Comparative and International Education / Éducation
Comparée et Internationale
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Collaborating in (mis)translation: Opportunities
lost and found during a multi year exchange
program between Canada and China
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Collaborating in (Mis)translation: Opportunities Lost and Found during a Multi-Year
Exchange Program Between Canada and China
Collaborer à (l’erreur de) la traduction : Opportunités perdues et trouvées durant un
programme d’échange pluriannuel entre le Canada et la Chine
Terry Sefton, University of Windsor
Glenn Rideout, University of Windsor
Jonathan G. Bayley, University of Windsor
Three Canadian education faculty who collaborated with Chinese Canadian colleagues in leading trips to
China during a multi-year exchange program discuss their perceptions and experiences. Storytelling and photo
elicitation are used to build a visual and textual narrative. Narratives are used to map areas of familiarity, uncertainty,
obstacles, and discovery. Photographic images provide a framework for examining social practices and interpreting
personal experience through visible traces of teaching within physical spaces. A discussion on the role of
translation is particularly important to understand both opportunities grasped and opportunities missed. One of the
primary goals of exchange programs between universities is to build relationships between institutions, between
researchers, and between students. This paper examines some of the risks for increased conflict and provides
recommendations for building successful collaborations despite asymmetrical relations of power.
Trois professeurs canadiens d’éducation qui ont collaboré avec des collègues Sino-Canadiens en dirigeant
des voyages en Chine au cours d’un programme d’échange pluriannuel, discutent de leurs perceptions et de
leurs expériences. La narration et la photo-élicitation sont utilisées afin de construire un récit visuel et textuel.
Les histoires sont utilisées pour schématiser les domaines de familiarité, d’incertitude, d’obstacles et de
découvertes. Les images photographiques fournissent un cadre visant à examiner les pratiques sociales et à
interpréter l’expérience personnelle à travers les traces visibles d’enseignement dans les espaces physiques.
Une discussion sur le rôle de la traduction est particulièrement importante afin de comprendre à la fois les
opportunités saisies et les opportunités ratées. L'un des principaux objectifs des programmes d'échange entre
universités est la création de relations entre institutions, entre chercheurs, et entre étudiants. Ce document
examine quelques-uns des risques liés à la croissance de conflits et propose des recommandations visant à
construire des collaborations fructueuses en dépit des relations de pouvoir asymétriques.
Key words: international academic exchange, visual sociology, translation, international
teacher education, intercultural competence
Mots-clés: échange académique international, sociologie visuelle, traduction, formation
internationale des enseignants, compétence interculturelle
Reciprocal Learning Program
This paper grew out of the perceptions and experiences of Canadian education faculty who collaborated
with Chinese Canadian colleagues in leading trips to China during a multi-year exchange program. The
Faculty of Education of the University of Windsor is very fortunate to have a number of faculty
members who are Chinese. One of the Chinese faculty members initiated and secured funding for
international exchanges with a major university in China. For the past several years, students and
faculty from Canada and China have visited each other for extended periods of time, and embedded
themselves in each other’s programs. Each spring a non-Chinese faculty member and a Chinese
faculty member travel to China with 12 to 18 recent Bachelor of Education graduates, and spend
several weeks visiting schools in and around a major city in the southwest of China. Each fall a
cohort of 20 to 25 Chinese education students come to Canada with a “lead” teacher from their home
university, and embed themselves in the Education program for three months. This exchange has
had numerous benefits including Chinese students who return to Canada to pursue graduate
studies, Canadian students who return to China to pursue teaching positions, and long-term
friendships that are forged between Canadian and Chinese students. The exchange program has
continued to evolve, and now includes graduate students from Canada who are engaged in research
projects in China.
Previous research points to the benefit of international exchange participants developing
heightened awareness of the different educational practices and cultural and social values in other
countries (Black & Bernardes, 2014; Leng & Pan, 2013; Root & Ngampornchai, 2012; Besley,
2011; Walfish, 2001). Additional benefits for our faculty members have been the opportunity to
foster exchanges with colleagues in the partner country; to give lectures in their area of scholarship; and
to pursue research projects. The premise of the program was “reciprocal learning.” As Boud (1999)
[reciprocal learning] involves participants learning from and with each other in both formal and
informal ways. It includes mutual benefits and a sharing of knowledge, ideas and experience
among participants. The emphasis is on learning rather than teaching, and on the support and
encouragement learners offer to each other, as much as the learning task (p. 4).
Our experiences have been overwhelmingly positive; but they were not without friction, conflict,
and misunderstandings. Individual expectations and assumptions sometimes collided with experiences
that resulted in “cultural contestation,” as we tried to negotiate our place and role in cultural environments
where we had limited understanding of local and historical narratives (Holliday, 2013).
In discussing the experiences of the non-Chinese faculty who travelled to China, we found that
each of us went with different sets of expectations. The Reciprocal Learning program objectives are
another set of expectations. To set the stage, we will begin by providing the program objectives and what
each of our expectations were before we left for China. Our first person narratives will then be organised
under the themes familiarity, uncertainty, obstacles, and discovery. Without wanting to in any
way diminish the benefits, and while acknowledging the value of the program, we take a critical
look at relationships and lines of communication; of the ways in which Canadian faculty and non-
Canadian faculty often succeeded but also sometimes failed to work collegially or to communicate
effectively. We end by offering some recommendations that may help faculty who are engaged in
international projects to work together and achieve deeper and more meaningful levels of reciprocal
learning and intercultural competence.
Objectives and Expectations
The reciprocal learning project was established with funding from, in part, a university research
initiative fund, through generous partnership with the host university in China, and through students’
self-funded travel. The project organizers have since been awarded a major SSHRC grant which
assures its future for the next several years. The program describes its objectives as follows:
The goals of this program are to provide an exceptional experience with international engagement, to
broaden teacher candidates’ horizons for a society of increasing diversity, to foster international
collaboration among faculty members who are interested in cross-cultural studies, multicultural
education, and to enhance the international reputation of UW. (University of Windsor-Southwest
While the program has official objectives, and these have now been folded into a larger SSHRC
funded project that has extended and diversified those objectives, we each had individual expectations
and objectives that we hoped or anticipated we might experience.
