How do cultures connect and collide?

So what happens When East Meets West?
02 February 2019


When East Meets West


Imagine approximately 7.7 billion puzzle pieces. Every piece is unique, albeit some may at first glance look similar...

On closer inspection, some may vary in their shape, colour or orientation but all have equal importance. To create the fullest picture, it helps to have all the pieces and to really pay attention to those little details. The world right now is as puzzling as ever to me. How and why cultures connect or collide remains a contentious and current issue. Brexit is coming, a mixed-race princess has joined the British Royal family and universities worldwide are competing to attract the brightest minds. On the one hand, is the golden age of easy travel and greater widespread use of technologies bringing us closer together? Or, is the converse true? Are we at risk of greater physical and psychological divides in national identity?

How people move from country to country, blend the old with the new and negotiate holding onto their cultural heritage while embracing new traditions has fascinated me for my whole life. I feel that the pull to study this further is largely due to growing up in Britain with my English mother and my Singaporean father - with half, or double, the cultural values, depending on your personal perspective.

Watching Moana...

It was on one cold Sunday afternoon whilst watching Disney’s Moana with my father – stay with me – that I noticed a striking resemblance! He too had been courageous enough to explore beyond the island he called home and built a new life here in England. Before him, his own mother and father had moved from Hainan to Singapore to pastures new. Emigrating takes great strength and determination but encountering new cultures even without leaving the country is perhaps on the rise and with it comes the rise of new challenges for today’s learners.
My project was able to take shape because for the last five years, I have been an Associate Lecturer in Psychology and Education at The Open University (OU). Over last three years, I have also been working towards achieving a professional Doctorate in Education (EdD) through a combination of planned study days and spontaneous stolen hours. The benefit is that I have been doubly driven to find out a little more about culture, identity and how this may impact upon how students learn.

Doctoral research

For my doctoral research, I wanted to know why postgraduate students identifying with an East Asian culture (Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian and Mixed) might find it easier or harder to integrate into studying at a Western university. For many years, articles have been published about East Asian students studying in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. But I wanted to know about students encountering British culture through distance learning. As an Associate Lecturer teaching and supporting students, I know that the distance learner is usually fiercely motivated. They are committed to lifelong learning quite often while holding down jobs, bringing up families, generally trying to gain a deeper understanding of a discipline and in a few rare cases while enjoying careers as professional footballers and actresses (can’t name names, sorry!). The OU student is indeed a force to be reckoned with and I will always be amazed by their ability to juggle it all.

As with all doctoral studies, I began by reviewing the literature, something I have had to continually read more of and revise as I have gone on. I began in my comfort zone – in the Psychology and Education literature. My BSc (Hons) Psychology degree at the University of Hertfordshire, Masters in Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, PgCert in Online and Distance Education, and PgCert in Teaching and Learning (Higher Education) at The Open University - and enrolling as a postgraduate Law School student - have all helped me gain some insight into the literature.

For example, reading about Berry’s acculturation framework and Tajfel and Turner’s work on the development of identities really resonated with me. However, there were still some niggling questions which I wanted to explore empirically. My overarching research question was ‘How do cultural differences shape East Asian postgraduate students’ experiences of online and distance education?’. The sub-questions were four-fold: Firstly, what factors may shape East Asian postgraduate students’ decisions to engage? Second and thirdly, what benefits and barriers to participation might exist for East Asian postgraduate students? Fourth and finally, in what ways can East Asian postgraduate students be more effectively supported?

Crossing continents - interviews

I used Skype to interview the East Asian postgraduates located in six countries: the UK, Austria, Saudi Arabia, China, Malaysia and Japan. The interviews themselves lasted only between 40 minutes and an hour and a half. But it took a staggering 50 hours (at least!) to transcribe them all verbatim and then further time to analyse the data using a Grounded Theory approach. Owing to my students being located across the world, I had to ensure I was mindful of time zones and how many hours ahead or behind my participants would be compared to the UK! It was also tough but I really miss the interviews and would love to do more in future projects based around culture and identity.

