The Culture Issue – Chuck

Chuck Sandy

Cultural Exploration in Soi 70-2
–  Chuck Sandy




I’m sitting by the Chao Phraya river outside a house in the Bangplad area of Bangkok, Thailand where I’ve rented a room for a month. Behind me is Soi 70-2, a local neighborhood built on canals and swampland. Getting to this house, or anywhere else in the Soi, means walking along very narrow concrete paths lined closely on both sides by mostly one-story houses. Everyone has their doors and windows open, and I can’t help looking inside. That’s because I’m an outsider here – one who knows nothing about Thai culture except what I’ve read in books — so looking is what I do to learn. I look, I interpret, I ask around, and I make mistakes.

It didn’t take long to see that some houses here are also stores selling goods and supplies. A few sell only a single item like eggs, water, sweets, bananas or cakes.  Some provide services. Then, there are houses out of which women, mostly, prepare and sell homemade food like curries, soups, and vegetable dishes right out of their kitchens.  At first, it seemed like everyone was selling something.

The other day, I saw two women sitting on a front porch surrounded by pots full of delicious looking foods. I smiled, got some money out, and pointed to two dishes I’d decided to try. “No, no, no, no” these ladies indicated with their gestures, and though at first I thought they might be letting me know that these were things I wouldn’t like, I soon realized this wasn’t a store at all. I was trying to buy someone’s dinner.

As I walk the pathways of this Soi, I carry with me all I know and am. This is to say, I carry the version of American culture I grew up in, the values of the family I grew up with, combined with the Japanese culture I’ve grown into after more than twenty years of living in Japan. Still,  having traveled the world quite widely and having lived in many places, I consider myself cross-culturally sensitive.  I’ve even taken classes on culture, read all of Edward T. Hall’s books about culture, and taught courses on cross-cultural understanding. Yet, I repeatedly get it wrong.

That’s because wherever I go, there I am:  a prisoner of my own background, constantly needing to be reminded that culture is not one thing, but many things, and always something understood through the inaccurate eyes of the self.  I keep forgetting this. No matter how aware one may be, culture is difficult to get a handle on.



Let’s try an experiment, one you can do with your students in class if you’d like.  Wherever you live, get a notebook, go out in a local neighborhood, and look around. If you’re not surrounded by a different culture, pretend you are. Look carefully and make some notes on the things you see. Then, when you get back home, write out possible interpretations based on the observations you made. Here’s an example:


Culture Chart > Location:  Soi 70-2, Bangkok, Thailand
Observations Interpretations
No matter when I pass by one house in the Soi, the family living there is sitting on the floor around a low table, eating & talking 1) Meals don’t take place at regular times.  2) Families sit on the floor when they eat. 2) Thai families enjoy spending time together.
The shallow water between houses near the river is full of trash.  No one seems to mind.  Only a few people pick up, collect & bag trash. 1) Litter doesn’t bother people. 2) Trash washes in from the river & residents have gotten used to it. 3) Recycling is not important here..
One lady sells supplies from her kitchen. There’s no need to pay at the time of purchase. She keeps a ledger of names and amounts. People pay later. 1) Community is much more important than money. 2) People know and trust each other.  3) People don’t carry much money when they go out.
Some people place cut limes, salt, and chili peppers along the side of the path in front of their homes. They do so every morning. 1) This has religious significance. 2) It’s done to keep insects, mice, and snakes away. 3) It’s a kind of decoration but without deep meaning.


When I’ve done this activity with Japanese university students in Japan, they always return with some interesting observations from their own neighborhoods. They also almost always arrive believing the interpretations they’ve made are explanations.  They’re Japanese interpreting their own culture. How could they be wrong?

Yet, they often are wrong, and they discover this as they work in groups to share and discuss their observations.  That’s when they discover that there’s usually some disagreement, different opinions, and other points of view among their classmates. Although they begin sharing their interpretations as the answer, they soon find that what they really have is an answer. Realizing this is eye opening for everyone as they learn that even in a supposed monoculture, culture is not clear-cut and singular at all. There are many different ways of doing things, many different family traditions informing rituals, lots of variations in behaviors across neighborhoods and regions, and few easy answers or uniformly agreed upon interpretations.

Doing this activity with students several times over a course — focusing one time on holidays, for example, and another time on the rituals and behaviors surrounding food, for instance — is one way of helping students understand that there are few cultural universals. It helps students see that culture is living and various, and that the understanding we have of even our own culture is one formed by a self who’s been shaped by family, background, and experience — and is therefore singular and unreliable.

Our observations about culture and our interpretations of the things we observe in a culture are an extension of who we are. Ask around. No one’s got the answer to what culture is and why people do the things they do. Most people, though, have an answer, and they’re usually happy to present it as fact.

