Bridging Cultural Differences


An address delivered at the Intercultural Communications Symposium 30 November 1978, Brigham Young University

Bridging Cultural Differences

I am assuming that I have been invited to address you today because I am both a Church leader and an educator in what has come recently to be called the “Church’s laboratory for intercultural living,” namely, the Hawaii Campus of Brigham Young University. With these twin perspectives I will try to illuminate for you some of the challenges of interracial and intercultural living on our campus of 1750 students, forty percent of whom come from thirty-two different nations of the world. I also want to discuss the principal resources from which we have successfully drawn solutions to many of these challenges.

I would like to use as a point of departure a declaration made by President Marion G. Romney several years ago at the dedication of one of our buildings. He said:

“This college is a living laboratory in which individuals who share the teachings of the Master Teacher have an opportunity for developing an appreciation, tolerance, and esteem for one another. For what can be done here interculturally in a small way is what mankind must do on a large scale if we are ever to have real brotherhood on this earth.” (Church News, 10 Feb. 1973, p. 15.)

Much of what I say today will be simply an affirmation of President Romney’s statement. BYU—Hawaii in a significant way is both an experiment and an experience for the Church: an experiment to see if and how in a context of gospel values the cultural barriers of hundreds of different peoples living together can be broken down, and minds become free from the prison of petty nationalism and prejudice; to see if, in a controlled gospel environment, the shocks of ethnic confrontation can be softened and absorbed and can eventually disappear. In his statement President Romney unequivocally identifies the principal resource of knowledge, power, love, and reverence by which peoples of different cultures and races not just understand each other but also interact and live harmoniously together, and in effect become one people.

At the outset, then, let me say generally that we make no bones about the importance of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the lives of our students, that it supersedes all cultural considerations. The gospel is the point of supreme reference which bridges ethnic chasms in ways the principles of other international organizations cannot.

Of course, the gospel does not eliminate the preferential differences in dress, music, and the arts. In fact, it even seeks to preserve and promote the vast stores of cultural wisdom and beauty which reinforce gospel ideals and give infinite variety and flavor to a people.

But gone are the days when we saw the gospel as a culture itself, usually characterized by the life-style and psychological references of the Wasatch front. We really do believe now that the gospel embraces a set of spiritual values that transcends the mere emotional allegiances to the ways things are said and done in a particular environment. This means that deep change is both desirable and inevitable in the wake of full conversion and that some cultural elements will be and ought to be superseded and lost. We stress that we are followers of Christ first and foremost, Latter-day Saints, a fraternity of priesthood which is more infinitely precious and meaningful than any cultural institution or national identity.

(Incidentally, I need not remind you that the average American probably has to make just as many drastic changes in his cultural orientation as the native Samoan or Thai when he converts to true gospel living.)

Still, a problem with some members of the church—faculty and students—who come to our community is a lack of vision of the global Church and the egalitarianism of the gospel. They are never really malicious or rude, but they perceive the world in terms of their own little prejudices and can even wrest the scriptures to support their private animosities. Or they talk articulately about charity, not knowing how charity applies across cultures. They stress verbally the importance of cultural empathy without knowing how it feels. They are conversant in foreign languages but are illiterate in the language of reverence and love. When confronted by a “sticky” ethnic situation, they constantly resort to old prejudices. They talk of their mission to help the people of the world, but are put off by the first “negative” encounter which may be anything from dark skin (or white), to kim chee on the breath, to how loud and forceful the teacher talks in the classroom.

I know that many of these feelings can be overcome by time and education, and that the Lord allows even his faithful to learn by painful experience, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. This new awareness is what has happened and is happening on our campus. But sometimes it may take an intense spiritual experience to cut through entanglements of our own cultural conditioning and finally convince us jarringly of the infinite worth of human souls—that color and custom are simply external trappings.

We often say in the Church that every person must go through his Gethsemane, his dark night of the soul. I would also say that every person in the Church must experience feelingly the meaning of the apostle Peter’s vision of the descending vessel through which Peter learned that the gospel should be preached to Gentiles as well as Jews (see Acts 10:9–16).

