Posted By Michelle On Sunday, July 10, 2011, 10:20 PM in Blog

By Alexandria King

“The woman is like a cucumber”: this was a line from a Turkish students’ essay. “What do you mean by cucumber? Do you mean that she is green? That she is a cold woman?”. “No teacher, she is like a cucumber.” I continued to prod for meaning. Frustrated, the student returned to his fellow students to discuss the meaning. After much discussion, it was revealed that cucumber = ugly.

I spent three and a half years in Turkey, teaching English to young adults and encountered countless translation issues. What makes sense in one language does not necessarily make sense in another. I was often able to understand the meaning and help them change it in to a valid English translation, but oftentimes, I simply had to cross it out and ask the student to re-write it. This was quite frustrating as I wanted to help them improve their language skills, use English idioms and sayings, but I was too often at a loss trying to figure out their meaning.

Cross-cultural communication is challenging, but it is so important. As a Canadian teacher in Turkey, I was something of a novelty. Often viewed with suspicion as being too close to American or a non-Muslim, I opened up to the students and showed that I had nothing to hide. They asked thousands of questions about Canada and I answered them as best I could through pictures and stories. They taught me more about Turkey than I could ever have learned as a mere traveler. I learned about Turkish history, world history from a Turkish point of view, I was taught about football/soccer (“Teacher! How do you not like football!”), and they also tried to teach me Turkish.

The Western media paints the Islamic world in an unfavorable, biased light. While my students were far from extremists, I learned tons about their world and their religion. Never once did they shun me for being a non-Muslim (although, they did on occasion try to convert me) and they were always intrigued about my background and culture.

While our communication may not have been perfect and often incomprehensible, the fun we had trying to understand each other, and the relationships we built will be with me forever. Understanding the meanings and the sayings of another culture will help avoid potential misunderstandings and conflict. One needs to approach cross-cultural communication with patience and openness, and not take offense to something that may be mis-communicated. Travel, communication, and openness are what will change our world from the insular, fearful world we now have, and allow for greater understanding and friendships.

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