The [International Programs and Services] office was asked by the director of the Malaysian Student Services office in Chicago to intervene with a county coroner on behalf of the family of a Muslim student. The student had been transferred to another hospital and had died there. Because the fire was arson, the resulting deaths were potential homicides.*Rabaey, J A 2001, ‘Explaining Cross-Cultural Differences at Times of Crisis’ in P A Burak & W W Hoffa (eds), Crisis Management in a Cross-Cultural Setting, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, pp.49-50.
The coroner in that county wanted to do an autopsy, which would have been a violation of Islamic principles. However, the case was made that the cause of death (smoke inhalation) has already been determined, so no autopsy was needed. The family’s wishes were followed with no interference in investigation procedures.
The County Coroner wished to perform an autopsy on a male whom had died in a fire. The coroner may not have been aware that the deceased was of the Islamic faith or of the strong preference for autopsies not to be performed on Muslims without the family’s consent and only when it is required by law to ascertain the cause of death. In this instance, a representative of the International Programs and Services office of the University of Chicago was able to brief the County coroner on specific aspects of Islamic culture and as the cause of death had already been determined, there was no further need for an autopsy to be performed.
At the University of Iowa, cross-cultural differences resulted in serious misinterpretation by the media and the community. A Chinese student and her two friends attempted to retrieve artwork necessary for her application to a Masters degree program, They saw a canoe nearby with the University of Iowa name on it. They grabbed it, understanding that they were University of Iowa students and this was university property, so they could use it. They got in and started down the rapidly floating river. The boat capsized. The students were floating down the river, holding on to the boat.*Rabaey, J A 2001, ‘Explaining Cross-Cultural Differences at Times of Crisis’ in P A Burak & W W Hoffa (eds), Crisis Management in a Cross-Cultural Setting, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, pp.49-50.
It was a very serious situation, made more difficult for rescue teams because of communication difficulties. The students were rescued. The news TV teams were there, taking pictures of… what they called the “joy ride”. The Chinese students were embarrassed because they had lost face in front of the community. The police arrested the students and had them stay overnight in jail because boating on the river was not allowed. It appears that the students were laughing when being rescued. The immigration specialist at the university intervened to inform the police that in ‘Chinese culture it’s proper to laugh when you’re really embarrassed.
Communication difficulties between rescuers and 3 laughing Chinese women.
TV news televised the students ordeal branding it a “joy ride” “Joy ride” is a negative term that implies a deliberate, frivolous and thoughtless act. Dependant on the cultural atmosphere within a city or town, with regard to internationals, this type of media coverage could serve to invoke anger and racist responses.
Police arrested the students because boating on the river was not allowed and perhaps to “teach them a lesson” that joy riding, endangering rescuers, police and themselves, was not a laughing matter or acceptable in Iowa.
There were a number of issues that compounded against the three Chinese women in this example:
1. The University of Iowa canoe – IF boating on the river was not allowed, (the reason the girls were arrested), then why did the University of Iowa fail to secure their property in order to ensure people were unable to use it? Suggest chaining the canoe in a canoe storage rack. Possible Duty of Care issue?
2. Rescuers often face communication difficulties in severe weather situations – effective training is paramount. It is not sufficient to state the difficulties were due to language – over the roar of a river – any language is difficult to comprehend. Rescuers also need to be able to cope with sight and hearing impaired people – similar techniques should be employed when language is a problem.
3. TV media appear morally bankrupt. Sadly this appears to be a global initiative of poor journalism. Take a picture and add your own caption and darn the consequences. Actual research into events and obtaining background knowledge – in this instance cultural knowledge do not seem to get a mention.
o I wonder how people would have responded to the three girls if it was reported that the girls could have lost their lives and their laughing was due to being severely embarrassed due to the attention and community disturbance their river ordeal had caused.
o I also have to wonder what the story would have been, had the students died
4. Police arrested the students because “boating on the river was not allowed.” How was this conveyed to the students? Were signs erected warning of the danger? Was there sufficient lighting to enable people to read the signs? Was the swollen river a regular occurrence, say during spring thaw, that locals are fully aware of, but new comers to the district may not be?
After a major fire on campus, cultural differences hindered the investigation process. Several [International Programs and Services] staff members noted that some of the investigative team members all Americans) were not aware of the cultural differences that caused them to be misunderstood by internationals and vice versa. For instance, one detective, in interviewing a Japanese female, continued to talk very fast, even though he was asked twice to speak more slowly.*Rabaey, J A 2001, ‘Explaining Cross-Cultural Differences at Times of Crisis’ in P A Burak & W W Hoffa (eds), Crisis Management in a Cross-Cultural Setting, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, pp.49-50.
The student kept her eyes lowered as a sign of respect, but an American interviewer could very well interpret that reaction as a sign of nervousness, or question avoidance, or guilt, or lack of cooperation.
I will risk a generalisation when referencing the “American” detectives as likely Caucasian, as they continued to talk fast even after being asked to speak slowly. African-Americans and Native Indian Americans generally have a more methodical method of communicating, which does not require the “pauses” to be filled with words. Culturally they (as a collective generality) believe the responder needs time to consider the question and their reply.
Western cultures often attribute eye contact as corresponding with a persons level of honesty. At the same time, sustained eye contact can be viewed as being “cocky” and over confident. In the Japanese culture lowered eyes are a mark of respect, particularly to an authority figure such as the Detective. In Papua New Guinea sustained eye contact can, at times, be viewed as a challenge against the person with whom the eye contact is being made.
What needs to happen to prepare for the possible recurrence of these incidents?
In all three cases access to basic cultural information was critical. This was supplied by International Programs and Services staff members from the university.
International people coming into our localities are not always “just visiting students on a temporary visa.” As communities continue to diversify, increased knowledge and acceptance of peoples cultural norms are vital. I believe this is too great a task to be left to providers of education services to international students. All levels of government need to co-operate in order to produce a practical set of “generalised” guidelines in print or web form and ensure it is distributed and utilised throughout cities, towns and communities throughout Australia. If they can contact every household with a census document every four years, then they should have no problem ensuring every “stakeholder” obtains a copy of the guidelines.
Stakeholders could include:
Emergency personnel – Police, Fire, Ambulance, Bush Fire Brigade, State Emergency Services; Doctors, Nurses, Midwives.
Education providers – Prep; Primary; Secondary; TAFE; Tertiary.
Offices of the Coroner
Legal firms (including Migration Agents) and
Australia Post Offices (As some outback towns only have a post office and a pub, both proprietors wear many hats of responsibility)
The Australasian Police Multicultural Advisory Bureau have an interesting website covering Policing and Diversity issues. http://www.apmab.gov.au
The APMAB have created “A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity” June 2005 First Edition available on the New Zealand Police website:
What cross-cultural problem have you experienced? Share it with us.
Author: Eileen Hjertum - PIER Online Diploma student