The pivotal experience for me, which contained a brief but powerful moment of insight and feeling, somewhat analogous to Peter’s experience, occurred at a mission conference in Liahona, Tongatapu, Tonga, early in 1960. I had been in Tonga only two and one-half months. The Tongan language was still very tentative on my tongue, and all the symptoms of cultural shock still hung heavily on my countenance. (Luckily, I was able at that time to pass them off for serious-mindedness and piety.)

After a late afternoon meeting, the visiting authority, Elder John Longdon, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, retired to the home of the school principal. Soon a large group of Saints from Vava’u gathered on the front lawn to perform a lakalaka dance. As with all lakalaka performances, this one began in majesty and ended in exaltation, the voices of two hundred singers reverberating magnificently through the grounds of the school.

The group dance concluded with a male solo dance, a tau’olunga performed by the Vava’u district president, Malakai Unga. It was novel to me to see a man dance with such graceful movements and warmth. My fascination, however, was interrupted by a sudden sweep of the crowd’s attention from the dancer to the honored guest, Elder Longdon, the General Authority from Salt Lake City. Elder Longdon sat in his lawn chair, clearly animated by the beauty of the performance. Suddenly he sprang to his feet and commenced his own version of the tau’olunga, imitating Brother Unga’s every movement, including the whirls, the nods and the bows. I nearly swallowed my tongue with surprise. Whatever grave dignity Elder Longdon had before as a travel-weary spectator was now transformed into a controlled exuberance dictated by a powerful overflow of love and appreciation. Here the white man, knowing little of the ways of the brown, and the brown, knowing less of the ways of the white, were caught in a glorious moment of harmonious feeling which transcended color, race, or culture.

Slowly they gravitated together, until they embraced—equals, brothers—each receiving life and instruction from the other, both stewards in God’s kingdom. For me it was as if the barriers of race, ignorance, and prejudice had fallen, and I stood bathed in the insight of Peter’s vision: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34).

As I have said, this insight came at a crucial moment. It certainly couldn’t be construed as “teary-eyed idealism” or the sentimental sniffling of “aren’t these natives just wonderful?” In fact, I had been going through successive shocks of missionary adjustment and had experienced one cultural abrasion after another, which gave me reason, in my extreme ignorance, to resent and deplore these people, much less love them. But heaven opened briefly—as if a beam of light from the other world struck my consciousness—and I have not been the same since.

Not uncommon in the Church, such experiences open up vistas of understanding not achieved any other way. But understanding a people is not exactly the same thing as living happily with them or being able to help them. That comes from being imaginatively and feelingly aware of how another culture feels from the standpoint of an insider. This we have rather loosely called “having empathy.” The spiritual assurances that a people are God’s children, that they are of infinite worth to him, and that his work and glory is to exalt them in his presence—these are the beginnings of true empathy. Otherwise there would be no urgency to love, to assist, to lift, or to save. But it is in the exercise of the imagination that we fully comprehend the predicament of a people and sympathetically see as they see, and feel as they feel.

Recently I asked our faculty if they could imagine the shocks that the foreign student encounters when he comes to our campus and the tensions he sustains throughout his schooling. Perhaps this morning you could by an act of imagination put yourself in those students’ shoes, see as many of them see, feel as they feel, fear as they fear.

Imagine yourself setting off for school thousands of miles away from home, let’s say to a small Japanese community forty miles north of Sapporo in the northern island of Hokkaido in Japan. You have never been there before; in fact, you have never been away from your home and your family before.

The terror of the distance is compounded by your lack of money; you are thrown on the mercy of strangers and the school for food, shelter, and employment.

The language of instruction at the school is Japanese and you quickly find that your high school Japanese is painfully inadequate: your teachers speak in a rapid, nonstop way, using glib university jargon and assuming that you are understanding everything they say. You are so embarrassed that you prefer to look like you understand than suffer the second humiliation of asking what they’re talking about. You smile and nod.

Of course, you arrive broke except for a return fare deposit, and you immediately have to borrow money from the school to pay for your course work. After being on campus only one week, you are in debt by more dollars (yen) than you have ever made total in your whole life. So to pay off the loans, you must work twenty to thirty hours a week during every school term, and full-time during vacation; thus you get no vacation.

