The Cultural Multiverse

A few years ago, I was brought into a project to teach culture in the classroom. I won’t go into too much detail — the project still exists although I’m not working on it now — but it was based on a successful model of activities and workshops designed to get students in the United States to realize that children in other parts of the world did not, in fact, think, act, and live the same way as kids did in, say, Wisconsin.

It was a good program. A little basic (In China, they use chopsticks; In the USA, we like baseball; In Japan, people bow), but the creators’ hearts were in the right place and they wanted to bring the project to schools in Beijing.

The first thing I thought: If we want to run this in China, we have it completely backwards.

If the problem with most Americans is an unthinking assumption that the rest of the world consists of either Americans or Americans-in-training, the challenge in China is the equally blinkered belief that anybody who is not “Chinese” (interpreted in the broadest possible way) is fundamentally and essentially different than they are.