Should science stand back for culture?         

I have lived in several countries and not all western. I have lived in Saudi Arabia and that is as far from the average western culture as you can get. I have been in Taiwan for three years and I love the country and the people. I love my students to bits. I have been made to feel part of this rural community I’m living in and I’m always treated with respect. I always see myself as a guest in another country and I do not try to change people or influence them and the way they live their lives at all. In fact I’m the first to ask why my students and fellow teachers do not take part in the many temple ceremonies one often sees in our village. I have never been in a situation where my personal believe (my culture) has had such a clash with the foreign culture in which I live. Here is a totally new experience for me. 

The agency that has employed me has regular training sessions and yesterday about 25 NESTs (native English speaking teachers) from about 10 countries, all deployed around the greater Taiwan area, got together again. Our speaker was a very dynamic Canadian teacher who has been a teacher in Taiwan for 18 years. During the break in our training session he heard me tell a fellow teacher about an incident in my class a few weeks ago.  

Here is the incident: Gary was wearing a T-shirt with the following words on  I can do anything. Gary and his classmates really battle with learning and in particular with English. So I decided to use Gary’s T-shirt to start the lesson. First they had to figure out what it means, then I said to him “you cannot wear something like that if you do not believe the message you are spreading”. The whole class got it and at the end of that lesson I was just amazed at how hard they all tried and the progress we made in that lesson. Then I went on to say that since that day I try to give them little motivational talks to encourage them to believe in their abilities. The fellow teacher I was talking to tells how his students react when he congratulates them on getting more than 90%. He says things like well done and good job. To which his students always react with “No, teacher, not good.” 

After the break when everyone was seated again, the speaker filled the group in on the gist of our conversation and then told the group that we must remember the expression: Praise the deed, not the person. To praise the person is the western way of doing it, it’s not the way it’s done in Taiwan. He said all this in a way that did not encourage any discussion on this topic so it ended there. In my mind it started a debate which I would love to have with some Taiwanese. 

I am not into New Age airy fairy power of positive thinking stuff. Not at all. I have been reading neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf’s books about her research and findings about how the mind and brain works. She provides facts and scientific evidence that we can control our minds and that will lead to our brains functioning differently. It can lead to physical changes in our brains. So what our minds tell our brains will have a positive or a negative manifestation in our lives. (This is my version. It’s best if you find her books and read more to get a better grasp on this complex subject.)

I have been putting Leaf’s advice to practice over the past about 10 years and I can see positive changes in my life. I’m not a missionary or an agent for Leaf and I do not go around preaching her knowledge. When I do encounter a friend who is fighting a battle I will share what I know and have experienced with him / her. 

Now, lets go back to the school situation. I would estimate that about 30% of the students I teach are from “a normal” home. That is a home where there are 2 parents, regular and a sufficient income to provide good food and pay for extra lessons at cram schools, where the family encourage the students to work hard. The majority have divorced parents. In Taiwan when parents divorce the courts usually (95%) grants the father custody of the children. There are exceptions to this rule but in many cases the father just dumps the children on his parents while he works and lives in a city, or they do live with him but he could not care less about the kids. There is 1 boy who brings his dirty clothes to school and under the teacher’s supervision he washes it at school or else he would never have clean clothes. Many fathers are heavy drinkers and drug addicts. Some of our student’s fathers are in prison because of drug related issues. I’m sure you get my drift. My students do not have model parents. One little girl who comes from such a home and gets remedial teaching organised by the school to help her and her brother get on par with their classmates recently told a friend that one day she will be president of Taiwan. That was repeated to her teacher and that was a joke going around in the staffroom. I was horrified, thinking we should be encouraging her, not making fun of her. My students also do not have model teachers, but yesterday I discovered it’s a cultural thing: stay humble and do not dream big. 

Now back to my debate. If science tells us we can teach a child from a deprived background (a western concept) skills to help him / her to motivate themselves, skills that will help them believe they can do anything they set their minds to. When they are taking small steps and they can see for themselves how it works in their lives and environment – are we not saving a life here. We will be breaking that poverty cycle of “my grandparents were these small farmers, and so was my dad and that’s what I will be too. I can’t wait for the day us three men, three generations, will be sitting next to each other in our dirty old clothes looking over our rice paddy, chewing bettle nuts and smoking”.  If that same boy who is very good at basketball is encouraged to aim for an MBA team in the USA, he will probably not make it that far, but even if he just reaches the Taiwan National Team as a reserve, it would have changed his life and those of his immediate family for the better. 

Yesterday I was reprimanded, in a nice way, and told to change my thinking and stick with the local culture. Here is an interesting thing. Confucius, although he was Chinese and not Taiwanese, is still revered in Taiwan. We take our students to the temple that was built in his honour and they know about this great man. He said “The man who thinks he can, and the man who thinks he can’t… They are both correct”. Is he not saying what Dr Leaf has given us proof of? And what I want to tell my students: if you think you can, if you believe it, then you can, and you will succeed if you also do the hard work etc etc. 

I’m still left wondering what should take preference here? Culture or science?

How do you stop yourself from grabbing those two in a bear hug and telling them you are so proud of them and that they were amazing in the race they just completed?

Students paying their respects to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in Tainan

The entrance to the Confucius Temple in Tainan


  1. Wow! This was amazing! I just finished my tefl certificate and now I have been privately tutoring Swedish kids and Syrian kids. I want them to not give up on themselves. Yeah I know that this way is a western way, but isn’t that also the way we have new technologies and new ways of thinking? The kids from Syria, their culture is very much family oriented. With that, I’m not so sure if they would be allowed to chase a dream if it takes them far away from their family. There’s a lot of arranged marriages and usually to a cousin in their culture.
    It’s a lot to take in when you learn more about different cultures. I enjoyed your post!😁

  2. travelalong2

    Thank you for your comment. You have embarked on a wonderful career. Yes, it can be a full time career and not just a means to travel. The Middle Eastern culture, I think is the most difficult to navigate if you are westerner. In Saudi Arabia I taught a student from Syria, they were the lucky ones. Father and all his siblings are medical doctors and they were able to settle in Saudi before the war really broke out. That Syrian girl was, in her culture, so different from the Saudi students. And the reason was the educated father. They are devoted Muslims but a lot more open minded.
    Dani, You must keep something else in mind too with your Syrian students and their families. They did not leave their home country because they wanted to but because they had to. They want to keep some semblance of what is normal for them. They want to live their Syrian life but are forced to do it in another country. So I think its normal for them to become more Syrian away from Syria, because the parents can see they have lost their country and home and now they are in a situation where they are gradually going to loose their culture too. It’s tough if that was not your choice.
    Good luck with your ventures.

  3. Thank you for this post. I’m not familiar with Doctor Leaf’s work, but I have read something similar by Doctor Rick Hanson. And teaching in China gave me a similar experience, not so much from the teachers, but from the families. The cultural ideology is about knowing your place in society, don’t make waves, don’t push for change. But I’d never put the two together before. Great insights.

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