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]

Another New Year, Another New Record for International Students in the US

4290551550_474fbb9086_nThe number of international students at US colleges and universities is at an all-time high. Again.

In fact, that statement has been true for the past six years.

According to data from Open Doors 2013: Report on International Educational Exchangereleased last month by the Institute of International Education (IIE)—819,644 students from other countries were enrolled in US institutions of higher learning in 2012/13. That represents a 7% increase over the previous academic year.

The top-five sending countries remain the same: China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. Students from China, making up 29% of international students in the US, grew their number by 21%, while those from Saudi Arabia increased by 31%. The number of students from India and South Korea fell by 4% and 2%, respectively, while Canada’s total rose by 2%.

Boost to the Economy

The influx of international students means an influx of dollars, as well. NAFSA: Association of International Educators reports that these students and their dependents added $24 billion to the US economy last year, and their spending supported or created.  313,000 jobs. That translates into 3 jobs for every 7 international students who come to the US. (A breakdown of the economic and job impact state by state can be found here.)

By far, the largest means of support for international students last year—constituting the primary source for 64% of students—was personal and family funds. This was followed by US colleges and universities (21%), foreign governments or universities (7%), and current employment (5%). Overall, more than 70% of funding came from outside the US.

US Is Top Destination

In 2011, there were 43 million international students worldwide—as reported by OECD, using data from the last available year. Based in part on OECD’s data, IIE determined that last year, 19% of all college and secondary students studying outside their country of origin were enrolled in the United States. The number-two country in this regard is the United Kingdom. Its 488,380 international students make up 11% of the global total. The next four host countries are China (8%), France (7%), Germany (6%), and Australia (6%).

While international students make up only 4% of the total enrollment in American colleges and universities, in Australia, more than one in four students (26%) come from outside the country. The UK (19%), France (12%), and Germany (11%) also have higher proportions of students from outside their borders. In China, the country sending the most students to the US, internationals make up only 1% of the total student population.

(“Fast Facts,” Open Doors 2013: Report on International Educational Exchange, Institute of International Education; “The Economic Benefits of International Students to the U.S. Economy, 2013” NAFSA: Association of International Educators, 2013; “Primary Source of Funding, 2011/12—2012/13,” Open Doors 2013: Report on International Educational Exchange, Institute of International Education; Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators, OECD, 2013; Project Atlas: Trends and Global Data 2013, Institute of International Education, 2013)

[photo: “Encyclopedia Pages Showing World Flags,” by Horia Varlan, used under a Creative Commons license]