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Friday, July 2, 2010

Lessons Learned

For those who are interested in what I learned while in Hong Kong, the following is a newsletter article I wrote for a nonprofit consulting firm:

Cultural Challenges to Institutional Change in Hong Kong

Almost a decade ago, Hong Kong government initiated a grand experiment. At great cost, universities are moving from a 3-year university system that favors early specialization to a 4- year system with a strong general education component. The intent is to fundamentally change the educational system in order to develop the creativity, innovation, and citizenship skills needed to sustain HK in this century. During 5 months in 2010 I was part of a group of American Fulbright scholars who worked with individual universities on the implementation of change. I share here some of the cultural challenges to change that I have encountered and some principles for approaching them.

Resonate with local values: Hong Kong is a pragmatic society. This pragmatism is built on narrow, technical specialization. General Education goals involve integration rather than specialization—societal impacts of technology; ethical implications and frameworks for making choices; the relationship between China and the world, to name of a few examples. In HK the value of general education needs to be translated. Integrative learning is about educating students for the jobs they will have over a lifetime. Specialized training becomes obsolete quickly in today’s economy. Places that continue to thrive economically are those that generate new ideas and are built on cultures of risk-taking and entrepreneurship. New ideas are often found at the boundary between bodies of knowledge.

Find ways to tell the truth while saving face: All cultures want to portray their societies and cultures in the best light. Hong Kong sits between identities. It became part of mainland China in 1997, moving toward a stronger identification with being Chinese, yet there is a great deal of ambivalence due to the PRC’s political system. On the other hand, the British colonial history also leads to feelings of ambivalence. Should the portrayal of Chinese civilization be an “idealized” view of Chinese culture? Truth-telling about oneself is difficult, but even more difficult when part of the PRC and embedded within a culture of “face-saving.” Yet exploring the complexities of identities in their diversity is an essential part of a rich general education program that develops critical thinking and self-understanding. One approach around this problem could be to focus on students’ every day experiences—gender roles historically within their families, or family histories and their connection to larger themes in Chinese history. This approach may allow for diversity of perspectives to arise, grounds the subject matter in the real lives of students, and perhaps allow some of the larger pressures to be sidestepped.

Remember that learning involves relationships: In Hong Kong, much confidence is placed in quantitative measures, whether these are teaching evaluations or university rankings. Knowledge is treated as if it is “objective” and just factual. Courses can be lists of topics rather than well-developed perspectives that form a whole. This approach leads to faculty replacing their "voice" with lists of facts. Students struggle to find the meaning in learning because it is not being modeled by faculty--the faculty cannot talk about the meaning of this material to themselves personally or share their own life journeys. Yet it is at these moments of honesty and transparency that true learning occurs on the part of both the faculty member and the student. Where does this come from? It is possible that an emphasis on social harmony encourages this tendency. Yet a good teacher must have "voice" and share something of him or herself to be effective in the classroom. On the other hand, a fine line exists between transparency and advocacy. One is grounded in sharing a life journey and the other is "telling."

Keep answering the” why” question. One of the challenges in developing a general education program in Hong Kong is the "why" question. The structure and purpose of the university system has been to train workers for employment in HK (not the world). In the past, all programs and their size had to be tied to local employment needs. No “why” question was necessary. But why a liberal a liberal arts education? Certainly it is tied to creating life-long learners who will change careers many times. But also it has always included a sense of creating global citizens, adults who can contribute to civil society and the good of the whole. The “why” question in HK needs to be answered with a new, consistent, and clear vision for higher education. The universities sit at the boundary between East and West, creating an enormous opportunity to impact China in terms of the development of its civil society, and moderate its worldview.

These are the lessons I take home: Listen to find ways to frame issues to resonate with local values. Find ways to tell the truth while allowing for face saving. Remember that relationships are crucial to learning. And always, always, keep asking the “why” question. And of course, always think big: How are you going to take advantage of your unique position to impact the world?

Fulbright Canada

One of the things I have missed since returning home is writing on my blog! I've decided to keep the name of my blog and its focus on "place" and cross-cultural encounters and writings, but expand beyond my experiences in Hong Kong.

In the spirit of this change, I share here, an essay I wrote this past week on the experience of my last Fulbright Fellowship. It was for a contest--if I win I get my way paid to Ottawa, Canada for the 20th anniversary of Fulbright-Canada! I'm always open to going somewhere new :)

**I won second prize but can't make it to Ottawa. I'm hoping they send Ontario Maple syrup in place of the travel grant.

My Fulbright Experience
Janel Curry, Fulbright to Canada, 1995.