On a first look of my themes, I believe that there are four. The first was ‘Upward Social Mobility’. The most interesting finding here was that the students spoke of wanting to study to benefit the lives of others – they wanted to do it for a higher purpose – not just to make more money which is so heartening. “I also wanted something that I could perhaps use and impart to the rural community as no one speaks for them” (Charlie, Kadazan – formerly North Borneo - male, 61 years).

The second theme was ‘Family Values’. Students with Chinese heritage spoke of how certain careers were deemed more acceptable than others e.g. medicine, dentistry whilst others were viewed as less favourable. They reported that in Chinese culture, the highly educated are well-respected in communities and that there is a great focus on achieving highly. A novel finding was that there may be some specific culturally-instilled values which impact upon how students behave when studying. One (of many) is kiasu, defined by a student as: “There’s something called kiasu, it’s something in Hokkien if I’m not mistaken, they don’t like to lose anything. They tend not to lose in any kind of decisions, any kind of competitions that kind of thing is the same across in Asia,” (Emily, Malaysian-Chinese female, 28 years). It can be a little terrifying to tread new ground but it is exciting to learn more about how students’ cultural values may be driving them forward in their studies but also which ones may be unintentionally limiting them.

The third theme was ‘Cultural Revelations’. I labelled this as a revelation rather than a shock because I don’t think what was reported was culture shock in the traditional sense. Given that the students did not move geographically, or have to settle into a new physical home, this might be obvious. However, to me, it seemed as though revelations were made along their study journey. For many with hybrid cultural identities, the cultural differences may still exist but be subtler or more nuanced. One example might be the use of culture-specific references when sitting in an online tutorial. As Frankie highlights here, these culture bumps might be unintentional but education professionals need to be aware of how they use everyday examples to ensure all are included: “Your culture spills out onto everything that you say and you do, small little references, phrases that you use, references to pop culture, all those kinds of things, they come out, even if you don’t mean them to, those kinds of things will get lost on foreign students, if I think back, I said my biggest culture shock was coming to the UK, one of the things I found very difficult is people assumed that I would get all these pop culture references, you know like going back to TV shows, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I’ve never seen those TV programmes or whatever,” (Frankie, Mixed - South African/British/Chinese male, 39 years).

The fourth theme was Sources of Motivation. This theme captured what helps students sustain their study. This fell into two main categories – what they did themselves (internal motivation or learner personality) such as rewards for doing their work as well as what others around them did to help (external motivation). This included but was not limited to tutors, Student Support Teams, Careers Advisers and the students’ peers and inner circle of family and friends: “Oh yeah, yeah I have to involve my friends because there are two reasons because one reason is it's quite a good idea to discuss the subject with someone who doesn't know so you can sort of explain it in a plain language and in a way kind of novice you know, people who don't know the background can't understand,” (Anna, Japanese female, 51 years). It was incredible to hear how much others really do help us keep going even in the darkest of time.

Just as marathoners need people on the sidelines along the route, distance learners need support on what could be an otherwise socially isolating journey. I used to socially compare a lot whereas doing a doctorate teaches you that you are capable and that everyone’s work has merits and is worthy of starting conversations about important topics. It’s better for everyone to just focus on what their strengths are and to be OK with putting borders around your work and in life in general – no-one can do it all!

I’ve had the chance to connect and re-connect with a whole host of lovely humans and try to remember to celebrate every little victory. For example, due to my anxiety, I don’t find it easy to stay away from home or to go to London, but my doctorate has been a vehicle for conquering these fears and I’m happy to say I attended the residential weekend and did a 25 minute talk in a national education conference in Twickenham. Lastly, my doctorate has helped me maintain the close ties I have with my awesome family – my mum, dad, two brothers and an extremely supportive better half, Lewis. These are people that I can cry tears of joy, relief and disappointment with, and who allow me to get my geek on and to enjoy trying to solve my own research puzzle!


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