Every time a student comes to me to discuss the challenges of adjusting to cultural norms, it becomes an exercise in Intercultural Agility for both the student and for me. Many of these arise when students judge the local culture based on their own perceptions of gender and caste. In conversations with students, I remind them that perceptions are subjective, not absolute, and ask them to rethink the behavior they observe through the point of view of people engaged in the action.
In advising sessions with one student, she described watching her host grandmother seated on the ground apply a kind of paste to her older son’s feet and then wash his feet. The student was outraged by what she had seen. Why couldn’t the son wash his own feet? Why make his elderly mother do it? Together, we considered the event through different cultural lenses, and we met with her host grandmother to talk about it. I suspected the grandmother was participating in a religious ritual, one where the elder woman of the household washes her son’s feet the night before the festival of Holi in an act representing spiritual purification of the family. But I refrained from telling the student because she would gain so much more by interacting with her host family. In this way, she learned about the meaning behind the ritual, how her host grandmother views this act as a sign of her authority in the family and that despite tradition, she would happily wash her daughter’s feet as well.
This incident became a valuable learning experience for the student. It helped her identify her own cultural lens and gave her strategies for examining cultural differences in the future.
Lara Azzola | IFSA Resident Director | Varanasi, India