Just last week a friend of my daughter asked me why I still used a particular serrated paring knife, now bent with use (and abuse). He wanted me to get rid of it, replacing it with something new. “But,” I said, “I bought it at Canadian Tire when I was on my Fulbright to the University of Guelph, Ontario!” Never mind that this was in 1995, fifteen years ago. Such small things, everyday items, often appear insignificant. Yet they are evidence of living, not as a tourist, but as a resident, in another culture. This is the profound gift that comes with a Fulbright Fellowship.

In 1995 I had a Fulbright research fellowship to the University of Guelph. My older daughter finished kindergarten there and my younger daughter turned three. Every day I look at a photo that hangs on my wall, of the two of them together, sitting on our “chesterfield” in the living room in Guelph.

Since I am a geographer, knowledge and attachment to place define my sense of being at home. In my experience in Canada, this attachment was shaped by everything from learning that milk came in bags, to figuring out the Ontario Hydro was not a hydro-electric plant, but a utility company. And of course, it was learning that you usually didn’t go to Canadian Tire to buy tires. These are pieces of knowledge that help you understand how to navigate in another place and feel comfortable in a place. It is part of the process in geography that we call “interpreting an ordinary landscape.” But something deeper happens in the process of that navigation. You begin to develop deeper knowledge and attachment to a landscape.

The Niagara escarpment forms the frame for my Fulbright experience. Not just the physical feature but the human landscapes it shaped. Prior to going to Guelph, I thought of the Niagara escarpment only in terms of Niagara Falls. Now, it provides the structure for my thoughts, my remembrances, and my understanding of the geography of Southern Ontario. These included a visit to a peach orchard along the fruit belt near St. Catherine during harvest season—a relative of a classmate of my daughter. It meant that Niagara Falls was no longer defined in my imagination by just the falls. New friends told us to visit the Welland Canal with a view of at least three sets of locks in the distance as Great Lakes vessels bypass the falls. There we stood next to large vessels as the water poured into the lock with only inches to spare. Then there is Rattlesnake Ridge, where my daughters and I exited the yellow fields of Ontario and disappeared into the forest as we hiked up to a beautiful view of the countryside. And a one day fieldtrip organized by my hosts along the southern end of the Georgian Bay where apple orchards were giving way to ski resorts. And finally there is the memory of a glorious day we spent on a long, shallow shoreline and beach on the west side of the Bruce Peninsula. We joined the crowds armed with cameras in search of Lady slippers, learning about the unique environment that creates habitat for orchids. My daughters played on the beach and flew kites for hours. In the late afternoon I attempted to wash the sand off their bodies, drove to Tobermory, and had supper as the sun went down, on a second floor of a restaurant that overlooked the harbor. I remember seeing the ferry to Manitoulin Island below, imagining the Niagara escarpment as it extended on beyond our reach, and thinking that life did not get better than this.

These are a few of my memories, shaped by landscapes. These memories have shaped my teaching. Every year, when I teach my course on the Geography of Canada and the United States, I get to share that intimate knowledge of the Ontario landscape, and the many others in Canada I have explored since then. And this teaching is shaped not just knowledge but by attachment. These memories have shaped my career. My Fulbright research involved a cross-cultural comparison between U.S. and Canadian natural resource policy. This research stretched my imagination in terms of the range of possible policy structures available to a society—it expanded my view of “all possible worlds.” I have gone on to carry on such research in other cross-cultural contexts, ranging from New Zealand to Hong Kong. These memories have shaped my family. My daughters, though young at the time, will forever identify with being partly Canadian. Their identify formation, begun with this experience in Canada, has continued to be shaped by the international experiences that have followed. I see them comfortable with people from around the world.

But of course, as all geographers know, landscapes can change your life.

Culture shock

People often ask about culture shock when you move abroad. I have always experienced more culture shock when I return home. This is perhaps why I haven't had time to reflect on my experiences on my blog lately! The graduation open house had to be finalized, prepared for, and carried out. The yard needed to be weeded, flowers planted. The deck needed to be cleaned off. My windows and van needed to be washed. Doctor and dentist appoints had to be made and attended to. Prescriptions needed to be filled. Books needed to ordered for my fall courses. The stacks of mail from both work and home had to be sorted and in some cases, responded to. I had to find the bottom to my refrigerator after having 4 young women living in the house and not knowing whose food is whose. And call start to come, involving requests for things from you. All of life--physical and emotional--that had been left behind piles up in your absence and has to be attended to all at once. And what is most difficult is that there is nothing new. The adventure is over. And I miss my Hong Kong friends.