When your first paycheck comes, you are shocked and humiliated to see that the school has taken nearly all of it to pay your loan installment and you are left with only a few yen for your personal use. This shock is increased to near despair when you get a letter the same day from your parents (whom you have been scrupulously taught to love and obey) asking for five hundred dollars. Your father can’t pay the mortgage on the house or his taxes, and since you are now, says your father in the letter, in such a prosperous country (everyone knows Japan is booming economically), it would be just a little thing to send him five hundred dollars. You feel the hopelessness of the dilemma.

Your roommates don’t cheer you up, although they mean well. You have seven of them: two are native Japanese and the other five are foreigners like you—none of them English-speaking. The only way you can communicate with them is in Japanese, and their ignorance of the language (with the exception of the two Japanese) is exceeded only by your own. So you get by with smiles and small talk.

People seem friendly enough; at least they smile as they go by. But there is always the faint suspicion that their smiles are more derisive than friendly.

You would completely despair except for the sincerity of the university president and some of the faculty and the reassurances of the school counselors that things will get better.

Perhaps the point is made sufficiently. This kind of imaginative empathy is vital to all of us as well as to our students.

Besides the money and language pressures alluded to in the example, our students are faced with many other pressures because of our intercultural environment. Let me discuss a few of them with you.

Interpersonal relations

Living with and adjusting to people from many lands is manifestly more difficult than trying to adjust only to one new culture. For example, last year a bishop told me of a young Vietnamese girl who refused to allow her Polynesian home teachers from the Church to see her. She said they joked and laughed too much and were unworthy of the dignity of their office. Very disturbed, I sought the two young men out, who explained that the girl seemed so glum and depressed all the time that they were just trying to cheer her up by their jokes and laughter.

A student from Japan approached me after class one day deploring my teaching as overbearing and far too zealous—passionate was the word he used. He felt I was “cramming” the material down his throat. Sure that I had committed a cultural offense in class, I returned sorrowing somewhat to my office. But just three hours later, a Fijian student from the same class came in to thank me for the zeal and enthusiasm with which I taught the class.

Notwithstanding the differences, the points of disagreement, and the need to understand the cultural conditioning which makes some conflicts inevitable, the best approach to acculturation we have found is to nurture an atmosphere which emphasizes the similarities of people rather than the differences, again with the gospel of Jesus Christ as the common ground for understanding all men. In this way, we have reduced the students’ temptation to “appeal to their culture as a sanctuary from things they fear or personally dislike” (Jay Fox, “Intercultural Communication: An Educator’s Personal Point of View,” Pacific Studies I, Sept. 1977, p. 56). For example, some cultures seem to justify or at least tolerate the use of violence in settling certain differences. Consequently some of our people are short on self-control, but long on apology and ceremonial reconciliation.

Actually we are an amazingly peaceful campus when one considers the normal frustrations and pressures of college life compounded by a large number of disparate cultural identities, many of which bear ancient animosities toward each other. Part of being a member of one ethnic group may mean that you accept the inheritance of resentment towards another.

When there has been violence on campus, we have dealt with it most successfully by responding within a gospel frame of reference, we hope with a balance of justice and mercy. I am convinced we do great damage when we tiptoe around alleged cultural opposition to gospel principles. To the man who rationalizes his beating a person of a different culture by saying, “History is just repeating itself,” I say, “History cannot be a convenient excuse by which you can strike down a brother. Before all else you are a Latter-day Saint.”

Again, time, education, and the consistent application of gospel ideals are effecting a visible change on all our people. Church court action as well as swift attention from the university standards board provides a profound external check on violence.

Moral codes

The sexual pressures on many of our foreign students are tremendous, not just when they come to BYU—Hawaii, but also when they come to America. Ironically, some people who ought to know better describe the society of the South Pacific as sexually free, claiming that sexual promiscuity is culturally acceptable there. The problem of many students at BYU—HC is not that they come from societies which are loose and ill-defined in sexual matters, but that their societies are heavily laden with taboos against any interaction between the sexes before marriage—taboos barring dating, holding hands, or being “legitimately” alone. To be alone with a girl is a rebellion against that control, carrying with it the sweet surcharge of forbidden excitement. Many young men come to our campus in their early twenties never having been alone with a girl, except with the explicit disapproval of their elders. Thus, the easy dating, the freedom to come and go without chaperones, and the openness of affection found on a college campus all seem to sanction now what was forbidden before.

