Cross cultural communication fosters a variety of important factors that affect people’s language use, self-awareness, perspectives, verbal and nonverbal communication, assumptions of similarities and differences, etc. My service learning experience not only puts this idea of cross cultural communication into action but also helps me to gain a greater understanding of each of these factors.
My site, SEA Literacy, strives to elevate the lives of Southeast Asian refugees and empower each individual to embrace their new home in the city of Milwaukee. Working at this site has provided me with new perspectives about my own cultural rules and biases. For example, I sometimes find myself getting frustrated when the verbal communication between me and a student is not adequate, and I must remind myself of the constant struggles of the refugees to communicate with others throughout their daily lives.
This gives me perspective on my own cultural bias and helps me gain a better understanding how simply acknowledging these standards can help societies to grow socially and academically. Furthermore, I have learned the importance of nonverbal and verbal communication in cross cultural communication. The kids I tutor speak English at many different levels: some speak fluently and some speak minimally. It is obviously easier to speak to the children who are more fluent in English, however, those who speak very little English use non verbal ways of communication to convey or understand varying material.
For example, one girl I tutored spoke very little English and had to write a response to a short answer question that stated: What is the definition of freedom? Instead of trying to explain the definition of freedom (which she wouldn’t have understood anyways), I looked up pictures of someone being released from jail to signify freedom. She understood immediately and was ecstatic that she had learned a new English word. When I first came into my site I almost felt above the children because of my American roots and level of education, however, the more time I spent at my site, the more I felt like the children were not only my equals but also my friends.
I have become aware of my own misconceptions of people and learned ways to escape the whirlwind of cultural biases through simply acknowledging that they exist and can have significant effects on the lives and health of individuals. One may ask how cultural bias can affect one’s health? One plausible example is a boy at my site who was born with no legs. When I went to my site last week the elevator was broken and a couple of us had to carry him and his wheelchair up the stairs.
On the way up a woman who worked there explained to me his daily struggles and a recent experience of him going to the doctor. She expounded that the language barrier at the hospital resulted in him waiting seven hours to get checked up because those who were English speaking were placed in front of him. This complete incompetence for intercultural communication signifies a social determinant of health that not only puts extreme stress on this boy in this one situation but also creates long lasting pressures that may lead to problems later in his life. Furthermore, Dr. Milton J. Bennett wrote:
“While two individuals in the same society may be a cultural world away from each other educationally, physically they may reside in the same city, in the same mass culture” (Bennett, 2013, p. 195).
This goes to show the severity of the lack of cross cultural communication and that one’s perception can ultimately hurt another group or culture even if one is aware of his or her biases. To reflect on my experiences, I would like to end by saying that service learning has provided me with a template to identify and acknowledge my own cultural rules and biases as well as make connections back to readings and lessons in class about the underlying aspects of culture and health in America.