Multicultural Learning Pods 2021-2022 – Final Pod Assignment

What is this?

This is our final 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 final essay for the class. Because it was not “graded”, it’s not like I put a lot of scholastic effort or checking and refining time 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.

All that is copied from the midterm MLP assignment, linked below, but there’s one final note to add here as well. MLP was made up of two groups coming together, a bunch of Japanese students who had a coordinator working with them, and a bunch of local UAlberta students who had a different coordinator working with us. Our initial coordinator had flaked out soon after the program started, leaving her job for something else, and so the other coordinator had been forced to take over both groups, and she was the one who had read my midterm reflection. However, between the midterm assignment and this final assignment, a new coordinator had been hired to replace the lady who had flaked, and one of her roles was to take over our group and review our final essays as well. So there’s some overlap between what I wrote here and what I wrote in the midterm essay because the intended audience changed between the two documents.

This assignment dump comes in two parts: First the actual question, then my essay reply to it. Also see the midterm MLP assignment, as these two essays are kind of linked together.

The Assignment

You have spent the last several months learning about temporality, defense, learning, play, and exploitation/use of materials. In the final assignment, you are going to:

1) reflect on these primary message systems and write a reflection piece on the knowledge you’ve gained from them in Part 1; and

2) reflect on all of the primary message systems learned from this course and respond to the questions in Part 2.

Part 1 (2-3 pages in length, double spaced)

Choose three (3) of the primary message systems listed above and …
(1) Briefly explain what each primary message system means;
(2) Reflect how they resonate with your own cultural lens and how they relate to and enhance each other.

Part 2 (3 – 4 pages in length, double spaced)

Select five (5) out of the 10 primary message systems and evaluate how they influence or impact your intercultural learning, for example, open-mindedness, curiosity, empathy, resilience and ability to deal with ambiguity when interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds; provide 1-2 examples to support/substantiate your points.

My Essay

My cultural lens comes from having spent the first 15 years of my life in Singapore, and the next 20 in Canada, and also basically being a generation older than most of the other MLP participants. I am also a male to female transgendered person, which has given me experience in living as both genders and ties in quite interestingly to a couple of the points below.

The first primary message system I would like to reflect upon is defense. Defense is how we protect ourselves against, or respond to, external forces, not only in terms of a country defending itself in case of war, but also against human nature, Mother Nature, and any other threats and dangers that one might face. They could also even be personal perceived threats to one’s own well-being.

Within my cultural context, having grown up in a country with compulsory military service, and at one point having been slated to have to partake in this before we instead moved to Canada, I know that it hangs like a knife over the head of boys in that culture — everyone knows they’re going to have to do it at some point, and there’s always some uncertainty and fear around that. It was a really humbling and interesting experience to grow up in a society where some portion of your future was already decided for you, and for you to have next to no defence against that eventuality.

Yet, at the same time, I remember the move to Canada being one that I strongly resisted, because that meant sacrificing all my friends and my own identity in Singapore. When we first came to Canada, I did not fit in very well at all, and my defensive response to that was to clam up and just try to make it through life in a rather introverted and depressed manner, especially once I realized that I was transgendered and could do nothing about it. That was a whole personal struggle that left me with some trauma for some time and that I was not able to really overcome up until a few years ago.

Exploitation is the next primary message system that I wanted to reflect upon, and in this sense is the development and use of tools to enhance what we can do as human beings, based on the advantages and restrictions of the environment around us. Coming over from Singapore to Canada presented several large differences in climate and society, which in turn led to many differences that one might not think about without having actually lived in both places. Laundry, for example, was a big change — in Singapore, urban population density is very high and nearly everyone lives in high rise buildings, and since the weather is so hot, there’s an invention there that allows people to stick their laundry onto bamboo poles outside the kitchen window, suspended many storeys in the air, in order to make use of both limited space and the hot climate at the same time to dry their clothes. That would never work in Canada with its cold weather and plentiful space.

Another difference between the two countries is the use of flooring materials. Canadian houses and apartments that I have seen use carpet judiciously, and favour building materials that keep the heat in, and hollow walls to have an air buffer, whereas in Singapore, carpet floors are rare and it’s far more common to see marble or other materials that keep the floor cool, and thick walls that help insulate noise from the neighbours, since everyone lives surrounded by dozens of other apartment units.

Defense and exploitation tie together because the need to overcome, or defend against, restrictions or drawbacks in the environment around us are what usually drives exploitation techniques, whether it be to overcome the cold, humidity, neighbours, living in a totally different culture, or other things. Defense and exploitation together basically drive humans to be able to adapt to a different place or environment, with the need for defence leading to innovation and exploitation.

Lastly, play as a primary message system firstly refers to humour and the ability to relate to those around you, and secondly and more broadly the ability to connect to one’s environment in a way that allows you to enjoy yourself. Play was a very interesting topic to reflect on for me, because the games that I played with my peers in Singapore were very different from the games my peers played here in Canada — with one single exception, a card game (Big 2) that the Chinese community played here as well. I always thought that that was a really interesting cultural similarity between the two places, and that actually was one of the few ways that I occasionally found myself being able to break out of my shell and “communicate” with my peers here.

Beyond that, the differences within the games that the two separate societies play are myriad, and I’ve often reflected on games that I played growing up. This also highlights a difference between the current generation of children and young adults and the one I grew up in, as the Internet was around, but not as prevalent as it is now, when we were growing up, and no one had smartphones or even cellphone back then.