Scholarship, Collaboration, and Mentorship (leadership)
Terry: As part of the first Canadian cohort, I had no firm idea about what the trip would mean or
what I would accomplish. I did plan a small research project that would use photographs and student
reflections, and so I completed a Research Ethics Board application before leaving Canada. I also
expected to observe art and music classes in the schools, as this is my area of specialization and
research; and I hoped to attend concerts and tour museums when the opportunity arose. One aspect
of my experience that surprised me was my inability to move or make decisions independently. I
consider myself a seasoned traveler, but I repeatedly found limits to my independence, sometimes due
to external factors such as the security concerns of the organisers, sometimes due to my own lack
of skills or confidence at navigating in a country where few speak English and where even
decoding street signs is impossible. I assumed I would be a co-leader of the group and take some
responsibility for the well-being of our students, but I soon discovered that I did not have the tools,
linguistic or social, to be effective as a leader.
Glenn: I expected to fill the role of a visiting scholar and educational ambassador on behalf of the
Faculty of Education at my home university. As such, I expected that I would have the opportunity to
share publicly my research, and would enter into scholarly discussion with my counterparts at
Southwest University. Secondly, I expected that I would have many opportunities to observe schooling
in a variety of settings and to interact with both teachers at those schools, and with the professors
at Southwest University who would be facilitating these visits. Thirdly, I believed that I would
facilitate interactions between the Canadian students and the “host” students who were also enrolled in
teacher education programs.
My expectations were only partially fulfilled. Students came to hear my lecture in order to
listen to English, not my scholarship, and very few faculty members attended. I observed many
classrooms, but there was no genuine opportunity to debrief about the pedagogies in play. The third
expectation was not met. At the end of the Canadian student workshops, the Canadians met as a
group to debrief among ourselves, but there was no opportunity to debrief with the professors
whose students attended the workshops, or with the students themselves.
Jonathan: My expectations were of three different though connected roles, as faculty member, as
collaborator, and as faculty advisor. As faculty member, I expected to represent my home university in
publicand in closed-door meetings during my time in China. I anticipated involvement in formal
presentations (e.g., conferences, guest lectures) and informal meetings with Chinese faculty and
students in my subject area (music). While I had considerable interaction with music students, I had no
official contact with music faculty. I feel this was a lost opportunity for me as well as the Chinese
faculty members, to build relationships of authentic reciprocity.
I hoped that I would develop ongoing scholarly and artistic collaborative relationships with
colleagues in China, working with academic counterparts on joint research. I did not expect artistic
interactions that would be truly collaborative, due to the diverse musical traditions in each country.
However, I did hope there would be opportunities to experience each other’s artistic heritage and share
newfound knowledge with our students.
As a faculty member travelling with students, I perceived my responsibilities to involve
overseeing student activities, supporting them during our time in China, and developing a more
meaningful relationship than is possible in a classroom setting (Grimsaeth, Nordvik, & Bergsvik,
2008). However, Canadian faculty had very little personal or legal control over student behaviour while
in China as the “students” had already completed their undergraduate degree and were adults.
We each travelled to China with separate cohorts of students in different years. Our research is a
retroactive analysis of our experiences that came about initially through storytelling, as we shared our
experiences with each other. We began to use photographs to elicit further stories and to interrogate our
own and each other’s stories. Finally, as we constructed areas of shared experience and identified areas
of difference, we also acknowledged the impossibility of direct equivalency between experience
and the narration of that experience, as the teller and the listener “translate” stories into their own
understanding. This is analogous to the gap that we all experienced in a profound and repeated way
during our travels, as we struggled to understand what was happening, or anticipate what was about
to happen, and waited for someone to translate or mediate our understanding of events. During
these stages of inquiry, we used photo elicitation and visual ethnography, autoethnography, and
theories of translation.
Just as text carries the potential for multiple interpretations and is written and read within
cultural and textual practices, the photograph operates in a complex of representational, aesthetic,
symbolic, and social practices that all contribute to its significance—to its meaning (Harper, 2005).
Visual sociology is a methodology that places the visual at the centre of the research process
(Chaplin, 1994, Mah, 2007). Images are ubiquitous in contemporary society, and the advent of
digital technology has made the constructing and sharing of images accessible and immediate.
Images of classrooms and schoolyards, staffrooms and hallways, can be mined for cultural and
institutional practices (Sommer, 2001; Prosser, 2007). Photographs from different cultures present an
image at a distance from the standpoint of the viewer, the distance of time or a distance of space
and place. The viewer sees through a lens of difference, of interpretation, of displacement. The
act of looking is an act of translation.
Each of us took photographs to document our observations of schools and classrooms, and of
our Canadian students interacting with Chinese students, as well as to capture more typically
tourist photographs of culturally significant sights. As we reviewed each other’s photographs, we
asked questions: about the object or event that is the subject of the photograph; about why the
photographer chose the subject and framed the image in a certain way; and what story the photograph
told. The photographs support the stories, but not always in an obvious way. An image may
contain things present, things absent, relationships of power, structured activity, architectural and
pedagogical contexts, or suggest pre- and post-photo activity. Some of these elements are explicit,
some are implicit, and others may be emergent or associative to the analytical eye.
Autoethnography takes narratives of personal experiences and situates them within social
context and cultural practices (Ellis, 2004; Holman Jones, 2005). We positioned ourselves as both
“knowers and tellers” (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005, p. 962). By sharing our stories and
photographs with each other, we were able to reinterpret some of our experiences in the light of
shared narratives. Stacy Holman Jones (2005) identifies key features of autoethnography as including
“partiality, reflexivity, and citationality as strategies for dialogue” and “dialogue as a space of
debate and negotiation” (p. 773). The reflective and retrospective act of looking at images months or
years after they were taken, and of retelling stories that sometimes felt risky (stories of personal
embarrassment or confusion or conflict), gave each of us a sense of connection and of making
meaningful dialogue out of what may have seemed isolated events. Our partial understandings
gained a sense of wholeness, or at least, validation, through matching and contrasting the pieces
each of us had gathered. To maintain the separateness of each, our stories will be told in first
person narratives and through images identified by the photographer.
