Multicultural Learning Pods 2021 – Midterm Reflection

What is this?

This is our midterm assignment for the Multicultural Learning Pods (MLP) thing that I took in Fall 2021/Winter 2022 as part of my Certificate in International Learning (CIL) requirement. As long as the page is still up you can read briefly about it here, but I speak much more about it elsewhere in my blog. It’s kind of a class, but not really. It took up almost as many hours as one, but it was free and took place outside of school, and was not graded in any way other than participation.

Anyway, this was the midterm assignment essay for the class. Because it was not “graded”, it’s not like I put a lot of scholastic effort or checking and refining into it, I just wrote like I usually do and let my words flow. There are probably a few mistakes and places that things could be touched up, and I’m not writing in a formal academic tone either. Yadda yadda excuses. Still, this place is where I wanted to capture long-form writing I did for the future, so my essays need to be here as well, especially these ones since I was writing about my past.

This assignment dump comes in two parts: First the actual question, then my essay reply to it. I’ve also actually already posted this before, in My Diary #031. Also see the final MLP assignment, as these two essays are kind of linked together.

The Assignment


You have spent the last several months learning about cultural values, beliefs and behaviours – your own and those of other people in your group – using a framework by Edward T Hall. In this assignment, you are going to capture some of the knowledge that you have gained so far and reflection on the process of culture-learning.

Why do this? Why write down what you have already talked about? First, it takes a greater level of mastery to create content than to consume it. This is your chance to solidify what you have learned and to demonstrate your level of mastery. Also, research in neuroscience has shown that writing things down not only helps us store information (i.e. in a file, on paper, etc), but encode it (i.e. transfer it from our short term to long term memory). I want you to remember these primary message systems and your Pod conversations, so that you are able to draw on them when you travel around the world, start your international career or build cross-cultural relationships here in Canada.

The Assignment

This assignment has two parts: The Reflection and The Reflection on the Reflection. The entire assignment should be roughly 4-6 pages in length (roughly 1000 – 1500 words), with 2-3 pages for each part.

PART 1: The Reflection (approx. 2-3 pages)
Choose 2 of the primary message systems that you have studied so far and …
(1) Briefly explain what each primary message system means
(2) Reflect on what each lens has revealed to you about your own culture(s)
(3) Consider how these 2 primary message systems relate to one another in your cultural context.
You should be able to draw on your weekly reflections when crafting your answers. Feel free to quote your weekly reflections in your assignment.

PART 2: The Reflection on the Reflection (approx. 2-3 pages):
In this part, you are conducting a meta-analysis of your cultural explorations thus far. Instead of thinking about what you learned, you are encourage to think about how the learning process has gone/felt. This is important because it can bring new insights into your own preferences and habits and have implications for how you might approach culture-learning in the future.

In your reflection, please answer the questions below:
(1) What has it been like to use the Primary Message Systems as windows into culture? Why might it be valuable to use them? What are the limitations of this approach?
(2) So far, how has the process of learning about other cultures compared to the process of learning about your own? What have you found most enjoyable and challenging about each? Why might it be important to be aware of this? What might it reveal about your preferences and strengths?
(3) At this point in the program, what do you feel like you know (or have a good handle on) that you didn’t before? How might you use that knowledge in the future (in the next term of the Pods or beyond)? Also, what are some of the gaps in your knowledge? What lingering questions do you hope to explore in the Pods next term?

My Essay

I lived in Singapore from 1984 to 1998, for the first 14 years of my life, and this MLP project, in particular the questions revolving around the primary message systems that we have had to think about for each pod meetup, have really helped me to put together some context to some events and rituals from that part of my life that I’ve never really thought about since coming to Canada. I’m going to be highlighting two of my stories from my pod conversations that really resonated with me and that kind of link to each other as well.

The two primary message systems that I am picking for this essay are Subsistence and Temporality. Temporality, in this context, is simply about time and how different people in my family and friend groups reacted to it. I think Singapore is very monochronic in general, but my friend group was really polychronic, and this collision of two worlds — and how it intersected with food — was interesting for me to look back on and analyze during the pod meeting preparations!

Subsistence, in the context of this essay, revolves around food and what it meant in my culture and to my experiences. It also does have other meanings, like an element about the means of working and providing for the family, and the economy in general, but I will largely be talking about meals and how it related to my family and friends in the context of temporality.

Back in 1997 and 1998, when I was in Secondary 1 and 2 (Grades 7 and 8), there were no such things as smartphones, and none of us even owned mobile phones. The effect of this was a more monochronic society — you had to be punctual when meeting someone because there was no such thing as texting someone to tell them you would be late — you often couldn’t contact them once you left the house until you met up with them.

To set the stage for my story, our classes concluded at 3:15 pm each day, yet we were a very close-knit class and would often hang out with each other after school. (Most of us are still, amazingly, in contact with each other over 20 years later.) People would do a variety of things after school — sometimes people had club activities, or had to clean the classroom, or hang out and do a variety of other things, often in small groups or alone, as opposed to one large, unified group.

Nearly everyone used public transportation, and our school was about 15 minutes away by bus from a train station, so we all had that part of the journey home in common. Our journeys home would then diverge at the train station, and people could take a variety of train lines to get back home. There was a McDonalds near that train station, and a small park next to that McDonalds, that organically became a hangout for my classmates and me. Many of us would end up visiting the McDonalds or park, with people coming and going over the course of every afternoon once they had left the school. It became our class’s unofficial meeting place outside of the school.

