Watching “The Dialogue”: A Cultural Bumper-Car Ride

15946836_a846e28a57_zCulture Shock.

“It’s like you’re driving in a car,” says one of the students in The Dialogue, “and the gas and the brakes switch.”

The Dialogue is German director Arnd Wächter’s feature documentary that follows eight college students traveling to Hong Kong and southwest China. As they interact with the world around them and interact with each other, they explore cultural differences and the way we communicate about those differences.

The students make up a rather diverse group: males, females, Americans seeing China for the first time, Chinese returning home, whites, an African American, and an Asian raised in the US . . . and their viewpoints are varied as well.

I got to watch The Dialogue at a screening held at the San Diego NAFSA conference in May. It was a great conference, and seeing the documentary and taking part in the discussion with Wachter afterward was a highlight for me.

My experience watching the film was—to borrow the student’s words—like driving in a car. But for me it was a bumper car. At several times throughout the documentary, I would identify with one of the students, but then something would happen to change my view: I look like him, but I don’t agree with what he just said. I agree with her, but then she went too far. I share her background, but what he said makes more sense. I identify with him, but I don’t think he’d identify with me.

My point of view kept bouncing from person to person, even country to country. It was jarring, but enjoyable. Thus the bumper-car ride. I liked the way it challenged me to think beyond stereotypes and easy answers. And that, getting viewers to think, is what Wachter’s Crossing Border Films and Michigan State University had in mind when they made the film. It’s what would make The Dialogue a great tool for cross-cultural training exercises.

The key to the documentary is the frank conversations that the students have on camera. And the key to these conversations is the work of facilitator Ana Rhodes Castro. She led the students through behind-the-scenes activities and debriefings that encouraged them to express their true feelings and talk about root issues. The result is on-camera interactions that get straight to the point and reveal topics and opinions that are normally skirted in everyday life.

Particularly interesting are discussions of how individual personalities, non-verbal communication, surroundings, and language affect how we offer and receive viewpoints. How often does the way people present themselves affect how we judge what they say? How do our expectations for non-verbal cues differ from culture to culture? Does the fact that the film’s discussions take place in China give the Chinese a disadvantage? And does using English as the mode of communication give an advantage to the native speakers?

There’s a partner education site at National Geographic that addresses these issues using clips from The Dialogue. The site also includes questions for discussion and additional resources for use in the classroom.

The Dialogue, along with two other Wachter productions, is part of a trilogy of cross-cultural films. The others are Crossing Borders, which follows the same model as The Dialogue, but this time with four Moroccan and four American students traveling to Morocco, and American Textures, which listens in on the discussions of six young Americans—Latino, Caucasian, and African-American—as they travel to three cities in the southeast United States and talk about race, class, and culture.

[photo: “Bumper Cars,” by Bill Frazzetto, used under a Creative Commons license]


Can’t We Just Be Friends? Bridging the Cultural Divide on Campus

 In my last post, on friendships between international and American students, I pulled some statistics from Voice of America’s “Student Union” blog. Actually, rather than a lot of numbers, much of what you’ll find at “Student Union” are first-hand accounts of what it’s like to study in American colleges and universities, while facing the challenges of a new culture.

There’s a lot of insight and candor there, on a great variety of topics. Take, for example, these posts:

But back to the topic of friendships. In my post I cited a recent study that says over half of students from China and other East Asian countries have no close American friends. Under the title “Whose Fault Is It when American and International Students Don’t Mix?” Jessica Stahl discusses a video from the Office for International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University, in which students from China and the US talk about the ins and outs of cross-cultural friendships. Part of what makes the video especially interesting is that the group of four female Chinese students and the group of three male Americans are not interviewed at the same time. While this means they don’t respond directly to what their counterparts are saying, it does give them a greater opportunity for honesty and frankness.

After the introduction, the video opens with a segment called “Forming Friendships: Finding Common Ground.” One of the Chinese students begins by saying, “Finding something in common is really hard, because you don’t make friends with someone without having something in common with them.” I think she makes a good point.

When we meet people, we usually start with questions that will reveal what we have in common. And when we find that we share something—place of origin, interests, likes, beliefs, friends, experiences—we pursue it in conversation to see how good a fit we are. It takes time and patience to get past the superficials to track down deeper commonalities, and people from different cultures often don’t get past the opening conversation . . . or they don’t even begin the conversation in the first place.

On the other hand, just looking like you’re from “someplace else” is enough to draw attention from others with significant cross-cultural experience. So Third Culture Kids often seek out international students, and international students find community among each other, regardless of how far apart their home countries are. But while this can lead to some wonderful opportunities for friendship, it is often a small pool to draw from, and it can further limit one’s feeling of fitting in to the general population.

To pique your curiosity, I’ve transcribed below more of the students’ comments on this topic of making friends. But really, if you’re interested in any aspect of cross-cultural interactions, watch the whole video. It’s 17 minutes long but well worth your time.

FYI: The video description at YouTube states that the panelists are all undergraduate students at Michigan State, and the American students “have all spent time in China and have meaningful Chinese friendships.”

Here are some of the comments made by the Chinese students.

Students’ get-togethers start off by talking about high school life. When they came from the same area, well they have some kind of similar backgrounds and experiences that we don’t really have.

Some Chinese students, when they talk with an American, when they cannot find anything in common, they’ll just keep quiet. So they just ignore you. . . .

They care about their baseball game, football game, everything else, instead of this bunch of Chinese people just arrived.

If you make friends . . . you want to get involved in the American community, they will treat you as either a joke or just ignore you.

I’d rather just be with my Chinese friends.

I’ve met a lot of great American friends who are willing to sit down and listen to you and also share their story.

And by the American students:

For someone who hasn’t been to China before or who doesn’t know the culture, I think it’s going to be difficult for them to kickstart a conversation.

The closest relationships that I’ve had with Chinese students are the ones where the Chinese students make it an effort to also start a relationship as well.

My feeling, from my experience of why Chinese students don’t necessarily form close relationships with Americans and why Americans don’t form necessarily close relationships with  Chinese is more so the flaw of the Chinese students.

Man, all the Asians are always together. You’ll never see one by themselves. They’re always in a group.

Besides those certain things that do make an impact, we’re all very similar, and you don’t need to stress the differences too much, because those are easily overlooked. . . . Differences aren’t a problem. Differences are what make life.

[photo: “When Chopstick Meet Fork & Spoon,” by Lohb, used under a Creative Commons license]