All translations are “ethical-political acts” (Davis, 2001). Our experiences in China were often
shaped by the mediating effect of translation or mistranslation. It is not surprising that communication
presented particular challenges where one colleague spoke the local language and the other did not.
This asymmetrical relationship operated on a number of levels—the Chinese colleague was always
“a step ahead” by dint of being recognized by others as the spokesperson or as occupying a position
of greater status, and by virtue of speaking the local language and therefore getting information
literally before everyone else. Every conversation, with the Chinese students, the host university
administration, the host university colleagues, had to be translated. Although a few of the Chinese
professors spoke English, the non-Chinese colleagues were entirely dependent on their Chinese
colleague to make arrangements, communicate changes to the agenda, negotiate and mediate every
transaction or interaction.
Almost every traditional definition of translation stems from the idea of equivalence, from the
possibility of replacing a text for one written in the target language. Today, in the era of
globalization, it is obvious that translating does not mean saying the same thing, but saying
almost the same thing. And besides, we must always bear in mind how difficult it is to define that
thing and never forget that we are often seriously uncertain of what saying means (Claramonte,
2009, p. 41).
Both linguistically and culturally, there is a possibility of getting something almost right,
but also of getting something almost wrong. Gutiérrez (2012) points out that “meaning does not
lie in isolated words or expressions, but in discourse; the utterer’s intention or meaning; the self-
reference of the speech event; and its temporal character” (p. 47). The element of relationship is
rarely discussed, but trust is vital to communication that has to pass through a mediator. When we
arrived at the host university, each Canadian student was assigned a Chinese “buddy.” The buddy
was both guide and translator, and in many cases became a good friend. The job of translating was to
explain what was happening and being said in the classrooms we visited, to help the Canadians
with excursions to shops, and to orient them in a vast and confusing campus. The buddies were all
picked on the basis of their English language skills and their academic excellence as well as their
intention to travel to Canada with the exchange program. The support of the buddies was paramount
to the security and enjoyment as well as the learning of the Canadian students.
As noted by Claramonte, “translating means enabling interaction between cultures whose
mutual relationship is, in many cases, asymmetrical” (Claramonte, 2009, p. 42). Each of us told
stories that in some way hinged on experiences of mistranslation, and of relationships that were
Terry: My trip began in the fall of 2010 when I was asked if I would come to China with the first
cohort. The organizer and I quickly began to gather interested students and started planning. The
Chinese faculty colleague invited us to learn Tai Chi as an informal introduction to Chinese culture.
This was of particular interest to me as I am a musician and Tai Chi is a marriage of sound and motion.
My colleague was an excellent teacher—patient and willing to break down the sequences into
manageable parts, and present them as parts of a larger story. This was a positive beginning, but
the activity also gestured toward an asymmetrical relationship. I would always be the follower,
uncertain, often stumbling over what I could not anticipate, and struggling to master the most basic
elements—the correct order of steps, or the hierarchal relationships between those who would be, in
one way or another, part of the dance.
Glenn: My trip to China in 2012 was shared with 12 graduates from the Faculty of Education, and
my Chinese colleague. He and I had been friends at the faculty for a number of years; from the
outset, during the planning and coordination of the trip, I anticipated a very strong personal comfort
level with him. It was my understanding that he would be the leader of the group, that I was
accompanying the group as a cultural ambassador from our faculty, and that I would share in the
leadership of the group and fully participate in the activities as they unfolded in China.
Additionally, I was invited to address faculty and graduate students at Southwest University. My
Chinese colleague and I worked well together, and shared responsibility and decision-making.
Several times when we were introduced or were seen together, it was assumed that I was the
“distinguished professor” from Canada, and that my Chinese colleague was my personal assistant
or interpreter, which could have been embarrassing; but we both just laughed.
On each of the Friday afternoons, our students presented a series of workshop sessions in
which they presented prepared material and demonstrated a social constructivist approach to
teaching and learning in Canada. The Canadian presenters were surprised that the constructivist
approach was unfamiliar to the Chinese teacher candidates. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity
to discuss or compare this pedagogy to Chinese pedagogical traditions; there were no Chinese
faculty present, and it appeared that the students were there purely from an interest in practicing
their English. Figure 1 shows two Canadian students presenting; the PowerPoint slide describes
an activity during which students participate in a drama improvisation. Props for the activity sit
unused on a table at the front. Most of the Chinese students sit passively while one student in the
foreground is using a translation app on her cell phone. There is an obvious gap between what the
Canadians are attempting to demonstrate and the response of the Chinese attendees. What the
photograph also reveals is an assumption of teaching rather than of reciprocal exchange; the
presenters stand at the front giving a slide presentation, while the audience sit passively at desks.
Figure 1 Canadian student presentation
Jonathan: Until I visited China, Canadian and American media had formed my only understanding of
China. Given this limited knowledge and minimal intercultural experience, I naively perceived
China as one of two social-cultural-economic realities: a rural (agricultural) existence; and an
industrial powerhouse comprised of enormous factory complexes. I was mistaken.
My first lesson in how I would have to adjust my sense of the familiar occurred the morning
after we arrived in Beijing. The Chinese faculty member that I was travelling with suggested that
we venture out into the community for breakfast where it would be less expensive and would offer
a truer sense of China. The walk to the breakfast place was invigorating—new smells, new
sights—and we eventually arrived at a very small eating-place consisting of only six to eight tables.