The part that relates to time and temporality here is that people would often talk to each other in class before leaving, arranging to meet each other there later on in the afternoon, but we often would not actually mention what time we would be there, simply because we didn’t know — it depended on when our activities ended, when we or our friend group felt like leaving school, and even when the bus came.

This led into what I now realized was a very interesting situation where we had our school with its extremely monochronic schedule where we hung out with each other in, and then this meeting place away from school with a really polychronic setup where we also hung out with each other in. Even without prior arrangements, it was fairly common to see someone there after school, either at the McDonalds or the park, hoping that someone else would eventually show up. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t.

In addition to this, my curfew every day was at 6pm, which meant that I had to leave that area at 5:30 pm to get home in time. I would get in trouble with Mom if I arrived home late, regardless of whether I had homework to do that night or not. But why 6pm? It was not something I really wondered about until I considered it in the context of subsistence as well. When I was younger, around 5 or 6 years old, Mom used to serve dinner at 6pm every day. And although this was eventually bumped to 7:30 pm, I realized that it had been ingrained into the family culture that 6pm was the border where afternoon turned into evening, and that that was most likely why my curfew was always set at 6pm, even though sunset was usually at 7 to 7:30.

And then from there I backtracked and looked back at the McDonalds again, noting the influence of subsistence over the creation of that polychronic place. That place brought us together because we could come together and snack on fries and a drink in the presence of friends, and because food was cheap in Singapore, so that was well within our allowance budgets even after recess and lunch time at school.

With those two examples, one revolving around temporality with a side of subsistence, and the other revolving around subsistence with a side of temporality, I began to wonder about what the two together could tell me about culture in Singapore. I came to one conclusion that I hadn’t realized before — Singapore basically sits right on the equator, so our sunrises and sunsets are basically the same year-round, and we have stable sunlight amounts at any time of day throughout the year.

This means that people can plan meals and events around “breakfast,” “lunch,” and “dinner” and have that mean roughly static times to everyone without needing to necessarily define what time we mean when we use those terms — it gives us a language revolving around those meal times to use that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to in some place like Canada, where sunrise and sunset can vary so wildly over the course of a few months, and where people have “dinner” as early as 4pm in some families and as late as 10-11pm in others.

This was a great epiphany to achieve, and things like that are why I have found the primary message windows to be surprisingly effective tools so far for analyzing my own culture and history. I don’t say that lightly, and I am very happy to be critical about things if I don’t find them useful (see, for example, my reflection on the CIL Orientation), but I certainly have found this very useful so far. It has added several important lenses to my collection that I can consider when analyzing a piece of my history and culture, and also bring to bear when entering a new place and trying to figure out why people react a certain way. There is almost certainly a reason that things are the way they are.

The main limitation of this approach is that it’s harder to apply a lens a certain way or realize how it fits a situation if one doesn’t already have a similar personal experience to draw on, which is why I think the self-reflection part is so important – I would never have realized how the different primary message systems had applied to various parts of my life if I hadn’t sat down and thought through it for the pod discussions, and I would thus never have known how to use them to analyze new cultural situations.

But when it works, it really works well. I’ve enjoyed learning about other cultures through this MLP program. In particular, I took a month-long trip to the United States from October 28 to November 22 this year, travelling through six different cities during that time, and I believe that my experience in the MLP really helped enhance the trip by giving me many new things to consider and look out for, and even compare between cities, as well as making me more receptive to experiencing other cultures in general.

But oddly enough, even though I found the process of experiencing new cultures really enjoyable, I also found it uncomfortable and eventually very challenging to continually be immersed in another place’s culture, and after a month or so I found myself missing home and wanting to just immerse myself in familiarity for a little bit to relax and unwind. I’m glad I was made aware of this now though, since I still currently plan to travel abroad to Japan to study in Spring of 2022 (although it looks like this might not happen now), and it will give me some time to reflect on what to change and how to avoid this culture immersion fatigue before I actually commit to staying abroad for a year. I really enjoyed the immersion and seeing new things, but I also definitely needed more time in each place to let it sink in and absorb, I think.

Lastly, at this program, I feel like I have a better grasp on my own history and experiences than I ever did before, and that’s critically important to me because I fancy myself an archivist or historian, and so these lenses are really important to me. My current life goal that I am working on is to write a blog of my personal history, starting from birth all the way to present day, and my aim is to catalogue and note as many things as possible that I can remember and piece together from chat logs, photographs, memories, old boxes, and more, and then being able to explain how any one event fits into the context of my life and every other things that was happening around me then. It is a 7-year project, of which I am but in my first year, but many of these excerpts and stories that I’ve already written as part of the MLP are eventually going right into this blog of mine, that’s how illuminating they have been.

I don’t actually know yet what gaps or lingering questions I have, but I am really interested in seeing what the remaining Primary Message Systems can bring to the table and the understanding of my own past. I don’t think I am the type of person that tends to question things that I don’t have or understand yet, but instead I work with the tools that I am given to try to paint a picture, and each tool I add to the box seems to give me a more complete view and interpretation of things, which I am really enjoying. It’s like adding different colours to a picture, and I am really interested to see what new colours the second half of the MLP program adds to my palette!

Document dated: Dec 06 2021