The following is a response to a series of questions I was asked in one of my certification classes. Surface culture is essentially the cultural norms you can easily identify in a foreign country. Deep culture are the cultural norms not easily detected unless, in fact, you are born and raised in that specific culture OR you spend an extended amount of time in the foreign culture. Below you’ll find an excerpt of what I have experienced recently in Argentina & Ecuador. These are the sorts of experiences I often reference when I am teaching second language learners.
Some “surface culture” attributes of my Mexican-American background includes kissing family and close “Latino” friends on the cheek as a greeting, eating tamales during Christmas, and cracking eggs shells on family members heads during Easter. I guess the surface culture is more reflective during holiday celebrations. In “mainstream” America, we hand-shake someone if we don’t really know them and hug them if they are close friends. One of the challenging experiences I faced as a foreigner in Argentina was kissing students on the cheek, though I do it with my family and close “Latino” friends; I would never do it with the students I teach. In addition, they would always want to kiss me (all 13 of them) as they walked into the classroom, whereas I was focused on getting the props ready for my lesson and each time I had to kiss one of them I had to stop what I was doing. Eventually, I made sure I was prepared before they came and would “make time” to kiss them with a greeting.
Some “deep culture” attributes of my Mexican-American background are interesting because they include a “Latino” side and an “American” side. For instance, being part of a close-knit Mexican family we are very warm and welcoming with “anybody” that any member of the family brings to our home (whether its my home, my grandmas, or my uncles). Its not something we’re explicit about we are just that way. Another unspoken attribute of American culture is that we say what we mean and we mean what we say, along with being somewhat punctual. For instance, when I was in Ecuador visitng my husbands family (his other half) we planned a dinner-date with his cousin and wife at 8PM. They didn’t arrive until 9:45PM this is even after we called to make sure everything was ok!!!
I think the “deep culture” is harder to adjust to. We spent a month in Ecuador and I eventually learned that 8PM really meand 9:30PM approximately, BUT I could not get used to the fact that people couldn’t just say the truth, like “8PM sounds great, but I usually can’t leave the office before 9PM, so lets shoot for 9:30PM”, hence my we mean what we say and say what we mean. As the definition of “deep culture” states these are customs that we’re raised with, so they’re almost difficult to be aware of them.
Interestingly enough I experienced the “no line” factor in Ecuador. Initially, it drove me crazy! It was like that at the movie theatre and at bars. Eventually, I took on the same strategy as the locals. I just made my way through the “conglomerate line”, if you will. I did judge locals a little. I wanted to share with them the concept of how a line works and how fair that would be, but I didn’t let that thought verbalize by any means except to my husband. I think its natural to make judgments, but I also think there is a time and a place to share those judgements with the intentions of trying to understand the local culture.
The greatest benefit of teaching abroad was the experience of working in a totally different culture than what I have worked in as a teacher. I felt that students and the people at the organization we were at valued the teaching profession and what we had to offer more than the people in the U.S.A. As I mentioned before one the biggest challenges for me, yet minute in retrospect, was setting time aside to kiss each student everday before and after class.