Ronald S. Byrnes

The cultural misunderstanding was an epiphany for me. I learned that cross-cultural encounters aren’t always as they first appear; as a result, when trying to make sense of them, we should avoid reaching quick and definitive conclusions. I was certain that I saw and heard Marshall yelling at an infant.
In actuality, I couldn’t see Marshall’s eyes from where I was sitting to know who he was looking at, and I couldn’t understand what he said because I didn’t understand the local dialect. Sadly, I didn’t let those limitations keep me from concluding that Marshall was not a caring person. When trying to understand cultural differences while living abroad, our eyes, ears, and other senses sometimes fail us.

Even our own sense of cultural competence, developed through a lifetime of fairly predictable daily activities, can lead to negative judgments about a host culture. At home, we learn how to accomplish things, and this creates expectations about “the way things are supposed to be done.” When living in other countries, these expectations complicate our efforts to adapt to different ways of completing daily activities, my site helps me with writing issues. My observations of one student’s experience renewing his visa illustrate this point.

After a day hiking with my students, an aggressive monkey scratched one of them. Matt, on the nose. Fearful of rabies, we immediately took Matt to a medical clinic, where he had the scratch cleaned and received several shots. We learned later that evening that Matt also needed a gamma globulin shot within 24 hours. But the next morning we found out that the serum was not available locally. After a phone call to a travel agent, a dash to the airport, a flight to Hong Kong, a train ride from the airport, and a taxi ride to the recommended hospital, Matt received the gamma globulin shot within the allotted timeframe. The trip to Hong Kong, however, meant that our “single entry” visas were now expired. Although we were able to get new 30-day tourist visas issued in Hong Kong, we would have to get them renewed four weeks later, back in Chengdu.