As we wrap up our immersion program in Taiwan, I have been reflecting on how members of the CCIP program and I have learned and grown through this cross-cultural experience. The question I find myself focusing on today, however, is not about what I have learned. Rather, I put myself in my professors’ shoes and wonder how you can teach someone in an immersion experience. What are the lessons you want students to learn? What conditions facilitate cross-cultural growth?
Today’s tour of Tzu Chi, a charitable relief foundation that is guided by the Buddhist principles of compassion, kindness, and joy, helped me to understand the process of growth I’ve experienced in Taiwan. In addition to providing immediate relief to disaster survivors around the world, Tzu Chi is engaged in long-term projects like rebuilding schools devastated by tsunamis or relocating and rebuilding entire villages made uninhabitable by drought or earthquake. Tzu Chi also has a university complete with medical school dedicated to the training of compassionate, humane, and competent doctors and nurses.
Training compassionate doctors is not an easy task. No one wants to tell another that he has cancer, or to let someone know that her husband has just died on the operating table. Bearing witness to pain is…painful. It is far easier to cut into a heart when you think of it as an organ that circulates oxygenated blood than when you recognize what the heart can mean: a quickened pulse at the sight of a love returning from a long trip, or the steady, comforting thrum that anchors a newborn child to his mother and the world. Dehumanizing that which is most humane, our bodies, is an understandable form of self-protection. The “gallows humor” and sometimes callous treatment of cadavers in other medical schools are products of this attempt at self-protection. Dehumanization also makes for cold doctors who treat only the physical body and fail to nurture the healing resources, spirit, and resiliency of their patients.
At Tzu Chi, students are taught compassion through the Silent Mentors program, whereby students taking gross anatomy learn how to perform surgery through operations on cadavers. Unlike any medical program I had ever heard of, students learn about the life of the donor, who is referred to as a silent mentor. Before they are allowed to practice any of their medical knowledge, they are required to meet their mentor’s family and learn about his or her life. Then, they write a letter to that mentor, thanking him or her for the lessons the mentor will impart. Families participate at every point in the process, and students are not able to hide from the tears, pain, and humanity they witness: It is impossible to forget that their silent mentor was a person, not just a bundle of organs, muscles, and connective tissue.
Psychologists talk about cognitive (thinking) and affective (emotional) processing. Basically, there are two ways that people learn: We can think about it (2+2=4 makes logical sense) and we can feel it (my feelings are hurt when others laugh at me, so I learn to avoid situations where I am laughed at). Both are important, but affective lessons tend to be more powerful and long-lasting. They are also difficult to get out of a book.
Though we may read about the generosity, kindness, and harmony that Taiwanese culture is known for, it is another thing entirely to experience it first-hand and to feel touched by the warmth of my homestay buddy and her family, who welcomed a complete stranger into their home. We may intellectually understand that there is great diversity within Taiwanese culture, but until we experience the vibrancy and diversity by riding the Taipei metro system or walking the Shi-Da night market, our affective biases and misconceptions remain hidden. Until we feel, we cannot truly understand.
To learn lessons of the heart, we have to be vulnerable (see Dr. Brené Brown’s fantastic TED talk for more). Pain and discomfort are great teachers, but they’re not experiences people often choose to stay with when given the option of retreat. So many lessons that other students and I have learned in Taiwan have come from vulnerability and direct experience. The cultural immersion is necessary because I can’t escape back into American culture when it is convenient for me or when I cannot make myself understood. Many of us are cultural outsiders, and we learn empathy, patience, and compassion for other outsiders through our struggle. While each of us experiences our own cultural journey, the secret ingredient for our growth is the vulnerability of immersion.
Through giving us the opportunity to make ourselves vulnerable and then creating a space for us to speak or write our thoughts and feelings, our professors have created an environment where affective and cognitive learning connects. We see Taiwan; we meet Taiwanese students; we reflect on our reactions (surprise, struggles, and joy); we make meaning. This is the process of cross-cultural growth. These are the necessary conditions, and I feel so thankful and appreciative to have been present. To our hosts, guides, cultural and language brokers, professors, mentors, classmates, and friends: Many thanks. Xie xie. -Jessica