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Cross Cultural Psychology In Action

In a classroom filled with natural light from the warm Vietnamese sun, undergraduates in Peg Barratt’s Cross-Cultural Psychology class were seated at five large tables alongside students from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities (HCMUSSH). What began as a structured discussion of pop culture, food, family life, and general cultural differences, quickly evolved into a room filled with laughter, surprising similarities and budding friendships.

At HCMUSSH, there is a group called the English Exchange Events Club (EEEC) which brings English speakers to campus to facilitate a meaningful international dialogue. Barratt’s class, which explores the relative influence of culture and other factors on the behavior of individuals and families, utilized this visit to explore their classroom topics in a real world setting. The day spent together was a perfect blend of each of their goals.

Using a dynamic and informative Powerpoint presentation, students from HCMUSSH explained many aspects of their culture ranging from traditional clothing to their language. One interesting fact is that the word ma¬†in Vietnamese has six different meanings depending on one’s inflection when speaking. With those two letters, you can either say ghost, but, mother, tomb, horse or young rice seedling.¬† A novice Vietnamese speaker should be careful, for example, not to tell others that their house is haunted by a horse or that a young rice seedling is the grandmother to their children.

Left:  Aaron Rouser, a student from Cornell University, shares his opinions with an EEEC member. Right: Claire Doyle of Bucknell University spent the entire time in a lively conversation with one student in particular. Their laughter could be heard throughout the classroom.

The presentation also included a pop quiz, which challenged the SAS students to prove their knowledge of Viet Nam. Everyone easily identified the Vietnamese flag. Some were stumped by which country was bigger: Viet Nam or Germany (it’s Germany). There were more guesses than certainty when it came to the number of letters in their alphabet (29), the official flower (lotus) and the most common surname (40% of the Vietnamese population has the last name Nguyen).

Before entering each country, students in Barratt’s class decide what questions they would like answered and what topics they’d like to explore. For Natalie Forystek from the University of Colorado Boulder, this has taught her important themes to explore in other cultures. “This class has helped me know what to ask,” she said. “I find that even on the ship I have talked to other kids from Mexico and was interested to know how they differ culturally.”

Left: Erin Griffin from University of Texas Austin listened intently to students from EEEC, learning about their schooling, family life and what they do for fun. Right: Although Prof. Barratt had prepared questions that students could ask if they ran out of topics to discuss, they were unnecessary as everyone, such as Scott Head from Vanderbilt University, was engaged in conversation the whole time.

After a family-style lunch filled with octopus, meat-stuffed tofu, called dau hu nhoi thit, and fresh watermelon, the group explored a few other sights in Ho Chi Minh City together. While walking past Buddha statues and mummified bodies in the History Museum, EEEC members explained, in near perfect English, many important moments in the timeline of their country. Integrated groups of students took smiling photos in front of monkeys, elephants and giraffes at the Ho Chi Minh City Zoo and explored the verdant and colorful botanic gardens together.

An afternoon spent at the Ho Chi Minh City Zoo and Botanical Garden provided ample opportunities for authentic cultural exchanges.

EEEC’s motto  –  Limited Time. Limitless Thought. –  aligns well with Semester at Sea’s goal of meaningful engagement with the global community in the short amount of time spent time in each country. The brief visit allowed students to find many more similarities between themselves and their Vietnamese peers than differences and assigned a friendly face and genuine laugh to previously unknown strangers a world away. With each new connection, a notion of the “other” was dispelled and replaced with new pen pals and Facebook friends. As Scott Head from Vanderbilt University said on the bus ride back to the ship:

It’s really cool when you can get out there, one-on-one, and see that they are, in some cases, exactly the same as you are and we can reflect on those similarities and validate that there are universal qualities across all human beings.

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