Most of the patrons looked up from their meals and looked at me with a facial expression as if they
had never seen a non-Chinese person before. At least, this was my impression. As a White male,
I have been accustomed to being a member of the dominant culture, regardless of where I have
travelled. For once I was different, an outlier. I was fascinated by this cultural reversal. I wondered
what they must have thought was different about me besides visual appearance. From this experience,
it became clear to me that intercultural competence represented much more than the acquisition of
facts and figures pertaining to a specific culture (Knutson, 2006). A more complete awareness of
cultural competence takes into account the fact that one cannot come fully prepared for, or
anticipate, meaningful engagement.
Terry: I entered into the trip with some trepidation, for even though I have travelled extensively I
had never travelled to Asia. I bought a dictionary and a teach-yourself Mandarin CD. I read about the
history of China. I asked for the itinerary for the five weeks we were to spend in China and I
studied it carefully. Each day was laid out and almost every hour seemed accounted for. It assuaged
some of my worry. After a 13-hour flight to Beijing and another connecting three-hour flight, we
flew into our destination near midnight. The next morning, I ventured out on my own into the hot
humid day and walked to the university gates. Traffic streamed by at a frightening rate. Across
the road I could see restaurants, their fronts open to the air, with vertical strips of plastic that
flickered and swayed, but I could not figure out how to cross the street. There was no greater safety
at a marked crosswalk pedestrians than there was anywhere else as cars, trucks, bicycles, and scooters
drove by. Workers carrying bundles, housewives pulling shopping carts, darted part way across the
street in what seemed acts of madness, stopping between lanes to wait for another gap (Figure 2).
I gave up, and walked back to the hotel where I ran into my Chinese colleague. She led me out of
the university grounds by a different route, crossing the busy road at a pedestrian overpass. I
pointed out the restaurant I wanted to try. The interior seemed dark at first, until my eyes adjusted:
huge barrels of dumplings and rice steamed, orders were shouted, the floor was sticky underfoot,
workers came in and threw themselves down on stools and smoked, while through the plastic strips
we could see pedestrians flowing by and hear the roar of the traffic. For the time being, I was
content to be a duckling, protected by my “Chinese mother” (as my colleague referred to herself).
Figure 2 Traffic
The next day we were to visit the first school. Every day would begin much like this one:
we gathered in the lobby of the university hotel; buddy students from Southwest University would
arrive to guide and translate for our students; my Chinese colleague would appear and start herding
the group; we would depart on foot, by bus or by multiple taxis to some destination that was rarely
part of the schedule in the printed handbook. Figure 3 shows the morning gathering, the Chinese
colleague the centre of attention. All the details for the day are being given orally. One student
has her printed handbook open—but the handbook contained no details of school name, address,
or contact information. I soon realized that the schedule was an idea rather than a plan or
description: it described an intent or model, but the details were in constant flux.
Figure 3 Morning gathering
I had arrived at the lobby early, with a clipboard in hand. I ticked off students as they
arrived, and then, at the last moment, I went back upstairs to get a gift for the school we were to
visit. When I returned the group had left. I ran out to the university gates and looked up and down the
road. There was a mass of humanity, but no one I recognized. I had no idea what the name of the
school was nor the address. I could not speak to the people at the hotel—they spoke no English.
I did not have a cell phone or any way to communicate with my colleague. Uncertain what to do,
I sat and waited. An hour later a Chinese student came to find me. I was no longer a duckling,
safe in the flock. I was wholly dependent on others. It was sobering. The Canadian students were,
in a sense, safer, as they moved everywhere with their Chinese buddies.
Glenn: Before we left Canada, I was told that I had been invited to speak about my research
interests to Chinese graduate students and some faculty. I was a little intimidated about this and
took considerable time to prepare a presentation of my research on teacher candidates’ philosophical
orientations to education. It contained fairly technical language and fine-grained detail that I believed
would be of interest to an audience that I assumed would be graduate students and researchers.
Instead, about 100 undergrads with two or three graduate students, and one or two professors who
were there as part of the Reciprocal Learning program, turned up to hear my presentation. This
left me feeling uncertain as to how to proceed, as it became clear that these students had come to
participate in a session presented by a native English speaker, rather than for any specific interest in my
field of study. It revealed to me that the focus of the trip was more on building relationships
between the universities and creating opportunities in which Chinese students could be
internationalized than it was about sharing ideas and research. Perhaps the organizers of the event
knew who would attend such a session, but it did not seem important to them that this was a
“scholarly” event. They appeared content that it was an “event.”
We visited the Forbidden City during our stay in Beijing. After spending hours viewing
the artefacts and learning about the dynasties that had held power and shaped Chinese culture, we
exited past a lone protestor. I did not know then and I still am not clear on what this protest was
about, even though I attempted to get an answer from three Chinese individuals, including our tour
guide. Most importantly, with regard to the purpose of this paper, when I revisited this photo a
year later, my eye focused less on the protester and more on the crowd around him (Figure 4). A
group of Chinese women in yellow shirts (part of another tour group) appear to be unhappy with
the presence of this protestor. Their negative reaction seems to be exacerbated by an obvious
outsider (me) taking a photograph. But how much is getting lost in tran slation? Mistranslation
may have occurred regarding what I was told about the protest message by the tour guide and by
other Chinese colleagues; the women in the yellow shirts may have misunderstood my reason for
taking a photograph of the protester; and I may be misinterpreting their facial expressions. The idea of
equivalence is central to traditional concept of translation (Claramonte, 2009). Is there equivalence
between my assumptions about the roles of individual activism and of public dissent within
society, and the assumptions of my hosts?
This photo crystallized some of the questions that were stewing in the back of my mind the
whole time we were in China. I did not really understand why we were there. I felt that it was very
difficult or impossible to get straight answers about who was bearing the cost; why we visited only
certain kinds of schools; whether there was a particular image-building agenda that was being
coordinated from a centralized location; or whether we were recipients of gracious Chinese hospitality
that had no hidden agenda. That sense of uncertainty remains.
Figure 4. Protester
Jonathan: As time passed, my lack of Chinese language often proved to be an inconvenience, and
at times became a concern. Little things, such as not being able to communicate to the person on the
evening desk that my bathroom light bulb burnt out, proved to be a challenge. “Is it possible to
have it replaced,” I asked? Neither one of us understood the other; I was abruptly shooed away.
