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Culture Shock

Today’s classrooms have more diversity than ever before, and teachers have many opportunities to interact with families from different cultures and backgrounds. It’s not always easy to relate to other cultures, especially when the differences between you seem more numerous than the similarities.

Several years ago, my family and I spent the summer in Cambodia, and I was asked to give a presentation to some mothers. When I stood before the women, they looked at me skeptically. I was a first-world mother, and they were parenting in a third world country. My goal was to praise some of their cultural beliefs, discuss our similarities, then share some different ways of thinking. With the help of a translator, I began:

I teach people how to take care of children. I know that you might think our situations are totally different. (Several of them started nodding.) You’re right, they are. But that does not mean that I think all American ways are better than the ways in Cambodia. Let me tell you a few things I like about how Cambodia raises children.

In America, our babies wear diapers, but your babies do not, and they are potty trained as young as 6 months old. Diapers are very comfortable in America, so children are not toilet trained until they are over two years old. I tell my students that other countries potty train at six months, but they don’t believe me. (The ladies started smiling.) I think America can learn from you.

In America, when mothers have to work, children go to a childcare. There may be one worker for six months, then another worker for six months. The babies might not know the workers. In Cambodia, the grandmothers often take care of the babies. In America, the child might only see the grandma twice a month because we don’t normally live together. I think America can learn from you.

So, while it’s true that we are very different, we are the same in some ways. We are all women, our children are a blessing, and we don’t always feel like children are a blessing. In fact, raising children is a lot of work! I then started telling them some practical things about raising children. I provided ways to comfort a crying baby and encouraged them to ask for help when overwhelmed.

Earlier, I had learned that nursing was not common in the village. This surprised me because formula is expensive and the water is not sanitary. Upon inquiry, I found out that one of the practices in Cambodia, a hot, humid climate, is that once a mother gives birth, she bundles up tightly and sleeps with something hot under her hammock for several months. They believe that the massive sweating causes weight loss and increases milk supply. This actually achieves the opposite effect, as it dehydrates the mother.

Because this was a cultural belief, and my job was not to criticize the culture, I did not denounce the idea, but I did use it to make my point. I told them that nursing helps new mothers lose weight. (A few of them visibly sat up at this point and I knew I had their interest.) It’s true! Nursing burns about 600 calories a day. To nurse, make sure you are eating and drinking enough. Try not to sweat it all out. Even if you can only do it for one or two months, it is very healthy.

Although you may never have a chance to travel to Cambodia, you do interact with other cultures often. Make it a point to discuss cultural differences. Have a culture-fact day. My own children are fascinated by other cultures. They think it’s amazing that French people roll up pancakes and put whip creme on them (crepes). They try to get coffee by stating that children in other countries have coffee with breakfast. Their favorite culture fact is that in Cambodia, you don’t have to wear seatbelts. The one I most love is that in some countries, being called fat is a compliment. It means that you are rich, since you can afford so much food.

Encourage your students to bring in common items from their culture. Japanese utensils look very different than American utensils. A hacky sack in Cambodia looks nothing what it looks like in the U.S. A pair of shoes from a Chinese ancestor who practiced feet binding would surely fascinate the children. By highlighting distinctions among different cultures, we are stating that we’re not all the same. We’re different, and that’s okay. It’s actually pretty great because our differences are what makes us interesting.

Ashford University/Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education

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