Shifting the Kaleidoscope

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Educators’ Insights on Culture Shock, Identity and Pedagogy

by Jon L. Smythe (Author)
Textbook XII, 249 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Insights Into Otherness
  • Study Overview
  • The Participants
  • Joe, Peace Corps Moldova 2006–2008
  • Harley, Peace Corps Kazakhstan 1999–2001
  • Ryder, Peace Corps Kenya 1987–1990
  • Hyacinth, Peace Corps Kenya 1984–1986
  • Looking Through a Post-Structural Hermeneutic Lens
  • Chapter 1: Back Stories
  • The Internationalization of Curriculum Studies
  • The Peace Corps and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Educators
  • Culture Shock
  • Reverse Culture Shock
  • Chapter 2: Toward a Pedagogy of Creativity and Caring
  • Introduction
  • Culture Shock I: Intercultural Experience as Vulnerability and Danger
  • Re-reading Culture Shock I: Vulnerability as Strength and Danger as Useful
  • Identity Shift I: Acceptance as Healing and a Lack of Resistance
  • Re-reading Identity Shift I: Acceptance as Resistance and Not Healing
  • Reverse Culture Shock I: Materialism and Not Playing the Game
  • Re-reading Reverse Culture Shock I: Postmaterialism and Playing the Game Differently
  • Identity Shift II: Taking on a New Identity and Caring as Self-Sacrifice
  • Re-reading Identity Shift II: Adding New Layers of Identity and Caring as Self-Gain
  • Pedagogy I: Rote Learning and the Need to Teach Creativity
  • Re-reading Pedagogy I: Rote Learning as Meaningful Learning and Creativity as Cultural Reproduction
  • Interplay 1: A “Subject” in Motion
  • Chapter 3: Toward a Pedagogy of Non-Prejudice
  • Introduction
  • Culture Shock I: Philippines = Collectivism, America = Individualism
  • Re-reading Culture Shock I: Individualism (?), Collectivism (?)
  • Culture Shock II: Corruption in Kazakhstan as Survival and a Lack of Development
  • Re-reading Culture Shock II: Corruption in the U.S. as Hidden Amidst Development
  • Reverse Culture Shock I: Clock Time Versus Event Time
  • Re-reading Reverse Culture Shock I: Intermixing Clock Time and Event Time Through the Use of Media
  • Pedagogy I: Identity Shock and Being Treated as an “Extra Foreigner” and “International Student”
  • Re-reading Pedagogy I: The (Potential) Benefits of Bi-Culturality
  • Pedagogy II: Cultural Adjustment as “Context” or “Consistency”
  • Re-reading Pedagogy II: Cultural Adjustment as an Ability to “Flex”
  • Interplay 2: Who Am I (Becoming)?
  • Chapter 4: Toward a Pedagogy of Social Justice
  • Introduction
  • Culture Shock I: Western Time as Linear/Control, Kenyan Time as Cyclic/Fatalistic
  • Re-reading Culture Shock I: Fatalism as Self-Management and Humility
  • Culture Shock II: Generosity as Measurable
  • Re-reading Culture Shock II: Generosity as Self-Interest and Impossible
  • Identity Shift I: Sexuality as Moral Hypocrisy and Social Control
  • Re-reading Identity Shift I: Social Control (?) and the Problem With Labels
  • Reverse Culture Shock I: Reality vs. Non-reality
  • Re-reading Reverse Culture Shock I: Reality as Multiple
  • Pedagogy I: Teaching an Appreciation for “Dialect Diversity” as Social Justice
  • Re-reading Pedagogy I: Questioning the Notions of Standard and Non-Standard Dialects
  • Interplay 3: Chez nous c’est ne pas comme chez vous!
  • Chapter 5: Toward a Pedagogy of Interconnectedness
  • Introduction
  • Culture Shock I: Male Privilege in Kenya
  • Re-reading Culture Shock I: Male Privilege in America
  • Identity Shift I: The Self as Cultural Product
  • Re-reading Identity Shift I: The Self as Cultural Process
  • Identity Shift II: “Interweaving” as Cultural Practice
  • Re-reading Identity Shift II: “Interweaving” as Gendered Practice
  • Reverse Culture Shock I: Sameness as Competition and the U.S. as Un/Real
  • Re-reading Reverse Culture Shock I: A Different Kind of Sameness and Reality as Floating
  • Pedagogy I: Teacher as “Ambassador” and “Bridge”
  • Re-reading Pedagogy I: The Ambassador as Distance and the Bridge as Separation
  • Interplay 4: And a Good Time Was Had by All
  • Chapter 6: Similarities, Contrasts, and Shades
  • Drawing Gender Lines
  • Resistance, Negotiation, and Shift
  • Making Time to Get Real
  • Metaphorically Speaking
  • Home Is Where the Hurt Is
  • Looking for Traces and Signs
  • Interplay 5: Returning Home to Fantasyland
  • Chapter 7: Envisioning a Kaleidoscopic Curriculum
  • Multiplicity
  • Movement
  • Juxtaposition
  • Ambiguity
  • Surprise
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


