I have had a fascinating and busy few weeks evaluating new students - 5 in the last 3 weeks or so - and it's been a whirlwind of activity. My new students are Korean, Cambodian, Dominican, and Chinese and come, of course, with widely ranging levels of English and academic backgrounds. The dynamics in my classes have completely shifted because of the newcomers. On the one hand, it's fun to learn about the new students and to have fresh faces in class; on the other hand it is causing some interesting, funny, and difficult situations to deal with.
Gestures are often tricky in a new culture, because the same gestures/hand symbols do not mean the same things all over the world. Case in point: today my Chinese student stuck her middle finger up and asked me if I knew what that meant. At first, I thought she was trying to be funny. Then, I realized that she was being sincere . I said "What does it mean?" She tried to explain to me something having to do with Tai Chi, but I don't think I got the true meaning. However, as the other students were cracking up, I explained to her that here it was considered a rude gesture, and that she should not, for example, do that in the hallways of our middle school.
The same student from China spent much of the class commenting on other people in the class - what they looked like, what they were wearing, etc. The Chinese teacher at my school uses my classroom, so I asked her about this. She said that this is definitely a cultural thing. People will comment on your appearance often and honestly, for instance: "Your eyes are too big for your face" or "What happened? You got fat." Having relatives in Spain and Puerto Rico, I know that they sometimes can be very frank as well, as in "You gained weight" or "You're too pale!" but this seemed extreme to me.
Today another student who is Syrian but grew up in Europe informed me that the Chinese student asked her if her parents were Black (she has olive skin and black hair), and then proceeded to say something offensive about Black people. All of this has made for a challenging day for me. I don't want to single out the student but I do want to save her from embarrassing herself and making further cultural faux-pas, and also teach her what is appropriate in our school. I'm hoping that her interpreter will be able to give me a hand!
Our gestures conversation led to talking about other gestures that may be obscene here and acceptable in other places, and vice-versa. It may turn into a mini-unit, and that way they will all have the benefit of a discussion about cultural issues and sensitivity. I will keep you updated!
Please share if you have any stories about cultural misunderstandings! Would love to hear them.