For those of you as fascinated by Joseph Shaules’ ideas as I am, I was able to catch up with him further – around the world in Tokyo this time – to ask a few follow-up questions. As expected, his answers are inspiring and made me really think – exactly how do I think about my mother?
Sharon: What is the single most fascinating thing you discovered when writing the book?
Joseph: The cultural neuroscience research really knocked my socks off. For example, brain imaging shows that when Chinese think of their mothers, the same part of the brain lights up when Chinese think of themselves. When Americans think of their mothers, on the other hand, the part that lights up is the same as when thinking about strangers. We are used to thinking of cultural difference in terms of customs, or maybe values, but this new work is showing us that it’s deeper and more complicated than that. Something that sounds so simple–cultural difference–is quite profound and affects us at many levels of the self.
Sharon: For those who do not travel internationally, is there something else that can stretch and strengthen the brain in the same way?
Joseph: You don’t have to travel to have intercultural experiences. Putting yourself into new social environments and getting to know people who have different cultural experiences from yourself – this can also have a powerful impact on the way we see the world. When we are in our home environment, we often tend to downplay cultural difference because we want to simply accept everyone as an equal. Often, however, if you show an active curiosity about the diversity you come into contact with in your hometown, you’ll find there’s a lot to learn. The most important intercultural lesson is that people everywhere are the same. The second-most important intercultural lesson is that people from other cultural backgrounds really ARE different in many important ways. Resolving the apparent contradiction between those two truths is at the heart of intercultural learning.
Sharon: What would you like to explore next on this subject?
Joseph: These days, I’m very interested in the language-culture connection–something I wrote one chapter about in The Intercultural Mind. Foreign language learning changed my life. In school, I dislike my Spanish class and would have failed if I hadn’t cheated on the final exam. At my part-time job at Sea World in San Diego, however, I came into contact with Spanish-speaking tourists and travelers. For the first time, the Spanish on the pages of my textbooks came alive. This led to a home stay in Mexico, and then eventually to living in Japan and learning Japanese–an ongoing effort, of course. Learning a new language is like being a baby starting over in another world–you have to reprogram your brain and develop a new way of thinking, acting and being. I have just written to a publisher, proposing a book on language education and intercultural understanding. So much fun! Such a big world!
My deepest gratitude to Joseph Shaules – for his time and his insight. May we all explore our own minds as we explore the world.