Although my name appears front and center on this book, many people behind the scenes helped to bring it to fruition. Foremost among these was Dr. Hongyu Wang, who acted as a light along the pathway. Through her gentle yet determined guidance as well as her unwavering support and belief in my stories, she has opened up innumerable possibilities for reimagining my research and my relationship with the world in general. Without her, this book would not be possible. For that I am both grateful and humbled. I also want to express my deep gratitude to my professors at Oklahoma State University: Dr. Kathryn Castle, Dr. Denise Blum, Dr. Ravi Sheorey, Dr. Pam Brown, Dr. Gretchen Schwartz, and Dr. Gene Halleck. Each of these professors’ teaching and insights have helped get me moving in the right direction, and their caring support of both me and my work has taught me the invaluable role of an educator in a student’s life. Special thanks also go to William F. Pinar for his support of this book. His critical and imaginative work continues to inspire new generations of educators and curriculum theorists. Thanks, too, to Chris Myers and all the staff at Peter Lang Publishing for helping bring this book to life.

I also want to thank the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who participated in this study for sharing their provocative and insightful stories. The stories ← xi | xii → I have included in this book, including my own, represent our individual views and not those of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

I am also greatly indebted to Eileen Kenney, who was instrumental in helping recruit participants for this study; to Charica Daugherty and fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Charlotte Germundson, for reading and commenting on my initial manuscript; to Pam Chew, whose intercultural experiences and insights have continually nourished my thinking; and to my close friends and colleagues at Tulsa Community College, who have supported me throughout the writing process. I especially need to acknowledge my “at-work wife” Lennette Lawless for making up songs with me on a daily basis; the other two-thirds of the “Soundpony trio,” Lindsay Fields and Chad Goodwin, for their comradery; Denise Baldwin, for encouraging me to complete my PhD; Sam Reeves for taking care of me and making me laugh; Amy Hawley for sharing my sense of irony; Traci Heck for her gentle leadership (and fondness for Johnny Depp); Dr. Jan Clayton for engaging me in stimulating conversations that often lasted after the close of business; Melody Simmons, Diana Allen, and Keilah Deatherage for their thought-provoking input and my immediate staff at TCC—Ruby Kimmons, Debbie Salmon, Jerri Clark, Minerva Castaneda, Amber Coburn, and John Brown for keeping our office running so smoothly.

I also need to thank a few folks outside of TCC whose friendship and guidance helped sustain me, specifically, Tim Van Meter for believing in me; Mattias Reiff for his generosity; John Ayers and Chad Stephens for their thoughtfulness; Roy Daniels for his artistry; Renny Berry for introducing me to Lorna Hansen Forbes; Richard Fox, who can build and fix anything; and Dr. Lawrence Lieberman for keeping all the working parts moving.

Additionally, I want to express my love and gratitude to my father, Austin, for being the best story-teller I know, and to my mom, Sharon, for wisely teaching me not to believe all my Dad’s stories. Their hard work and sacrifice have gotten me where I am today. I also wish to convey my love to my wonderful African son, Mal Harouna Bello. Without him, my Peace Corps experience would not have been as rich and fulfilling as it was.