Back in Soi 70-2 , I’m learning this again, having already discovered from one Thai informant that the people who spread limes, salt and chili in front of their houses are doing so to keep snakes away.  A long-term foreign neighbor asked his Thai wife about this and she told him it’s a Buddhist thing.  My current landlord told me it’s done to protect a house from unwelcome spirits, and the Thai lady at the local store who gives everyone credit said it’s to keep ants out. Who’s right? Not everyone.

That’s why  I’ll be asking around, observing and interpreting, working to remember that culture in Soi 72-2 is like culture everywhere: not a puzzle to be solved, but rather something to be explored — and enjoyed.


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The Culture Issue – Vicky

Vicky Loras

Culture and Diversity – Our Mental Backpacks – Vicky Loras

My name is Vicky Loras. I teach English Language and Literature to students of all ages…and I am multicultural.

I was born and raised in Canada, by Greek parents who were also raised in Canada. My ancestors dating back to 300 years ago hail from France, then they moved to Italy, then Greece … before them, who knows?

If I ask you, some of you descend from one, two, perhaps more cultures, or know someone who is bicultural, multicultural. Your class as a total can be a multicultural hub, buzzing with countries, languages and various traditions and customs. It could be monocultural as well, which is also fine.

Our personal or other people’s experiences are a vast resource of ideas on multiculturalism that we can use in a classroom –a backpack we take with us in class mentally. The only difference from a real backpack is we never have to worry about packing it the night before, or carry it with us, or worry it is not full enough. It is always full and regardless of what class we teach, the age or level of students, there is a multitude of ideas we can implement in class. Why this specific topic, you may ask? The students can learn a great deal and so can we, as I believe educators can always learn alongside and from our students. Additionally, I believe that a classroom is not only a place for educators to teach and then let the students out of the room. It is a place where we can give our students values. It is a topic I have written about, read about, discussed with other educators. A lot ask me. Why use culture in class? What can it offer?

I will start with the younger students. I have them dig into their cultures and bring anything that has to do with them in class: be it a book of their country, a picture they have made themselves, a photo, an album, a souvenir, music, absolutely anything. They can even say a small phrase in their language. And then the magic begins. The children begin to participate as a group, and start asking each other amazing questions, without even being prompted. It is their natural curiosity which incites them.

Once, we took each child’s country and I gave all of them printouts with all the flags of the children’s countries. So they did not only do their own flag – they did all of them. We always talk when we are coloring (“May I have the pink, please?”, “Can you help me draw the head of my horse?”) so now they were asking each other questions like: “What colors are on the flag of your country?”, “Why?”, “Why is there a sun on your flag?” And the only thing you could hear inbetween were “wows” and “Do you hear Ms Vicky? My flag has the same colors as the other child’s!”

A good idea is to have a shelf or bookcase, even better, full of books on multiculturalism. Some titles are The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and The Crayon Box That Talked by Shane Derolf and Michael Letzig. I have some here with me…

It can also be difficult though. Once, I faced a difficult situation. I was at the very beginning of my career so my shock was double. I was teaching in Greece at a time when there was not a variety of people from other countries. I had a new packet of reward stickers with faces of children from around the world. I give a student the face of a child, a child from a different country, with a dark complexion. Then came the reaction:

  • No, no! I do not want that sticker!
  • Why?
  • Because she has darker skin and we do not.
  • Do you know why she has darker skin?
  • No.
  • Because she lives in a much hotter country than we do and her skin protects her from the sun. But no matter what her skin color is, she is like you. Perhaps she goes to school, she likes playing like you do…

…and that was his aha! moment. Children need you to talk to them. And they understand, no matter how young they are and I can guarantee you that. They listen and they understand. They notice things a lot. And it takes patience to show them the way and face any misconceptions they may have.

In our school that we had in Greece with my two sisters, on the walls we had pictures and posters of people from all over the world: the children noticed for instance the Native Americans who lived and live in Canada and the United States and asked questions about them. I had a poster of Martin Luther King in my classroom. Children as young as eight years old asked and understood notions of racism and equality. They came out of that class knowing who Dr. King was and what he did and for whom. And they came out of all the classes knowing things about people from all over the world. We continue the same in our new school here in Switzerland.

As educators, we are not there to impose our opinions, but to open their minds and accept diversity as something beautiful, because it is. I always ask them: wouldn’t it be a boring world, if we were all the same?

I recommend trying everything with our students and see their response. These can become excellent lessons full of values they can take with them for the rest of their lives.