Clothing styles that are fashionable in our society, even in our LDS society, outline the body and accentuate sexuality in a way that is not possible back home. And this is not to mention the impact of the vast network of sexual allurement saturating nearly every aspect of our society.

How do we help a person cope with these things? By teaching correct principles and by simulating in part the external assistance of their home environment. We do this in a gospel setting without robbing anyone of free agency. Wards are kept small intentionally. Bishops as a matter of course interview twice a semester. Kind but firm action is taken against those who transgress the law. It is the same for all students. The key is in treating all alike; the expectations of chastity are the same across culture. Gospel standard is the supreme point of reference. (Sometimes, however, we must explain that some behavior is either good or bad depending on the country you are in. How else do you explain the distraught Thai student who came to me last summer to lament the moral lapse of a fellow countrywoman because she was seen holding hands in public with her fiance?)

Celebrity

Besides the sexual pressures, some of our students are afflicted with sudden-celebrity syndrome. The Polynesian Center, an inestimable blessing to the campus, employs nearly eight hundred of our students. Students perform there and serve as guides to people from all over the world. The benefits are obvious to them. They improve their English through daily encounters with thousands of tourists; they gain poise and self-confidence. The public is eager to applaud and adore them—all the better for favorable impressions and missionary work.

But with some of our students, this sudden celebrity is a liability; with it comes an appetite for public approval, a desire to reinforce and exploit the tourists’ fantasy of the Polynesian paradise. Other things, such as school, Church, and family, slide by the way.

Language

Of all the pressures on our foreign students, language proficiency, or the lack of it, may take its greatest toll. Not being understood often means not feeling appreciated. Once self-doubt seizes a student, he finds himself in a whirlpool of depression. His opinion of himself is controlled by his perception of others’ opinions about him. Most teachers on our campus do not know another language fluently. Many of our foreign students speak three or four languages. Some teachers unconsciously associate dimwittedness with broken English, when a new student says: “I fink I like take Boligy or somfing like dat,” forgetting that the student may actually be more proficient in a greater number of languages than the teacher is.

Academic excellence

Yet I suppose our greatest mistakes in the past have not been in unconsciously rejecting the poor English speaker, but rather in not insisting that he become proficient, not just in English but in all of his subjects. I fear our empathy in some cases has succumbed to a kind of mercy-blindness which damages rather than helps our students. In the past some of us have comforted ourselves, when passing students whose performance was below standard, by saying, “Well, they are going back to their own countries and will probably never use English much again” or “Now if they were going to be teaching at Provo High that would be different; we would insist on higher standards.”

All these seem very feeble excuses now for a lapse of academic standards. Granted, some teachers confuse their own crankiness and ironclad teaching style with academic integrity, but generally speaking, a teacher helps seal the doom of a foreign student by passing him just because he has excellent ideals and he seems to be a warm-hearted person and we don’t know what else to do with him.

The problem is usually that the teacher is not willing to spend the time or to use the appropriate teaching techniques which will meet the special needs of the student. The teacher who fails a foreign student (or any student) and then congratulates himself simply on his own high standards does not have the vision of his calling. The student must succeed, not at any cost (and certainly not at the cost of high standards), but at the cost of his own hard work and the wise counsel and good example of an innovative, empathetic teacher who teaches excellently and who inspires in his student a taste for excellence.

Every culture has standards of excellence. The concept of excellence and achievement is something all people understand. Rejection of excellence in the interest of foreign students is in effect a condescending adoption of a lower standard for them.

I’ll never forget the contempt that one foreign student expressed for a teacher whose mercy went overboard when he was trying to get the student through. “I am not insulted when I honestly can’t do the work,” he said, “but I am insulted when the teacher acts embarrassed for me because I can’t answer a question in class, or tries to make me think that I know it but am just having a bad day, or that he is at fault because his question was probably asked badly, or that if I could speak my own language in the class I would probably outstrip everyone.”

