In the summer 2012 we conducted a two-way student exchange with our partner high school in China. The exchange group was composed of four of American students and four students from our partner school in China. Each American student was paired with a Chinese partner. When the Chinese group visited us for two weeks at the end of July, the Chinese students stayed in their American partners’ homes. At the beginning of August, the Americans and Chinese traveled together to our partner school in China, and the American students stayed in their Chinese partners’ homes.
The trip was focused on culture and language immersion, so the Chinese students spoke primarily in English while they were in the United States, and my students spoke primarily in Chinese while we were in China.
The Chinese and American students spent a considerable amount of time together, and as a result, the personal dynamics among them became quite intense. Teenagers are already going through a period of rapid physical and emotional change as they enter into adulthood. During an exchange program that includes homestays, they also have to adapt to staying in someone else’s home in a foreign country and have to interact primarily in their non-native language. They were flooded with new experiences and must negotiate relationships with not only their partners, but also with their partner’s immediate family members, relatives, and friends. The students in our program had already gotten over their shyness during their time in the U.S., and by the time we arrived in China they were close friends. Because they had moved beyond the initial polite stage and were interacting in an authentic way as friends, all of them experienced very joyful times and periods of tension and conflict.
As the leader of the American student group, I functioned as the students’ language teacher, tour leader, and stand-in mom. During our trip, we had some minor tensions, and one major emotional upset among some of the Chinese and American students. As the adults stepped in to help mediate the situation, the differences between our two cultures stood out in stark relief. Having been raised in counter-culture California, I naturally wanted to talk things through with the students who were involved, give them a chance to share their views and listen to one another, and “come out the other side” with a deepened understanding of one another. In contrast, the Chinese adults — raised in a culture that values maintaining harmony and downplaying tension — wanted to calm the tears as fast as possible and “cheer the students up” by taking them out shopping. In the view of the Chinese adults, the students who were involved were upset over nothing. As they saw it, the students were just having a spat as sisters would.
It was not easy figuring out how to keep things harmonious with my Chinese colleagues and friends, and also help the students resolve their issues by using my “best practices.” Adding to this, the American and Chinese students shared personal information with me that explained the roots of the upset, but I couldn’t share any of this with the Chinese adults without betraying the confidentiality of the American and Chinese students involved. This meant that I wanted private time with both the Chinese and American students, and the Chinese adults didn’t see a need for privacy and wanted instead to get the students out and having a good time to make everything right again.
As I thought things through, I came to the conclusion that my primary responsibility was to take care of the American students to the best of my abilities by using my Western approaches, even if it meant creating a little friction or distance between the Chinese adults and myself. At that time, this meant that I asked for some separate time with the students. The request was met with confusion by the Chinese.
Looking back on the trip, I think I would add “advocate” to the list of the hats I wear while visiting China with American students. In other words, sometimes I need to use my language skills and bi-cultural experience to run interference for them – shielding them, as it were, from some of the cultural differences while they work through difficult moments. I can absorb cross-cultural tensions for the students to create a little space around them when they are in highly charged situations and are feeling vulnerable.
I think that anyone who is planning on leading teenagers on trips that include substantial homestays needs to be aware that they may encounter situations in which they feel torn between different approaches to resolving emotional upsets, and they need to be prepared to use finesse to address their students’ needs while preserving harmony with their Chinese counterparts. If you already have a solid and trusting relationship with your Chinese colleagues, this relationship will provide the foundation you need to get through the cross-cultural rough spots while keeping your school-to-school and person-to-person connections strong.