Walking Ten Thousand Miles to see the Moon on the Other Side. We are back from a powerful, poignant, and for many of us, a life changing journey to Taiwan. As one of the instructors for this year’s immersion and also for each of the previous years since the program’s inception in 2005, I would like to reflect on some of what we have learned in leading such international education programs, and teaching students about the intricacies of crossing cultural boundaries, and growing and changing as professors as well.
I believe this cross cultural immersion program was very successful…not only because of some of the learning outcomes summarized by Dr. Kenneth Wang from our process sessions above, but also because of the level of engagement of our students in the various cultural contexts of Taiwan.
For example, during this trip, I saw our students developing relationships with their Taiwanese peers and families, as well as connecting emotionally with those students as well as their families. Such increases if cultural sensitivity and deep emotional connections, as well as profound compassion and understanding of others is a critically important element of the cultural immersion. I also observed students venturing out into the Taiwanese culture alone or in small groups, or even traveling to outside destinations before the immersion program formally began; I watched students becoming more confident in crossing cultural boundaries, which is exactly the type of discovery of one’s personal efficacy we as instructors hope for and love to see in our students. Moreover, the students began to acknowledge that they do not need to interact perfectly with the Taiwanese, but rather understand the countless and never-ending challenges of crossing cultural borders. We continue to learn it is a process of slowly acquiring the necessary cultural knowledge, self-awareness, and cultural skills over time through reading, reflection, discussions with cultural insiders and outsiders, coping and problem solving, and yes, relentless trial and error.
It was very heartwarming to see that our students displayed a genuine desire to cross the various cultural borders with respect and interpersonal sensitivity. In doing so they needed to move out of their comfort zones, take some risks, and learn more about themselves as well as the Taiwan cultures. I was particularly impressed that they shared so deeply in our “process groups” (a part of our schedule aimed at reflection and self-awareness) to understand their feelings and what specifically was being triggered within themselves by their immersion experiences in the Taiwan cultures. Many tears were shed as they examined themselves as cultural beings.
This is indeed not an easy journey to take and yet, they took it and fully engaged in their own learning. They articulated their learning so well in the farewell presentations, and clearly demonstrated their cognitive and affective growth. In short, I was very proud of our students, and moved by their warm hearts. It is truly a gift to be able to work with students on these critical cross cultural journeys.
One of my previous MU colleagues used to say “Why would you want to go there when you can read about it in National Geographic?” Many of the learning outcomes we experienced during the cultural immersion program cannot be read about or taught in a regular academic course. In our 16-week preparatory seminar, we talked a great deal about cultural values in Taiwan, the function and goal of relationships in a collectivist culture, or the critical importance of academic achievement within the culture. However, it is not until we were in Taiwan that our students could truly experience these issues. In essence, it is only by being here interacting with the Taiwanese in their cultural context that our students can learn about themselves as cultural beings. An old Chinese saying aptly states that “walking ten thousand miles is better than reading ten thousand books” which nicely underscores the critically important function of experiential learning for such complex training goals.
I was also very proud of the NTNU students for their courage to reach across cultural borders, their ability to connect with our MU students and faculty, and their eagerness to learn about our students and US cultures. And as in the past, I was very proud of our NTNU colleagues and administrators. They were exceptionally generous with their resources, kind, respectful, well-prepared with their lectures and engaged in this educational endeavor, and so accommodating of our interests and training goals. They are true educators at heart. And as usual, the NTNU staff were simply exceptional in their preparations, kindness, and problem solving. We are very fortunate to have such a special relationship with wonderful colleagues at NTNU, and I am proud to be partners with them for so many years. It is impossible to fully describe my gratitude.
I was also proud of my colleague and co-instructor, Dr. Kenneth Wang, a Native Taiwanese. He not only brought a great deal of knowledge about Taiwan for our students, but also jumped right into the immersion, worked long and hard to enhance student learning before and during the immersion. He also was willing to reflect on his own cultural journey, and broaden his own understanding of crossing cultural borders.
I was also touched by the Taiwanese people on so many occasions . . . such as the reflexologist who gave so willingly to broaden our students worldview of our bodies, or the gentleman on the street who went out of his way to direct me to the bathroom, or the tea sellers who showed so much patience in our deliberations of what teapots to purchase, or the good-natured humor of various shop owners as we connected with in various ways throughout the immersion. There is much to be proud of in Taiwan.
Although I have now visited Taiwan over a dozen times (with two of those days being over six months), I will always be an outsider, an American, and be actively learning more about the changing cultural context here in Taiwan. It is clear to me that cross cultural competence is a lifelong process—that we never really get there even within one culture. But what a gift it is to be able to participate in these cross cultural journeys. They are perhaps for me one of the most meaningful parts of a highly meaningful career.
In essence, Taiwan touched our hearts, and we will never be the same again after seeing “the moon on the other side of the world.” -Puncky