Thank you all for sharing in my journey and for shouldering a piece of the burden. Simply put, WE did it! ← xii | 1 →


Insights Into Otherness

In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful factor in understanding….A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialog, which surmounts the closedness and onesidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures….Each retains its own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched. (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 7)

“What words come to mind when you think about Africa?” I ask students at the various local schools and other institutions where I speak about my experiences in the Peace Corps. The answers are remarkably similar—“violence,” “AIDS,” “malaria,” “wild animals,” “poverty,” “corruption,” and “starvation.” Probing a bit further, I ask if Africa could be a place of health, love, happiness, and good-tasting food. The response: a resounding “No!” “Have you ever been to Africa?” I continue. “Uh, well, no.” When I ask students where they learn about Africa, they tell me TV programs such as “Animal Planet,” “Save the Children,” and the nightly news. They also tell me they learn about Africa through their teachers and their textbooks. When I ask why it might be important to experience a place directly for themselves, they light up: “Because it helps you learn more about a place when you go there yourself,” and because “other people can lie.” They also point out, though, ← 1 | 2 → that not everyone can go to Africa and that they have to rely on the media and their teachers for information about the world in general.

How closely the students’ mediated perceptions of Africa matched my own before I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer English teacher in 1996. When my acceptance letter came, I was informed I was to be sent to a country called Cameroon. Although I had taken Oklahoma and U.S. history, I had not taken one world history or geography course at any point during my high school or university education, and therefore I was left to guess exactly where Cameroon was located. To be perfectly honest, I thought it was a tropical island where they made brightly colored shirts. And then somehow I got the name confused and thought it had something to do with a cookie, which I realized later was a macaroon, not a Cameroon. To the Internet!

What I discovered on the Internet was that Cameroon is a country in Africa that has this lake that belched up a big gas bubble that smothered—actually smothered—thousands of people in the surrounding area. I could just picture myself up at the chalkboard, teaching the alphabet when there would be another gas bubble. Something like, “a, b, c, d…the gas…the gas…it’s choking me, arrrrrrrrgh!” Then I would see all this stuff on TV about Africa—tribal warring, corruption, poverty, Ebola virus, and white people getting killed by an angry mob. After seeing all these things, I wasn’t so sure that Africa was the right place for me to go. I certainly hadn’t requested to be sent to Africa on my Peace Corps application.

So when I called the Peace Corps people, I was naturally subdued. I asked, “What if I don’t want to go to Cameroon?” and followed with “I haven’t heard of anything good coming out of Africa lately.” To which the Peace Corps man politely replied, “If you don’t accept this position, you really won’t get another chance to go.” He pointed out that my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Advertising wasn’t exactly a Master’s in Teaching English. “Besides,” he said, “Cameroon is very safe and the Peace Corps wouldn’t send you there if it wasn’t.” I wondered how the Peace Corps people in Washington, D.C., would know if I got my head chopped off in the jungle and thrown in a ditch by a mob of angry Cameroonians—but I didn’t feel like arguing, so I hesitantly accepted. And now, with head still firmly intact, I am certainly glad that I did!

After working as an English teacher in a small, rural, largely Muslim, agricultural village in Cameroon, I realized that my carefully constructed image of Africa was only partially accurate. Was there poverty? Yes. Disease? Certainly. ← 2 | 3 → Corruption? Well, yeah. But those things didn’t offer a complete picture of my daily existence in Cameroon. There was also beauty, intelligence, humor, abundance, creativity, an awareness of global politics, an attunement to interpersonal and social relationships, and a spirit of hospitality I have not experienced anywhere else.

In turn, my experiences in Cameroon have opened my eyes to other ways of seeing and experiencing the United States. For instance, I have learned that many of the generalizations that position the U.S. as a country of freedom, justice, equality, and a world leader, for example, fail to express the ways in which it is not. Not to mention that even in the richest nation in the world (or one of the richest) there is also still poverty, disease, and corruption. It seems clear to me now that the labels that are applied to any country and any cultural group often serve purposes other than that of expressing a uniform reality. Moreover, these labels appear to be more indicative of the power relations between groups than anything else.

