission falls prey to the fallacy that perhaps not everyone’s self-determination is driven solely by their sexual propensities, but perhaps by a deeper and more fulfilling role, especially for people who have allowed the Holy Spirit into their lives and given their sexual being to God instead of using it for their own desired ends. I question as a leader, how it is possible to even use Maslow’s theories in countries where self-actualization is considered poor form, and what’s more, how to implement his theories as a Christian with self-actualization taking the place of Christ.

​        Maslow was the first psychologist to define “humanistic psychology” which was composed of the following five claims:
​                1. Humans cannot be reduced to parts.
​                2. Humans exist in a wholly human context.
​                3. Humans are continually conscious of context.
​                4. Human choice leads to responsibility.
​                5. Human intentionality is rooted in meaning and value.

​        Essentially, Maslow says that our actions are not rooted to context, but rather are rooted to meaning. Context is important for Maslow (as people exist in context), but in the end there is a greater desire, a “transpersonal” desire to self-actualize to a more spiritual-type of existence. For a person whose context is derived from his or her desires to self-actualize, the five claims of humanistic psychology carries tremendous weight. However, for a person whose self-perception (and even self-actualization) is derived entirely from their context, humanistic psychology is a vapid and empty set of statements that has little bearing on reality.

​        The Ideal Man, in Chinese philosophy, is someone who has achieved ren, or humaneness. Humaneness is Confucius’s mirror-image of Maslow’s self-actualization, but in the opposite direction. Harmonious, self-sacrificing, humble to a fault, an inveterate nepotist and a wholly functioning contextualist, the humane person in Chinese philosophy disdains anyone who attempts to self-actualize and berates them for their pride, cutting the head off before wings can be grown. Today, many western ideas have filled the halls of China and transformed many into those who seek self-actualization, but usually if those people want to pursue their dreams they must leave the country. And usually they do, fondly remembering their homeland, but never forgetting that in their homeland leaders are but specters who hover behind the curtains, and workers are the cogs in a giant socialist machine, spinning into eternity so that the state, an inhumane creation, can self-actualize and find spirituality in itself.

Postmodern Fantasy Literature: an overview of contemporary ideas

Lecture Goal: Give a broad view of contemporary American fantasy literature and where the ideas came from

 

1. Sword and sorcery in the 30s-60s, based on Weird Tales and Lord of the Rings

Weird Tales in the 1920s, born from Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu)

Fantasy, horror, myth, and swordplay – Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard

Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the idea of true adventure, from Conan

 

2. Heroic fantasy and dark magic in the 70s, 80s and 90s, based on Dungeons and Dragons (1975)

Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melnibone, combination of heroic myth and popular fantasy

Roger Zelazny, the Chronicles of Amber, and castles, dungeons, monsters and sorcerors

Tanith Lee, emergence of dark fantasy based on authors like Mervyne Peake with Gormenghast

Emergence of allegory, deep symbolism and heavy themes with Ursula LeGuin (Earthsea) and Patricia McKillip (Riddle-Master)

 

3. The American-style journey novel in the 90s and 2000s, based on The Wheel of Time

Robert Jordan and the journey novel “Wheel of Time”

Terry Goodkind and the emergence of Mass-produced epic fantasy

George R.R. Martin, the anti-Lord of the Rings, beginning of the New Weird with China Mieville

 

4. Urban fantasy novels in post-2000 era, based on Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and urban fantasy

Anne Rice to Laurell K. Hamilton, and contemporary urban vampires and faeries, Wiccan stories

The Fantastic City and the New Weird, with China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer

 

5. Literary fantasy

Breaking out of the genre, with Octavia Butler and Parable of the Sower, combining different forms

The movement of fantasy to break free from genre

 

Questions to ask at the end:

1) What was the first magazine to have sword and sorcery? 6) Where does Harry Potter take place?

2) Who created Fafhrd? 7) What is the religion about magic?

3) What was the game that inspired heroic fantasy? 8) What old idea does urban fantasy use?

4) The Wheel of Time was what kind of novel? 9) What did Octavia Butler break out of?

5) What happened to fantasy novels after Terry Goodkind? 10) What is current fantasy literature trying to do?

 

words to put on the board:

contemporary fantasy

 

Edgar Allen Poe

H.P. Lovecraft

Cthulhu

Barbarian

Invented world

Sword and Sorcery

Weird Tales

Lord of the Rings

Michael Moorcock

Elric of Melnibone

Dungeons and Dragons

Amber

Tanith Lee

Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast

Ursula LeGuin

Patricia McKillip

Riddle-Master

 

Journey novel

The Wheel of Time

Mass-production

New Weird

China Mieville

 

Harry Potter

urban fantasy

Vampires

Fairy/faerie

Wicca

Otherworld

Jeff VanderMeer

 

Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower

Literary fantasy

Genre