I think that play does not tie to defense and exploitation as strongly as those two do to each other, however it still definitely connects to them — play connects to defense in that play is often considered frivolous or carefree, but I think that being able to play is a sign that one’s defence against something has succeeded and that there are no immediate threats to one’s wellbeing. Exploitation and the use of tools connects as well because the act of playing is strongly affected by and often involves making use of things in your surroundings, or even the environment itself, the same way that exploitation does.

For the second part of the question, all the factors have influenced my intercultural learning and experiences in some way, but I will be addressing five of them in particular — Defense, Bisexuality, Temporality, Territoriality, and Interaction.

For defense, I think that I am fairly good at talking to others across cultural boundaries as I have experienced a good chunk of my life “on both sides” of several common cultural borders — between the East and the West, and the male and female genders, for example, and this means that I have had the time and opportunity to experience life from both sides’ points of view, and have had to both erect as well as take down defences on both sides of the various fences. I might still favour one culture over the other, but I think that one is able to empathize with people better when one has actually lived and walked in their shoes for some time, and I felt that defense was the best system in which this was reflected in because everyone puts up defences against things that they are not familiar or uncomfortable with, including outsiders. However, having huddled on defenses on both sides of a particular cultural field in the past has contributed to me being able to be more open-minded and being able to sometimes identify when and why people are doing it, and thus being able to relate to them and help coax them out of their shell.

The next one, bisexuality, ties directly into this — for bisexuality and gender, I have completed a lengthy transition process that had consumed most of my adult life (the actual transition process took 6 years, but the entire process from the day I learnt about it took about 15), and having to defend against my tumultuous emotions and complete rejection of my own identity for so long and then finally succeeding and feeling like I had been reborn had given me plenty of time to ruminate on the differences between the two main genders and how society reacts to them, and what advantages and disadvantages and expectations and preconceptions and restrictions one might face as a member of either one. From there, I believe that I have been able to relate to both genders simply by having a large well of daily life experience to draw on from both sides, not to mention being able to empathize with people trying to decide where on the gender scale they fit into as well.

One interesting example that ties into the first two was how I met up with an old childhood friend in November 2021 when I went down to the States, just before the Omicron variant took hold. Even though she had opposing political views, and wasn’t really sold on my having transitioned, I was able to come to an understanding and find some common ground with her without compromising either of our beliefs, and we ended up sharing a really good afternoon together in Los Angeles, and she then helped me broker getting in touch with the rest of my former classmates in a shared chatroom afterwards.

The third, temporality, also plays into defence in that I am a generation older than most of my school peers now, including just about everyone else in the MLP, and that affords me unique viewpoints that no one else had, for example of a life before ubiquitous computers and cellphones and a lot more stories in general that I can tell. In addition, there is a common viewpoint that relative time seems to speed up as one ages, because each day is a smaller portion of the person’s experienced life up until that point. Articles talk about a danger of letting yourself slip into a day-in, day-out rhythm and having the days, weeks, and soon years slip by in the blink of an eye, which is why I both started writing my weekly life blog as well as practicing mindfulness, in order to be able to appreciate more of the simple, beautiful things in daily life. I have found that this mindset has helped cultivate my sense of curiosity and the appreciation of both present-day events and things like historical and religious sites, which in turn has led to vastly broader horizons.

This in turn has played into territoriality, as I’ve become much more aware recently of places and the way they are and the meanings behind them and the items in them. When I was younger, and even through early adulthood, things just “were” and I was more concerned with trying to survive the day, get through school or work, and enjoying myself as best as I can, without thinking of the broader picture and looking around to discover why things were the way they were and in what ways I could contribute to that or use that to my own advantage. My awareness of territoriality has allowed me to become more open-minded, empathic, curious, and also to be able to see when someone else is huddled up behind personal defences because they are outside their familiar territory and allowed me to respond appropriately. This is partially why I signed up both for MLP and as a volunteer with UAI, to be able to see and help incoming international students and eventually hopefully being able to use these experiences to help myself as well when I finally go abroad to study.

Playing around with these last two message systems has also provided some interesting results. In particular, during my aforementioned USA trip, I basically made the decision to wing it, planning a trip to a city without actually deciding on exactly where or how long I would stay or where I would go next until a couple days before I actually left. I am usually a meticulous planner, but this style of planning was extremely liberating and, while it wasn’t without a couple hitches, I really enjoyed the sense of freedom and the new experience of having flexibility and just letting the wind (and cheap plane/bus tickets) take me from place to place. This was also the first time I had used Airbnb, and I used this on many of my stops to experience hostels and people’s homes and all the good and bad that comes with it, instead of rather sterile hotels. I ended up making a friend and sending her a letter once I arrived home.

Lastly, interaction acts as a wrapping that ties everything together, particularly the use of languages and the ability to communicate with both male and female mannerisms and tones of speech depending on what I need to do. I can take charge in a situation as needed, or step aside so someone else can feel like they have the spotlight as needed. I can also somewhat speak a couple other languages enough to somewhat communicate with people who might not be comfortable with English — this has helped with interactions and unlocked doors in the past. I’ve also had one interesting experience back in 2015 or so when I went to South Korea for vocal cord surgery, with the result that I was stuck in a foreign country for two weeks but unable to use my voice at all, on top of not understanding the Korean language. I had to communicate using gestures and using a very basic translation app on my phone, and I will never forget my various successes but also one particular failure, where I went into a restaurant to order takeout but ended up with a bowl in front of me because the staff refused to do takeout and I didn’t understand them. I’ll never forget that experience!

Document dated: Feb 24 2022