So, how do I explain to students that the words and labels used to build up one country and denigrate another work to mask the diversity and differences that lie beneath the labels applied to both countries? How do I urge them to break open these labels in order to see the multiplicity and the differences underneath? How do I inspire them to accept their own multiplicity and respect the multiplicity of those who are culturally different in ways that are both ethical and nonviolent? Or perhaps, given that teachers often act in place of lived experience, as some students suggest, how do I encourage other educators (and myself) to do these same things?

In thinking about the value of appreciating cultural differences as a curriculum practice, I return to Bakhtin’s (1986) opening quote for a moment. I appreciate Bakhtin’s suggestion that cultures and meanings gain greater depth, and are mutually enriched, through the engagement of cultural differences. Further, that it is the “outsideness” of the Other that creates the condition for deeper understanding of the self and one’s own culture. Moreover, that a certain sense of “unity” and “totality” is retained by both cultures so that personal and cultural enrichment does not come at the cost of completely abandoning one’s identity. From an educational perspective, Todd (2003) also argued that preserving rather than eliminating differences makes teaching and learning possible by creating new opportunities and new challenges for both educators and learners. She also believed that resisting the desire to eliminate personal and cultural differences creates a pathway for the development of ethical, non-violent relationships. Both ← 3 | 4 → authors pointed to the unique and interdependent relationship between the self and the Other for purposes of learning.

In my view, the need to recognize the important role that cultural and individual differences can play in the development of curriculum is necessary and urgent, as globalization, which may be described as the “intensification and rapidity of movement and migration of people, ideas, and economic and cultural capital across national boundaries” (Matus & McCarthy, 2003, p. 73), brings greater cultural diversity to otherwise homogenous environments. By several accounts, American high school and university classrooms are becoming increasingly culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse (Planty et al., 2009; Institute of International Education, 2012; Gorski, 2013, pp. xi–xii). For educators, working with increasingly culturally diverse student populations can be especially anxiety-provoking, as they are tasked with creating spaces within curricula that are open to the diverse thoughts and experiences of all students, even when those perspectives challenge their own personal and cultural expectations. This can lead to “various new kinds of identity crises” and “difficult questions…about how knowledge is produced, represented, and circulated” (Smith, 2003, p. 36).

For example, in a survey of 641 first-year school teachers, when asked to consider a list of 14 proposals and indicate which ones would be “very effective” for teacher development, “preparing teachers to adapt or vary their instruction to meet the needs of a diverse classroom” was second only to “reducing class size” (Rochkind, Ott, Immerwahr, Doble, & Johnson, 2008, p. 15). The survey analysis further suggested that the “anxiety about dealing with diverse classrooms” is felt more strongly in communities with little experience in dealing with cultural diversity (p. 12). Along these lines, the report cited a teacher who found himself teaching students from 20 different “linguistic backgrounds” in a “historically white” neighborhood (p. 12).

Similarly, in a faculty guide for “Teaching in an Increasingly Multi-cultural Setting” produced by Carnegie Mellon University (n.d.), a faculty member noted,

In the past, I could assume that all or most of my students shared certain kinds of understandings or experiences. With classrooms increasingly made up of students from other countries, or from ethnically identified subgroups within the U.S., I can no longer make any assumptions at all. This is a disconcerting realization for an instructor. (Contents) ← 4 | 5 →

Clearly, for educators who come from mainstream backgrounds, who have little experience with teaching diverse populations, who may not have ever been a cultural outsider themselves or who teach in a culture that espouses a curriculum of sameness, universality, and standardization, the task of educating students from diverse backgrounds can be, as research indicates, anxiety-provoking.

I would argue that the anxiety that teachers experience when encountering cultural differences in the classroom can be considered a form of culture shock. According to Furnham (2004), the term “culture shock” was popularized by the anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1960 to denote, among other things, “surprise, anxiety, even disgust and indignation after becoming aware of cultural differences,” as well as “confusion in role, role expectations, values” (p. 17). Although “culture shock” is generally applied to those who travel to a foreign country, the anthropologist Fuchs (1969) and educators Kron (1972) and Kron and Faber (1973) made the connection between teaching and the culture shock teachers experienced when “placed in a new subculture (e.g., the middle-class teacher placed in an inner city school, the black teacher placed in an all-white suburban school)” (Kron & Faber, 1973, p. 506). Kron and Faber also noted in 1973 that “Few social scientists have written about [culture shock] and still fewer have applied the culture shock concept to education” (p. 506).

