Evolution of an Intercultural Text

Pittsburgh bridges as seen from Mount Washington

I’m a staunch believer in using materials designed to meet the particular needs of particular students—their current circumstances, their culture, their preparation for the jobs they were most likely to have. I came to this conviction in 1984 when I arrived at Xiamen University in Fujian Province, China, and was told that the fourth-year composition classes I’d been hired to teach had been given to someone else. I would be doing first-year and graduate-level conversation. Instead of the box of composition books I’d brought with me from the University of Pittsburgh, I needed conversation materials. In the stacks of the university library I found almost nothing useful.

English teacher and student in the classroom

The freshman conversation book had already been selected. It was a cheap reprint of a pirated English as a Second Language textbook used in the US, but not as adaptable as the no-content ESL text I’d disliked using at Pitt, with discussion questions like “what are holidays like in your country?’ In China, in this distinctly English as a Foreign Language setting, my students didn’t understand their textbook. The Chinese teachers didn’t understand it. Those who had selected it—who probably wouldn’t have understood it either if they’d read it—thought it would teach something of modern technology via English, economically doing two things at once.

So, for example, one reading selection the students were supposed to discuss described how health care professionals in rural areas in the US could use a touch-tone telephone to transmit their patients’ vital signs to a hospital computer miles away. Right. The kids had never seen a touch-tone phone. When they used a telephone at all, they’d made operator-assisted calls. It didn’t help much for me to draw a phone on the board and make beeping sounds in different pitches. They still didn’t get it. They thought of a computer as a television set connected with a typewriter. They knew only what a computer looked like, not what it did. They were still campaigning for access to typewriters. The teachers would ask me, “What does it mean, ‘reach out and touch someone’?” They’d never even heard of the Beatles. How would they know about a telephone commercial? This was before the internet. Where could they look it up?

English language textbooks produced in China had as their first sentence, “Long live Chairman Mao.” An elementary German textbook talked about German as a tonal language. My colleague on the other side of the classroom wall appeared to be teaching English that way, as I often heard him declaim, and the students repeat, “What (rising intonation) is (rising intonation) man (falling intonation)! What is man!”

Eventually I discarded the textbook I’d been told to use and put together some readings stolen from various places, like Ms. Magazine’s Stories for Free Children. Descriptions of life on the American frontier with technology on the level of the butter churn they could understand. They knew of simple machines from the Chinese countryside. For the freshmen I wrote a book of dialogues to illustrate cross-cultural situations. Later I made it available to the other teachers in the department, and my boss had printed off and distributed.

For the graduate students I also typed out readings and discussion questions on mimeograph stencils and took them over to the printing factory to be run off. One article was another Ms. Magazine piece called “What Is Fear?” At that time psychology was illegal in the PRC. Who would need it in a workers’ paradise? I looked at how tightly the students’ lives were controlled by the society and the state and decided they needed to be introduced to some basic concepts. They were as eager to learn this as they were practically anything coming from the West.

Another time I got so ticked off at the repeated invasion of my privacy at the guesthouse where I lived that I gave an inspired lecture on the Bill of Rights while students scrambled madly to get it all down. In those days the foreign faculty were still trying to get students to think about what they read or heard instead of just memorizing, swallowing a whole article in one gulp to be spit out later, unchewed and undigested, word for word with some words missing. After the Bill of Rights lecture, two middle-aged men appeared in my class. They sat through a lesson on how to use the computer as a research tool, probably without understanding a word. No one gave them a copy of the materials. I’d already decided that if the department’s party secretary told me I couldn’t do something I’d just done–as happened later in Korea–I’d apologize and not do it again, but until then I’d do what I wanted.

So in 1989, when I started teaching at Dongguk University in Seoul, my bias was for materials based on students’ need. Meet the kids where they are, not in some imagined place where the school curriculum or the textbook publisher said they ought to be. I continued with the reading selections—reading is the best way to teach vocabulary—plus recordings I made of National Public Radio stores, later scenes from movies or television, whatever seemed to be something that would speak to them.

I discovered that although my Korean students didn’t know much more about Western culture than my Chinese students had, they often thought they did. For example, they knew that all eighteen-year-olds were thrown out of their parents’ homes and forced to sink-or-swim on their own, a prospect these very dependent kids clearly saw as undesirable, if not terrifying. They knew this because they watched recordings of Friends and saw young people living together instead of back home with their parents where they belonged. Some knew that driving habits in the US were worse than they were in Korea because they saw chase scenes on television. They were not buying the argument that this was just television–fiction. A few knew that African-Americans were the lowest on the hierarchy of races, because for them everything in life was placed on a hierarchy. Some told me the world was controlled by the international Jewish conspiracy. In general, students were often very critical of the US, which didn’t bother me, but would tolerate no criticism of anything about Korea unless they said it themselves. The female students believed that oppression of women was a Korean thing; the male students were glad of the lack of female competition in the workplace.

My response was a collection of texts called “American Pioneers,” with short stories or articles showing the lives of Americans from various racial and ethnic groups, women’s and family issues, gay issues and assorted windows into the US government and the US Constitution. In class I was neutral. I stepped back and allowed the material and the students to do the talking. The materials were available at the start of each semester, photocopied and bound into books by a shop down the hill from the university.

