At the beginning of December, Dr Chakraborty Paunksnis organised a workshop on intercultural communication for Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) staff. In pointing out some common issues, she cautions against generalisation.
“Various factors, such as the process of social interaction, maintaining personal space and privacy may pose some challenges since Indians, generally, follow a collectivist approach. Also, many of them find it difficult to cope with the weather here, some find the Lithuanian food quite challenging since meat is the staple food here. However, I wouldn’t call those “common difficulties” since not everyone in India is a vegetarian and some parts of the country, especially the ones that are close to the Himalayas, are quite cold”, says Dr Chakraborty Paunksnis, Associate Professor at KTU Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities.
How easy it is for an Indian student to rent a flat in Kaunas? Is coming from different caste background still causing an issue when students live abroad? What steps can all of us take to understand people from other cultures better?
- It’s not the first time you are organizing this workshop for the academic staff. Why do you think it is important to talk about intercultural communications?
= Yes, you are right. I organized a similar workshop in 2019. Our contemporary life demands that we understand the nuances of other cultures. In a globalized environment like ours, we are, regularly, meeting new people, sharing thoughts and ideas and working together ignoring geographical, racial and cultural boundaries. Hence, we must train ourselves adequately to overcome our mental barriers, too. However, this will only be possible when we are willing to engage in a discussion about intercultural communication. The aim of the workshop, organised by India Development Cooperation Centre, is not only to raise awareness about the significance of intercultural communication but also to help participants develop cross-cultural empathy. We must understand that this is not an easy process. We have to challenge our existing ideas and we need to reinvent ourselves constantly.
- What are the common problems in this field that students face? What are the common challenges that the staff face? By the way, who tend to complain more about intercultural communication difficulties – staff or students?
- Generally, one problem which remains common in both cases is the fear and anxiety that one feels in the presence of the unknown “Other”. Foreign students often find it difficult to navigate through an alien culture in an alien city. Lack of cultural openness may create problems in everyday affairs ranging from finding a food item to securing decent accommodation. On the other hand, the staffs who deal with foreign students may find it a challenging task. According to some of them, there is a lack of motivation among some groups of foreign students who regularly miss classes and fail to complete their assignments. Although apparently, it may seem to be a common problem found among students in general, yet closer scrutiny reveals that a major factor that may trigger such situation is cultural miscommunication. Therefore, we must make ourselves familiar with the processes of intercultural communication.
It’s not possible to say who complains more. I have heard from both sides about the difficulties they faced due to cultural prejudices.
- Since you are the Head of India Centre, what can you say about specific problems that Indian students face? What did you have to deal with?
- Culturally, India is very pluralistic and therefore students coming from different parts of India are not likely to face the same challenges. However, initially, they may have difficulty in coping with the language shift. Besides, various other factors such as the process of social interaction, maintaining personal space and privacy may pose some challenges since Indians, generally, follow a collectivist approach. I remember an Indian student telling me how difficult it was for her and her partner to find proper accommodation in the city. The owner of the apartment they were planning to rent returned the money since he was not willing to rent his apartment to Indians who, in his opinion, are very loud and noisy. If we analyse this experience, we will understand how information gap, cultural prejudices and possibly some unpleasant random incidents can influence our opinions and make us behave in a particular way. However, it is important to understand in this context that cultural communication is a two-way process. Hence, both sides are equally responsible if they wish to have a meaningful inter-cultural transaction.
I did not experience anything like this probably because I haven’t come to Lithuania as a student. Moreover, I lived and worked in different countries before coming here and therefore I have already been exposed to many of the challenges that one faces in foreign lands. Yet, I must say, initially, the thought of visiting a supermarket in the city used to make me anxious since translation apps are not always very trustworthy. However, the solution is simple: learn the language and yes, I’m working on it!
- As you say, India is very culturally diverse. Is there something common to them? Some common difficulties that they have to deal with?
- India is a multilingual, multicultural country, so it will not be fair to claim that Indians can be understood with the help of a fixed set of cultural attributes. Teachers may come across students who have, for example, very diverse food habits. Also, the students, despite being “Indians” don’t speak the same language. Yet, despite heterogeneity, they share some common traits that distinguish them from other cultural groups. For example, their method of social interaction may be different from the way students from European cultures interact.
Some Indian students, who are studying in Lithuania, told me that they find it difficult to cope with the weather here. Some found the Lithuanian food quite challenging since meat is the staple food in Lithuania. Again, these cannot be called “common difficulties” since not everyone in India is a vegetarian and some parts of the country, especially the ones that are close to the Himalayas, are quite cold.
- One thing that comes to mind when thinking about India is the caste system. How does it work for students who live in foreign countries and, for example, have to share dormitory rooms with other people? Have you heard of such cases?
The prevalence of caste-based segregation is not uncommon among students who live in foreign countries. A few months back, I read an article about a university where some students narrated their experiences of being ex-communicated due to their low caste status. In such circumstances, sharing dormitory rooms with other students who hail from different caste backgrounds may cause serious problems. However, fortunately, none of the Indian students I met in Lithuania reported any case of caste-based exclusion. It’s a matter of great shame that the spectre of caste system haunts us even today although, according to the Article 15 of Indian Constitution, discriminating a person on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth is prohibited.
- What would be your first advice for a teacher or a member of the academic staff who needs to deal with a student from India?
- My suggestion to anyone (not just a teacher or staff) who is interacting with people hailing from a different culture (not just India) is to be aware of the differences that exist between two cultures. We should not only be mindful of the intricacies of other cultures, but we should also look within and identify our own cultural biases. Our ability to perceive a situation from the point of view of the other will enable us to avoid conflict and disagreement. This world will be a much better place if we value compassion and empathy and treat a person, irrespective of her/his racial and cultural locations, as a fellow human being.