When I gave a presentation to a class of university music students, it was necessary to use
two translators. For the most part, this proved successful. However, I was never informed if these
students were part of an assigned class or came to my presentation of their own accord. During
my talk, I posed a few questions to the students but the response was very noncommittal. I had no
way of knowing if these students understood my questions or if they were too shy to respond.
However, after the presentation, a number of students came up to me and posed specific questions
relating to my chosen topic. It was only during this post-presentation interaction that I realised that
there were a number of the students who understood some of my talk and were inquisitive to learn
more. My uncertainty about who the students were, what their prior knowledge was, or their
motivation for attending, made it very difficult to achieve the ideal of reciprocal “sharing of
knowledge, ideas and experience among participants” (Boud, 1999).
We each experienced a lack of shared responsibility with our Chinese colleagues for planning and
input. The schedule would change without notice, we would find out about events minutes before they
happened, and we had little or no input into planning. When we asked why, the response was: “it’s
complicated;” “others are going to a lot of trouble to make arrangements;” “you should be grateful
for what is provided.” Questioning these arrangements felt like churlishness, or ungratefulness,
or unreasonable demands. In many cases, we found that the path of least resistance was to surrender
any sense of oneself as a leader, as a scholar, or as an independent agent.
Terry: I planned a trip with a couple of students, to take public transit to visit the zoo and see the
pandas. When one of our Chinese hosts found out about our plans, it triggered a flurry of behind-
the-scenes organizing that resulted in a car, a driver, and a translator accompanying us. After
visiting the zoo, the students and I asked if we could stop for “hot pot.” This triggered a further
flurry of phone calls between the translator and (I assume) the organizers, and we were taken to a
distant restaurant and served an extravagant meal. I could not tell if we were being taken care of
for our safety and comfort, or whether we were being supervised. While I was very grateful for
the assistance, I felt again both a sense of obligation and a sense of confusion—I had no idea whom
to thank, and I felt guilty for causing my hosts to go to so much trouble. My repeated attempts to
break through the invisible threads that surrounded us were not intended to cause trouble. Rather,
they were resurgent moments of my North American assumptions of independence and freedom of
movement, seemingly clashing with my host’s sense of responsibility for my safety and of
hospitality. After five weeks I was in an altered state, working against the pull of my internal
gyroscope, unbalanced and not always able to find the appropriate response to even simple problems.
Glenn: We spent a considerable amount of time visiting schools in the region. This appeared to
be closely managed and was very staged; we never got to a “peasant” school or a rural school. We
visited a school for the blind in a village in the mountains (Figure 5). This was a showpiece school,
modern, bright, and spacious; the students all appeared to be physically well cared for, wearing
uniforms, and supplied with Braille resources; but there was no integration. This school was far
removed from the mainstream of Chinese everyday life. They showed us the school and then, as
happened at many other sites we visited, they asked our delegation, “Do you have any advice for
us?” As Canadian educators, we hear this question in the context of Canadian norms, of integration
or mainstreaming, of Individual Education Plans (IEP) for students who need accommodations, of
providing equitable treatment to ensure each individual has the opportunity to succeed. But
because we believed that the Chinese school system did not follow this approach of integration,
we were not going to ask a school administrator, “Why are they segregated?” We seemed to be
valued as representatives of a different culture, but there was no real opportunity for us to hear any
of the thinking behind why things were done in a particular manner, that is, whether there was an
explicit strategy and clearly articulated desired outcomes associated with this type of segregated
learning environment. Neither was there a genuine opportunity for us to share our experiences with
our hosts. There was interaction but no real dialogue. Instead, it seemed as though there was an
attempt to imprint a message on us that we would take home. What that message was seemed to
get lost in translation.
Figure 5 School for the blind
Obstacles were evident before we left Canada. During planning meetings, I experienced a
great deal of obfuscation and very few direct answers. It was hard to get anyone to say, “You cannot
go on this trip unless you sign here.” In these planning sessions, which were led by a Chinese
colleague, I felt that I was too strong in my Canadian forthrightness. Sometimes the implicit message
appeared to be, “You are being too strong; you will be in trouble if you speak like that in China.”
While there was excellent communication between the Chinese and Canadian faculty members
who were facilitating this initiative, cultural differences seemed in this case to create confusion, or
at least leave room for ambiguity and lack of clarity. This had an impact on our Canadian students
who were used to receiving direct instruction on procedure and performance expectations. In
retrospect, I believe that the messages regarding procedure and performance were communicated, but
based on cultural norms there was a mistranslation of these messages into “suggestions” as opposed
to “directives.” As a result of things left unsaid, or implied but not explained, problems arose within
the group with regard to coherence and consistency.
Jonathan: While in China, we had an opportunity to visit a number of elementary and middle schools.
Two of the schools had official connections with our host university. During the tours, we were
allowed to observe teachers teach, talk to the students and, on occasion, meet with administrators
or school representatives. As a music educator, I pushed to have music and visual arts a part of
our daily tours and classroom experiences. Despite feeling somewhat of a nuisance, I continued
to interject my wishes with respect to our daily visits. I perceived that my requests to experience
arts education in each of our school settings was outside of the predetermined itinerary. I did
manage to spend time in a music classroom on two occasions and I once observed a visual arts
class that was engaged in calligraphy.
Much of our time was devoted to observing children who were engaged in non-arts subjects.
Despite classrooms where students often sat in pairs, I did not see evidence of peer learning. Figure
6 shows a teacher at the front of the room, directing all activities, and students responding to the
teacher’s questions. Students did not ask questions or initiate activities, and there was no peer to
peer discussion. I wondered about what possibilities there could be for the creative arts in such an
environment. I observed a music class in which the teacher was using solfège, a European system of
sight singing (although the Chinese system uses numbers rather than notes) to teach a song. The
pedagogy remained teacher-directed, with students learning by rote. However, my observations
were based on such a small, predetermined sample that I cannot say whether it is representative of
music education in China.