In the meantime I was interviewing people in preparation for a book. It had started in 1985 with a lively New Zealander who’d undergone surgery for a ruptured appendix under local anesthetic at the Xiamen University hospital. I realized then that my job was to take his words from his mouth, record them, transcribe them and edit them to make an oral history where his voice was still clearly audible. I put a manuscript of oral histories together but couldn’t find a publisher. I admit I didn’t look very hard. In Korea I added more interviews from expats and Koreans and put together a China-Korea manuscript which also didn’t find a publisher. One editor said, “This is a wonderful book, but last year we did four books about Asia from a Western perspective, and they were all financial failures. We can’t afford to publish yours.”

By that time I’d written and published a composition textbook made of my step-by-step instructions, sample compositions by my students and additional stuff like proof-reading exercises. It was accompanied by a semantics workbook which emerged from my discarded MA thesis in linguistics. (My actual thesis for Pitt was a language attitude study about Korean reactions to non-native speakers of Korean.) A colleague and I got both textbooks and a teacher’s manual published by a Korean company.

Mary French at my house

When the oral history book was rejected I told myself I knew people who would be interested in the assorted opinions expressed in the interviews. So I cut the interviews up into bits and constructed reading selections about the experiences of expats dealing with Koreans and Koreans dealing with expats, adding a sociological perspective—individualistic cultures vs. collectivist cultures, for example. My colleague Mary French suggested making it more textbooky by adding precise definitions of key concepts, inserting quizzes and reading questions inside the reading texts. We worked out practical applications of the lessons learned and illustrated main points with role plays and recordings to use as listening tasks. I took the language of the reading selections—that is, spoken English—and used it as the basis of grammar and word study lessons. I added photos of my friends and my students and crossword puzzles of words used in the chapters. There are two surveys which students could do in either English or Korean.

The result was a two-semester book which I used for ten years at Dongguk, revising a bit every vacation for the first six or seven years. I looked for a publisher and didn’t find one, although again I didn’t try very hard. If I were to use it now, I’d use most of it as it stands and some of it as a basis of comparison of the America of twenty years ago and the America in the age of Donald Trump. I’d have students compare the traditional Korean workplace with the current workplace as they discover it from conducting their own surveys and interviews. All real, discoverable facts, not stereotypes or rumors. (In my composition classes the students did interviews, and they found the real world of work was not at all as they’d been told.)

My purpose, as I said to my sophomore-level conversation classes for English majors, was to show them what they needed to know to get and keep jobs in places where they’d have to work with people who looked like me. I thought, but did not tell them, “Look, this may be the English Department, but Shakespeare is probably not going to get you a job.” I knew this myself all too well. My first career was in teaching German and German literary scholarship.

Me in my Dongguk classroom

The students loved the textbook. They wanted to be eavesdropping on what Westerners were saying about them when they weren’t in the room. Reality often has an odd way of sounding like it. They wanted to know not only what not to say but why. Or why some Western behavior is not seen as disrespectful to Westerners as it is to Koreans. Or how much some Westerners knew and understood about Korean culture. A few students who’d lived abroad told me the book explained things about Korean culture they’d never understood before. Some kids told an Australian colleague who was interviewing them that they felt they’d become “more international people.” The most popular chapters were the ones on the women’s rights, supplemented with a movie, and on consumer and business issues.

Bridges: Intercultural Conversation 1 and 2 is currently set up to be a two-semester book with a parallel set of topics. A student could take the first semester, the second semester or both. Each chapter is self-contained with regard to subject matter, vocabulary and language study. The material could also be restructured by removing the grammar and word study sections or by using only chapters on certain topics. It is suitable for university or institute classes, conversation or culture or four-skills classes, in-house classes for employees preparing to work abroad, translator training, independent study for individuals preparing to go abroad. It could be easily expanded with audio-visual materials or out-of-class assignments like more surveys and interviews.

Volume 1 has a two-chapter introduction to cultural differences between Korea and the US, followed by chapters on asking personal questions, non-verbal communication, deference in Korea, family structure, misunderstandings in the workplace and women’s history, plus lots of exercises. A final chapter on Canadian views could be used for either a paper or extended discussion. Volume 2 combines the two introductory chapters of Volume 1 into one chapter. Then there are chapters on friendship and respect as seen in the US, intercultural dating, the financial problems of getting through college, life in the military as told by Americans who are fluent in Korean, women in the Korean workplace, cultural differences in doing business, a historical look into racial relations–including the story of a Korean-African-American war baby–and a final chapter on Americans who have become experts on Korean Buddhist temple painting, Korean shamanism, and Korean birth dreams. Again, lots of exercises.

Mary and I dedicated the book to the memory of Darcy Shipman, a dear friend who taught at a school in Incheon and also at Dongguk University, who loved her students and taught them well.

So, please, check out my website, Turning East: Stories of Living, Working and Traveling in Asia, which currently contains 186 posts from experiences in China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere. Explore the offerings on the index page. Go to the textbook page and download the eighteen chapters and teacher’s supplement which are waiting for you as PDF files. Then please log in via Facebook and leave comments. Just don’t republish, please.