For the past several months I have actively watched Korean shows, which have taught me a lot. As my ears adjusted to the Korean language, I am now able to differentiate between Korean and non-Korean languages (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese Hokkien, etc.). This, in turn, made me contemplate on the assumptions that people often make about Asia and its cultures and languages. I have observed that people lump Asian cultures together without much regard to each culture’s individuality and history. Other cultures, such as Hispanics, often face similar fate as well. It is unfortunate to hear someone see an Asian guy and say, “Oh, this Chinese man has a nice shirt!” or “I met this Mexican yesterday, who…” while the first person happened to be Taiwanese and the second Puerto Rican. Not only would this reveal one’s personal incompetence but professional as well.
Similar fate has been haunting me for years. I grew up in Estonia. At school, I spoke and breathed Estonian; at home, I spoke and breathed Russian. So I ended up with a mix of both that became larger than the sum of the two. Yes, Estonia was once a part of Soviet Union and yes, Estonia harbors many Russians who either moved there or were born there. When people meet me, many of them assume that Estonian is a Russian dialect; some people don’t know that Estonia has its own language; many assume that Estonian and Russian cultures are similar. When they ask me where I’m from and I say Estonia, most of people say, “Oh, it’s near Russia, right?” “Yes, it is,” I say. Then they begin talking about Russian affairs or Russians whom they have met in the past or Russian cities that they have visited, and so on. I end up standing there, listening, feeling a bit confused and irritated. Why? Because this information is irrelevant to me as they are trying to make it relevant. Yes, I speak Russian and I know some of the Russian culture, I love Russian food, but I don’t identify myself as Russian, I have never lived in Russia, nor do I have Russian mentality. Only once have I resided in Russia for five months and I learned how foreign and out of place I felt in that country.
There are few points that I’d like to convey. First, no one expects us to know everything about all cultures, which is why we inquire and actively listen. Second, if you know something that connects to your client’s culture, beware of immediately linking that to your client’s experience before you find out whether it has any relevance. It is great that we want to relate to our clients and let them know that we are familiar with certain aspects of their culture(s); however, it can also be a slippery slope. It would definitely help to explore your client’s allegiance or lack thereof to a culture or cultures before trying to further the rapport building. Ultimately, if we are not being specific in this case, it may convey a message that we are not taking our client’s culture(s) seriously or that we are not interested in learning more about their background, regardless of their level of commitment to their culture(s).
Evelyn Pavlova is a counselor and an Ally, whose preferred population is LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, invisible minority, asexual, and ally) individuals. Her areas of interest are eating disorders, mood disorders, mindfulness, and spirituality. Read more about her new counseling journey at www.curvyroad.weebly.com