Figure 6 Teacher-directed pedagogy
Each of the cohorts visited a dozen schools of all ages and academic streams; attended lectures
given by our hosts; gave talks and workshops, including lectures on research and on the Canadian
system of teacher education; travelled to revered cultural sites; and were entertained and feted at
meals and other special events. We learned a great deal, especially about the extraordinary generosity
and kindness of our hosts and of the people we met in the streets and byways of China. While our
status and our role fluctuated depending on the context, we were most aware of social positioning
during formal events. As members of the Canadian middle class, accustomed to the more casual
approach to class of those who already enjoy a level of financial and educational status and
privilege, some of the abrupt repositioning created a sort of psychic whiplash as we adjusted from
invisible and unacknowledged (trailing behind a cohort of students) to high table (seated beside
the university president).
Terry: The second last day at Southwest University, I was asked whether I would like to meet the
cello professor. I was very excited, as I had repeatedly asked if this could happen. A student
arrived to guide me to the music building and to translate for me. As we entered the Music Faculty,
I saw a curving hallway with doors at intervals along both sides, and from behind every door came
the sound of singing, of pianos badly out of tune, and of traditional string instruments playing
Chinese music. I felt a tingling of recognition. This place was the archetypal space of my Western
music education: the darkened halls and the constant cacophonous din from the sweat-soiled,
always-occupied practice rooms. We walked slowly down the hall and I paused often to lean my
ear into the sounds coming from behind shut doors. We met a singer who sang an Italian aria for us,
reading from sheet music that was lines of numbers (Chinese system of notation); we met a young
man wearing a New York t-shirt who performed a Bach Air for us on the traditional Chinese erhu.
Each was practising in a room barely large enough for an upright piano and a chair, with windows
open to the heat and humidity, and walls smudged from people leaning against them (Figure 7).
Figure 7 Practice rooms
We climbed to the next floor where fewer doors implied larger studios. The cello professor
beamed from ear to ear as I shook his large warm hand. We talked stiltedly through the translator.
I gestured to a cello and the professor eagerly handed it to me. I played a movement of a Bach Suite.
I handed the cello to him. He played the next movement of the same Bach Suite. We laughed and
sent the translator away. We spent the next hour playing for each other and playing duets with each
other. In the end we shook hands, and at that moment the translator (magically, it seemed)
reappeared. She told us that it was all arranged, that we would be playing at the gala event the
next day. I felt compelled to say yes; but I also suddenly felt competent in a way I had not for all
the time in China. Admittedly, I had found common ground with my Chinese counterpart by
playing Western music on Western instruments. It should be pointed out that European music
traditions as well as pop variants are to be heard in many venues in China today, and it is not at the
expense of traditional Chinese music. In universities and conservatories, traditional instruments are
taught alongside Western ones, and those diverse traditions are heard everywhere: a group of
students play a guzheng in the school cafeteria just for fun; on the streets one hears American (style)
pop music sung in Chinese; at social gatherings everyone seems ready to stand up and sing, often
songs from their traditional cultures. These are the blurred genres of modern China, a kind of
“mixed tape” of traditions and influences. This is what I discovered: the structures and activities
in music schools in China are more familiar than strange; the familiar can be both very old and
very new; and doors can open when you stop pushing on them.
Glenn: My first discovery was that I was valued as a Westerner, not as a scholar. The students
and the school staff, while courteous, were most interested in showing what they could do, but did not
ask what we could do. We played the role of cultural ambassador, giving out Canadian pins. We
did not seriously engage in educational activity from a research or scholarship perspective.
My second discovery was to question my assumptions. What I was told: the “reality” of
the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests was that Chinese students were protesting for a return to
traditional Chinese values, and a rejection of the West. What I was not told: the mystery protester and
the meaning of his message. All of these seem in some strange and incongruent way to be
consonant with a message at the underlying macro level that not everything is what it seems.
Despite this, individuals such as the hosts to our exchange group can further positive change and
can continue to build openness and trust at the micro level. Perhaps this is the most hopeful
discovery, that despite misunderstandings and miscommunication, despite disappointments and
occasional friction, relationships at the micro level were being built and groundwork was being
laid for future exchanges.
Jonathan: Given the extreme day-to-day existence (food, traffic, washrooms, accommodations,
density of population), I was surprised that I truly loved many aspects of my journey. I looked
forward to the morning ritual of going to the Southwest University cafeteria, meeting the Chinese
children in their schools, experiencing wonderful new tastes and sights, and eventually, becoming
familiar with local landmarks. By the end of my sojourn, I wanted to return to China and teach.
During my time in China I had two opportunities to experience, in an authentic way, traditional
Chinese instruments: the pipa and the guzheng (multi-string instruments). Both students and faculty
were given a workshop on the guzheng. After some instruction from our tutor, we took turns playing
this instrument. Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience of being able to actually handle and
play the instrument; and then a music student gave a performance that showed the full potential
and virtuosity of the instrument. On another occasion, one of the music students gave me instruction
on the pipa and lent me her instrument for a few days. This proved to be challenging. I discovered
that the pipa was much more difficult to perform, despite my skill in playing Western wind instruments.
Our group followed the protocols set out at the beginning of each school tour. In some schools we
were free to wander and visit classrooms as we wished; in others there was a strict schedule for
how many students could visit which classrooms and in what order; at yet others there were
classrooms that we were asked not to disturb due to exam preparation. Most often we were
encouraged not to linger too long, but to move from classroom to classroom. We travelled in small
groups, as there was little room to spare in the packed classrooms, with one of the Chinese buddies
as translator. We visited schools that were very modern, with technology and beautiful grounds,
and schools that were old and in a state of decay. What was consistent though, was the density:
classrooms held up to 60 students in a space no larger than a North American classroom that would
typically hold 30. Students at every grade level had piles of books stacked on their desks. Personal
space seemed almost non-existent. In one multi-story school the students played games and
skipped in the halls, as there was no other recreational space. Only rarely did we see a purpose-
specific classroom such as a science, art, or music room. On the other hand, calligraphy was on
display in every school, as framed quotes on hall walls, as art class activity, or as a showpiece for
visitors. One such demonstration space was a circular gallery displaying calligraphy, with desks set
around a dramatic pillar of light (Figure 8). Students sat at each desk and created scrolls with
Chinese poems and Confucian sayings, and then presented them as gifts to the visitors. We did
not see gymnasia; however, we all witnessed the daily massed exercises that students did in the
playing fields (organized and choreographed with military precision) to music blasting out of
speakers, led by model students. We saw different applications of specialized curriculum; it just was not
always in a form we recognized.