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The Culture Issue – Kieran

Kieran Dhunna Halliwell

Why Think About Culture?  
– Kieran Dhunna Halliwell

Culture is a hot potato. It is the make-up of life and our environment, yet it is rarely discussed beyond food, clothes someone wears or a country of origin. When people talk about it, there seems to be safe areas to discuss, which allow for a superficial conversation to take place, but one which requires no real depth. For example, when talking with children I have been asked things such as “is everyone in India Hindu?” and “why do they wear funny clothes?” which I’m sure you will agree, are straight to the point and could be seen as narrow minded depending on the context, yet I have also met many adults who wonder the same things but do not openly put the questions forward. Instead, they wonder in silence. This has led to me wondering whether this happens due to a lack of confidence or whether it is because people don’t feel they are allowed to openly share their viewpoints. How do you feel about cultural conversations? How do you define culture?

Last month, I had the privilege of presenting at RSCON4 (Reform Symposium E-Conference 4) after being invited by Shelly Terrell and Clive Elsmore. My presentation, which can be seen here ( was based around the Culture Chat Project and how the teacher could be used as a resource.

The project ( began with a yr3/4 class in Oxfordshire and the format was simple; spend 15-20mins a day discussing culture, sharing knowledge and making links between our own experience and values, and those of others. To start the project off, I asked some friends who were travelling to write a blog for us, which could act as a stimulus for discussion. Links to these are available on the main Culture Chat site. For e-safety and to ensure they were appropriate, all blogs were uploaded by myself to sites linked with my google+ account.

Throughout the project, we referred to the link blogs and considered what we were learning, the traveller’s experience and compared life in other countries to our own in England. These blogs, coupled with my own recent travels to Nepal were the only resources we needed because  once the children began talking, they suddenly started adding in their own knowledge such as where their families had originated from, or asking questions which we would work together to find out. Parents took an interest and gave support too, creating a community feel around the project and opening communication channels between them and the school. The children were excited and often talked about it randomly throughout the day, showing that Culture Chat had motivated them and that they were making links. We showed the rest of the school what we’d been doing, so the whole school community could be involved and countries from around the world began visiting our website!

It was exploratory; a foot in the water for me, to see what children’s understanding of the world around them was. I was a new member of staff in a new area with no real plan for how the project would work, but despite this my new Head Teacher took a risk and allowed Culture Chat to go ahead! When the project began, I was nervous. I worried about what people would think. I worried I’d be laughed at. Most of all, I worried people wouldn’t want to talk openly about perspectives of the world. The atmosphere in Britain over the last 12 months has become less welcoming to foreigners, peaking over summer when the government backed a scheme of ‘Go Home’ vans being driven across London. The media regularly sensationalise reporting, but particularly in crimes relating to any ethnic minorities, which is resulting in a lack of tolerance, a divide, misconceptions and misunderstandings to seep into the public consciousness.


However, the seeing the benefit to the children has made it all worthwhile. During those short five weeks, they suddenly became engaged in the world around them and much more independent in their learning. They not only took an interest in the project in school, but also from home and many explored global learning with their parents and extended families too. I found out extra details about my class, which I wouldn’t otherwise have known, such as who had family from around the world, food preferences, holidays and most importantly, the children’s opinions, perceptions and feelings about the world around them. I learned things too. I realised I had the same mind-set that I described earlier in this piece – despite having thoughts about culture, I never really voiced them before the project. I assumed before a conversation started that people wouldn’t wonder the same things I did, or would think me narrow minded if I asked what would seem like obvious questions. These assumptions are what stop society from engaging in active discussion and are what is limiting understanding not only of culture, but of each other as human beings.


It is forty one years since John Lennon wrote the renowned song ‘Imagine’. In it, he refers to a world without war, where people are equal with no religion or countries and the world lives in peace. How much has changed since this song?

Culture Chat was born out of my dream for the future, one where people would be interested in culture, race and ethnicity beyond the superficial layers. Imagine a world where we appreciate each other. Imagine our children have an understanding of the world on a global scale, not just of their local community. Imagine a world where sharing our personalities, our backgrounds and our values are not perceived as a threat to the next person but as a way to make friends and enjoy discussing experiences and ideas. As far as general global history is concerned, we’ve had a prolonged spell of peace in comparison to previous centuries; if this is to continue, we must start working together now.


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The Culture Issue

What is culture? For Vicky Loras, culture is a mental backpack. For new iTDi blogger, Kieran Dhunna Halliwell it’s a hot potato, and for Chuck Sandy, it’s an exploration. Yet, what all three writers agree on is that there are many ways and activities we can do to help our students make sense of the cultures they live in and learn about. In this issue of the iTDi Blog, Vicky, Kieran, and Chuck offer insight, advice, and ways forward. Enjoy.

Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy
Vicky Loras
Vicky Loras
Kieran Dhunna Halliwell
Kieran Dhunna Halliwell

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