On Friday, 10 February 2023, Kenneth Quek, a Chinese Singaporean who lives and works in Helsinki as a freelance editor, spoke online to 18 UniSIG members. Coming from Singapore, a country with the third highest population density in the world, a multicultural society and a postcolonial past, he is familiar with the need to respect cultural identities.
During his talk, he first explained how important it is for the Chinese and Southeast Asians to establish a context. Perhaps you may have heard how when Chinese students are shown a photograph of a tiger in a forest, they focus on the context, the forest behind the tiger, whereas American students focus on the tiger itself. Kenneth told us that although those coming from different cultures might be acting in good faith, these differences in perception can cause misunderstandings to occur.
Cultural attitudes have implications when conducting business, and this can be traced back to Asia’s hierarchical culture. Age-related factors such as having seniority within a company or simply sporting a white beard inherently command respect. Needs and desires are culture-bound and Kenneth recommended that you first need to convince the Chinese and Southeast Asians to allow you to help them. In line with their cultural expectations he said, ‘you do a favour to get a favour’. He mentioned that ‘there’s an assumption that we’re going to run into this person again’ so we need to establish a rapport from the very start. He added, ‘It’s important to build trust in your relationships’.
Kenneth also referred to how the postcolonial historical context has coloured Asian people’s feelings in their relationships with Westerners. He remarked that ‘there’s a lurking sense that the West doesn’t have Asia’s interests at heart’. In his own country of Singapore, the British colonizers brought in Chinese labourers in order to maintain their power, fully aware that these indentured workers could easily be controlled through their high debt. It was not until 1963 that British rule on the island ended.
Unfortunately, there was little time left to exchange each other’s experiences in editing or teaching Asian students or to discuss our own encounters with Chinese and Southeast Asian clients. One SENSE member, who teaches in Switzerland, wrote in the Zoom Chat that she knows that her Chinese PhD students would never dare to disagree with her because of her age and position. Kenneth had exclaimed earlier that ‘you’re making it harder for them by asking them what they think’. Apparently, it is wise to come up with strategies you can employ in specific educational settings as otherwise you might make Asian students, or even clients, feel uncomfortable.
We were all surprised when, at the end of his talk, he remarked that if we were to remember one take-away, it would be that food is the best way to connect with Asian people. It seems that they take great pride in their regional cuisine. Moreover, Kenneth emphasized how necessary it is to find a common ground, and by sharing and talking about food we can achieve this goal. Apparently, in today’s rapidly changing globalized world, strategies are not only needed in the classroom, but in all cultural exchanges, with the hope that misunderstandings can be avoided and that cultural boundaries can be transcended.
|Blog post by: Michelle Mellion