Figure 8 Calligraphy gallery/demonstration classroom
The three of us had different experiences due to a number of existential factors: we are
different people, with different expectations and prior experience; we travelled with different Chinese
colleagues; we went in subsequent years—so the first group may have enjoyed a “honeymoon”
relationship with the hosts. The students in the cohorts were different, and their prior experience,
maturity, and attitude may have inflected the dynamics between visitors and hosts. During the
first days of each trip, we all seemed to labour under the illusion that we were co-leaders, but this
only caused embarrassment or confusion. Terry’s Chinese colleague was the founder of the program
and the clear leader of the group; all communication happened through her. Glenn’s colleague
enjoyed being incognito, and having Glenn treated as the leader, while he pretended to be the
translator or assistant. Jonathan’s colleague went out of his way to make sure that Jonathan had
constant support, though Jonathan also had the experience of sitting through meetings at which no
translation was offered. The program founder was active behind the scenes even during years that
she was not travelling with the group. Having said that, the administration of every school took
great care to be hospitable; to sit down with us, often with some of their teachers, to field questions,
and to offer us refreshments. Our arrival and departure was observed with a sort of ritual fanfare,
arriving to (typically) a prominent banner welcoming us by name, and leaving to the sight of
students leaning from windows and waving at us. Only rarely were we able to hang back, and
appreciate a level of invisibility, to occasionally slip away from the pack and move through the
school halls, observing those corners that had not been prepared for us, or interactions between
teachers and students that were unscripted.
Relationships and Intercultural Competency
The exchange program has built relationships between colleagues in our faculty who have travelled
together, shared experiences, and pursued research projects. It built bridges between our universities:
multiple cohorts have now travelled between the two countries, university administrators have
visited both institutions, and our university has developed a new international master’s program
that recruits students globally, but primarily from China. The benefits are obvious and real. There
is a shadow side, however, to some of the experiences we have described, and to the asymmetry that
was inevitable in travelling to a country with one colleague who is an insider and one colleague who
is an outsider. Each of the three pairs that travelled together had different experiences, and worked
out the asymmetry in different ways, sometimes with humour, sometimes with graciousness. But
there are risks and benefits to any undertaking of this size, and the possibility for conflict is one of
them. What Mona Baker calls “translational behaviour” is at the root of most misunderstandings
(Chesterman, 2008), and at times contributes to conflict in what is already a difficult situation.
Baker points out that narrative theory can provide insight into translational behaviour, because “it
makes you constantly aware that you are not analyzing other people’s narratives from a privileged
position but from a specific narrative location that restricts your own vision in specific ways”
(Chesterman, 2008, p. 11).
In building new relationships, maintaining or deepening old relationships, the currency of
talk is essential, and the way in which we tell stories about ourselves and about the world is a way
of performing identity for others. English is a second language for many people in China now,
and many of the university faculty and administrators have some fluency in English. But there
still remain times when translation is looked for and needed. For both the speaker and the receiver
of translated narratives, the challenge is to find ways to resolve points of incoherence between
experience and the narration of experience. It may be enough to recognize that translation, both in
the literal sense of renarrating from one language to another as well as in the figurative sense of
reinterpreting from one cultural or narrative frame to another, will never be equivalent. As Baker
says, “we know we shall never reach complete understanding of anything, I suppose; but we can
still try to understand a bit better” (Chesterman, 2008, p. 27). In any cross-cultural encounter, one
continuously monitors the degree of conflict that occurs and makes decisions as how to best
respond. There is (and should be) a degree of diplomacy involved in all responses to conflict and
dissonance. The degree to which such behaviour occurs will vary depending on the individual’s
personality, the level of perceived conflict, and the imagined response from those involved.
Whether one speaks of it as social graces or diplomacy will depend on the lens one uses to make
sense of intercultural engagement.
Our university is one of many that have embarked on international programs and partnerships
with other universities. These types of programs date back to the 1950s when university students
were encouraged to “study abroad” (Root & Ngampornchai, 2012). There has, however, been an
assumption of benefits without a critical examination of actual outcomes. The preparation of both
faculty and students has been focused more often on organisational aspects than actual preparation for
intercultural experiences or developing intercultural awareness. The concepts and attributes of
intercultural competence include “intercultural awareness (cognitive), intercultural sensitivity
(affective), and intercultural adroitness (behavioural)” (Root & Ngampornchai, 2012, p. 516). A
grounding in these concepts would provide a framework for preparation as well as for discussions and
reflections during and after the exchange.
Interculturalism “implies interaction and more of a relationship between people” (Besley,
2011, p. 10). How that interaction is managed and navigated is complex and individual differences
and motives will play a part. The Reciprocal Learning has received substantial national funding
as part of a multi-institutional research project. The exchange is one of our faculty’s “service
learning” programs that are intended to attract Canadian preservice students to our university.
Students from previous Chinese cohorts return to our faculty for graduate work, which contributes to
the financial stability of our faculty within the university. The individual motives of each participating
faculty member, the goals of the Reciprocal Learning project, the marketing of the service learning
program as a commodity, all form a complex dynamic of push and pull.