Returning home

The issue of returning to the homeland after college has haunted our campus for a long time and continues to be a concern with students and Church leaders. One of the basic goals of the university is to prepare “qualified men and women who can live, serve, and contribute in Hawaii, the South Pacific, and East Asia.” Many foreign students have graduated and have returned to their homes and are now bishops, stake presidents, school principals, and civic leaders in their countries. Others have not returned, especially those who for one reason or another did not finish school. These have married in America or otherwise found their way to permanent residency and citizenship.

Inevitably the questions arise: Is BYU—Hawaii to be a way station, an escape hatch for those wanting to migrate to America? Shouldn’t we be educating people to return to their homelands? How do we get them to go back? Shouldn’t perhaps the opportunity for education be linked directly to their own guarantee that they will return home? How can we justify a school sponsorship program in which we are, in effect, subsidizing migration? If students aren’t going back home, shouldn’t we simply cut off the opportunity for higher education?

It does not take much imagination to see where these questions have taken us. I think we have learned that all education is a “migration” subsidy, the opening of the door of freedom of movement—mental, physical, and spiritual. Our purpose is really to educate the human being, to help the person achieve the perceptions and a competency which will allow for useful service no matter where he chooses to live in the world. We are not merely educating Tongans for Tonga, Filipinos for the Philippines. We are educating children of God for citizenship in the world and in the world Church.

But what about the admonition of the prophets that our members abroad remain in their own countries and build Zion there? It does what it should do—it has a profound impact on them, causes a great deal of soul searching, and, I might add, requires a sacrifice which the general Church, in America at least, has not known since pioneer days.

My ancestor, Charles Shumway, at seventy-three was called by a prophet to go to Arizona and help colonize the St. Johns-Taylor region which Elder J. Golden Kimball described later as a forsaken wasteland. Charles’ life was a series of colonizings, as were the lives of thousands of others. He chose to obey the call of the prophet rather than to enjoy the affluence and comfort of the Salt Lake valley.

Our foreign students today must make the same kind of choice. Their education has exposed them to a higher standard of living and has brought about in them an elevation of taste. It has nurtured a competitive desire for finer, more convenient material things, things totally inaccessible to them back home. In many cases, if they go back to their severely economically depressed homelands, they do so against the flow of outward migration, which has the tacit encouragement of local government leaders who realize that people can’t stay where there are no jobs. So in a way, no matter how in tune we are at BYU—Hawaii with our students’ needs and the economic situation back home, we find ourselves occasionally teaching them skills for jobs that don’t exist and creating in them longings for a material life they cannot have.

Why then do we in the Church educate them at all through the university level if education creates this dilemma?

Simply because the alternative of no education or imposed limits to education is antithetical to the thrust of faith and the desire for individual improvement which come with true conversion to the gospel. And we believe implicitly that if these students go back and serve their own people, they will be blessed and will in turn bless their country—both economically and spiritually.

Our position, then, is this: We want the students to return to their homelands; we admonish them to return; their leaders back home encourage them to return; our programs prepare them to be successful if they return. But sometimes their missions in life, as well as yours and mine, may take them far beyond the limits of Manila, or Nuku’alofa, or Ponape, or St. Johns, Arizona, or Montpelier, Idaho—and that decision is really their own.

As I conclude my remarks today, I am reminded of a recent little publication which discusses “Learning with Foreign Students.” In it, the authors declare that “it is not known what kind of cognitive learning is essential in order to achieve the level of awareness of how another culture feels from the standpoint of an insider” (Josef A. Mestenhauser and Dietmar Barsig. NAFSA Publication no. 00178, Jan. 1979, p. 13). But they agree that there must be a new cultural perspective based on empathy with other cultures and a method of coping with real differences in more than an analytical way. What better place is there for this to happen than on the BYU campuses with the gospel of Christ as the principal resource of understanding and feeling?

Finally, let me summarize what I have said about empathy by relating a recent experience of one of our Church leaders on campus. In an interview with a so-called incorrigible who was struggling to express herself in broken English, repeating what sounded like feeble excuses and absurd rationalization, he felt the surge of irritation and revulsion which so often comes in such situations. Just as he was about to dismiss her with a perfunctory bit of advice, a voice spoke to his mind with penetrating clarity. “This is my beloved daughter—listen to her!”

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Eric B. Shumway, a professor of English at Brigham Young University—Hawaii, serves as president of the BYU—Hawaii Stake.