Visits to other ”planets” increases cultural understanding

A couple of weeks ago 1 had the honor to be a part of an odd little matriarchal society named Alpha. Its inhabitants, the Alphan, are known to be easygoing fun-loving people who simply love each other’s company. As a proud member I took part in the Alphan daily routine. We engaged in loud and lively conversations, mostly about the female members of our families and our female pets. We hugged and touched each other constantly and played our official alpha game, a game of cards nobody is completely positive about its rules.

In this little paradise planet, cleverly hidden in the rooms of the Vancouver Multicultural Society (VMS), men were not allowed to approach women without being invited to the conversation first.

My peaceful routine was interrupted when 1 was first sent to the foreign Beta land. Even though at first they looked the same as the Alphans, it was impossible to communicate with them since none of them spoke

English. The Betans were not interested in small talk or social games. They were business-oriented high achievers who accompanied their short sentences with mysterious body gestures. A fellow Alphan who returned from a visit simply described the experience as bizarre.

This exotic cultural experience was actually part of a unique cross-cultural game called Bafa Bafa. The participants came from various backgrounds, and included visiting Japanese students local teachers, board members and volunteers for VMS.

The Bafa Bafa simulates living and coping in a foreign culture. It can be an invaluable experience for business and sale persons who need to communicate with people from different cultures. It is also good preparation for anybody who plans to travel, study or work in a different country and for everybody else who lives in multicultural Canada. The game also comes in an elementary version for children.

The facilitator, Carl Beach, is a teacher from Surrey who was introduced to the American game a few years ago. Since then he has facilitated the game in dozens of elementary and high schools across the province. He has also trained teachers to facilitate the game to their students.

The real climax of the game is in the discussion afterwards. Only then do the participants analyze their actions and behavior. It was during the discussion that the participants faced their own stereotypic thinking and came to the understanding of how these stereotypes are formed and how easy it can be to misinterpret customs or ceremonies.

In the discussion the Betans described us Alphan as weird, loud and even drunken, while we described them as boring, cold and antisocial. Somehow, most of the adjectives used to describe the other group were negative and critical.

The confusion we all felt when we were thrown into the other room and into another culture turned to resentment and even hostility.

‘They’re just making strange gestures and sounds,” said one Alphan.

“They are really strange said another.

One man remembered he was afraid to visit Beta because of the reports of another Alphan. “It wasn’t that bad really,” he said after returning. The lesson learned, as Beach pointed out, is to regard other peoples’ judgments about other cultures with caution.

When asked how they felt while visiting the other group the participants recalled feeling out of place, uncomfortable, frustrated, confused and even scared. Emotions well-known to anybody who has visited a foreign culture for the first time.

At the end of the discussion, we were asked if we would have wanted to change groups if we had the option. Only three Betans raised their hands.

Even though we were a part of these groups for just a short time we had already developed a certain loyalty to it.

“I though that was quite interesting,” said Beach. “We expect immigrants in Canada to change right away. I hear people say things like, why can’t they be more Canadian? But it’s not that easy.”

The Bafa Bafa is just one of many interactive workshops that the VMS offers under the umbrella of social justice education. The workshops, relating to issues such as anti-racism, women’s issues, human rights and more, are open to anybody who wants to explore these issues in an informal way.

VMS is the oldest multicultural society in British Columbia and is primarily involved in coordinating public education projects that enhance knowledge and acceptance of diversity.