The focus of this paper is on the experience of non-Chinese faculty members, and within
the context of the larger institutional and program goals, it is understandable that we would have
limited control. However, where we could conceivably improve our experience would be in cooperation
and dialogue. To paraphrase Besley (2011), reciprocity implies interaction and more of a relationship
between people (p. 31). This might mean more planning for the faculty members to connect with
colleagues in their field, and a more “reciprocal interculturalism” which would mean acknowledging
and valuing differences of identity and experience of faculty and students of both host and visitor
institutions (Soong, Tran, & Hiep, 2015). It could also mean more preparation by faculty members to
develop and acquire the tools and concepts of intercultural awareness, so that they are better able
to contribute to the students’ experience, by developing a pedagogy of intercultural competence
(Root & Ngampornchai, 2012).
The notion of privilege cannot be applied automatically here. As non-Chinese faculty,
we were at time disadvantaged and at times valued for our difference. To simply assume that we
benefited from a form of white privilege would misrepresent everyday life and our experience.
These were very complex interactions. We were Canadian faculty spending time in China with
Chinese-Canadian faculty taking the lead in a reciprocal project in China. The line between
Western and Eastern social/cultural/political perspectives was blurry, to say the least, and our
expectations, those of our Chinese colleagues, and those of our hosts, were at times unclear.
We have arranged our recommendations in the form of questions and answers. These questions
are preliminary and not exhaustive, and the answers should be viewed as partial and exploratory.
Our intention is to open up a space of dialogue (Holman Jones, 2005). As Richardson and St.
Pierre (2005) suggest, the creative analytical processes of presenting autoethnographic narratives
“engage problems of subjectivity, authority, authorship, reflexivity, and process, on the one hand,
and of representational form, on the other” (p. 962). It is not only the stories we choose to tell,
whose stories get told, and the nature of analysis we bring to bear; but also the nature of the
telling—the form of writing or of illustration or performance. While providing some insights we
gained from our experiences, we hope this will be an invitation for others to bring their stories and
insights to future discussions.
What should faculty know about the context they are about to experience? Canadian and Chinese
colleagues should meet early to develop a working understanding of the roles and limitations of
each person, both in the planning stages and during travel in the host country. This could extend
to a written contract that would provide guidelines, especially for what to do in case of conflict or
emergency during the trip. Contact information and itineraries should be regularly reviewed and
updated to keep both colleagues on the same page. At the end of each trip, faculty colleagues
should meet to debrief, to assess what went well and what could be done differently. The most
important question is a priori to these considerations, and that is, how does one adequately prepare
to engage meaningfully in intercultural dialogue and reciprocal learning? This question is not
merely organizational, but theoretical. Knowledge of theories of intercultural competence is
foundational to developing a thoughtful and respectful dialogue between the participants, and to effective
planning for learning outcomes.
What should students know about the context they are about to experience? Students’ experience
is not the focus of this paper; however, as faculty advisors and co-leaders, we are concerned about
student learning, and the impact of this international experience on our students. A frank
discussion relating to differences of perspective and perception could help students to prepare for
and adjust to differences in social behaviour. The standards that the university expects when faculty
and students travel as representatives should be made explicit. Expectations and responsibilities
of the exchange program should be established in advance; participants should consent to these
terms, including potential consequences for any breach. An attempt has been made to teach
Chinese language skills to students before they travel to China, but it has been minimal and met
with some resistance. Whether there is a connection between language acquisition and intercultural
competence has not been established, but if building competency in the host country’s working
language is determined to be a valuable asset, then it needs to be structurally included in the
program. Finally, individual motivation and previous experience of students will play a role in
their reciprocal experience and how they respond to the challenges and destabilizing effects of
travelling and working in a different cultural context. Individual differences should be examined
and taken into consideration during planning, and supported throughout the exchange.
How can this opportunity be more than just an enriched vacation experience? It is time to move
toward a greater focus on educational research. The inclusion of graduate students in each
country’s cohorts, working with faculty support, would add another dimension and open up more
possibilities for collaborative research and for building stronger and longer lasting ties with each
country through conferences, collaborations, workshops, and lectures. Faculty members should
commit to more than one trip. This would encourage faculty to develop stronger connections/relationships
with Chinese counterparts, and to develop and implement research projects of scope and depth. The
continuity would allow faculty to gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the Chinese
context, and to take a more equal role in planning and leadership.
To what degree can we accurately understand the similarities and differences in how subject
areas are taught in the two countries? There is a tendency to view education with a wide lens.
During our school visits there were some opportunities to see/hear subject areas being taught.
More could be done in advance, to ensure that visitors with subject area expertise have ample
opportunity to observe and even participate in classes in their chosen field of study (e.g., music,
visual art, history, science).
The yearly student exchanges between our universities have proven to be a worthwhile endeavour.
The program has explicit benefits as well as less tangible effects. Every Canadian student in the
first cohort described the experience as “eye opening,” “of great value,” and “enlightening” (Weekly
student reflections, 2010). The program has since been extended to 3-month sojourns, and
graduate students from Canada are now part of each group, and actively involved in conducting
their own research. Due to the length of these trips and limited funding for accompanying faculty,
students are now spending an extended part of their time in China without Canadian faculty oversight.
The effects of these changes will require further investigation. However, the structural and intercultural
challenges that we identify in this paper have not been addressed. In order to advance and build
on this undertaking, we need to review our stated objectives and to determine if they are being met,
both for students and for faculty. Much has been accomplished; much more can be achieved,
especially by working together to build a foundation of trust and communication across the uneven
terrain of intercultural partnerships.
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Dr. Terry Sefton is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Windsor. She is a professional
cellist and has performed as orchestral musician and as chamber musician in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
Her research interests are pedagogy of the arts, identity of the artist, visual sociology, and institutional ethnography.
Dr. Glenn Rideout has researched and taught in the field of educational policy and leadership, with a recent focus on
the interaction between international learning experiences and student outcomes. He currently serves in an administrative
and leadership role pertaining to graduate studies and research at the Faculty of Education, University of Windsor.
Dr. Jonathan Bayley is Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Windsor. He has published articles in
various journals (The Register, Canadian Winds, Canadian Music Educator, Journal of Historical Research in Music
Education, and Update: Applications of Research in Music Education) as well as book chapters, music arrangements and
original works (ALRY Publication).