Since the 1970s, despite the widespread globalization that is changing the cultural makeup of the American classroom, there have been few articles that have focused on educator culture shock at the public primary, secondary, or university level. In the last decade, for example, the majority of articles explicitly related to culture shock and education have focused on college students—specifically, international students studying in the U.S. (Gilton, 2005; Godwin, 2009; Zhou, Jindal-Snape, Topping, & Todman, 2008); black students (Torres, 2009); first-generation students (Cushman, 2007); “Third Culture Kids” who grew up in a culture different than their American parents now coming to the U.S. to attend college (Hervey, 2009; Huff, 2001); and Adult ESL students (Buttaro, 2004). Only one article dealt with the culture shock experienced by the teacher, and it had to do with the acculturation necessary for teaching in the prison system (Wright, 2005). Considering that globalization has paved the way for rapidly increasing cultural diversity in schools, that such rapid changes can produce anxiety, and that it is the teacher, instructor, or professor who is “faced with the challenge of making instruction ‘culturally responsive’ for all students” (“How Important Is,” n.d., ← 5 | 6 → p. 1), I think it is important to understand how educators navigate both the positive and negative aspects of culture shock.

One type of educator with particular experience in dealing with issues related to culture shock, both abroad and at home, is the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) educator. Peace Corps Volunteer educators typically teach English, math, science, health, or another subject in schools and/or universities for two years in a foreign country. As cultural outsiders in those foreign countries, they often experience culture shock. In addition, many RPCV educators return home to continue teaching or working in a variety of education-related jobs, only to find that their overseas teaching experiences have made them cultural outsiders in their home country, leading to what has been termed “reverse culture shock” (Gullahorn & Gullahorn, 1963).

The insights of RPCV educators have been captured in newspaper/magazine articles across the country. These insights provide snapshots into the perspectives RPCV educators have developed through intercultural contact, culture shock, and reverse culture shock. For example, in one article, an RPCV art teacher reconsidered the practice of using food in art and other class projects (potatoes for potato stamp prints, macaroni to make designs, Cheerios for counting, etc.) as “wasteful” after confronting the poverty and starvation that her African students and colleagues faced on a daily basis (Brown, 2005). A second teacher spoke about wastefulness after a trip home to the U.S., noting, “My shock came when I returned for a visit in the Christmas holidays. So much waste! The buying of gifts that people didn’t need” (Armstrong, 1986). Another talked about the differences in student behavior, stating that “It was kind of a culture shock….Coming from a place where kids are very respectful to coming here [the U.S.], where kids are disruptive and don’t respect authority” (Fernandez, 1999). One RPCV educator developed empathy for internationals coming to the U.S. after she began to “understand a little bit about what it is like to be a minority” in her host country (Nacelewicz, 2002). Another RPCV educator gained insight into American race relations after he reflected on how easy it was for him, a white male teacher in Africa, to lie about one of his African students in order to have the student expelled from the school (Meyers, 1999). Certainly, these brief remarks are only a small sample and cannot be generalized as representative of all RPCV educators’ experiences or points of view. They do, however, offer various kinds of insights that bridge issues of power, identity, culture, and experience that I hope to expand upon in the current study. ← 6 | 7 →

The purpose of this study is to gain insight into issues related to teaching and learning in intercultural contexts by examining RPCV educators’ experiences with culture shock and reverse culture shock. An examination of the ways in which RPCV educators respond to the experience of culture shock and reverse culture shock provides openings for other educators to reflect on their own experiences with cultural differences inside and outside the classroom. As an RPCV educator myself, I have found my intercultural experiences to be both shocking and enlightening with regard to what they reveal about intercultural and pedagogical relationships. My hope is not to somehow alleviate the anxiety that educators may experience in the face of cultural differences, but rather to recognize the different ways in which culture shock and reverse culture shock may influence teaching in an age of globalization. In this sense, I also suggest that culture shock and reverse culture shock can be valuable tools for learning, both about oneself and others.

Study Overview

For this study, I gathered the culture shock and reverse culture shock stories of four RPCV educators who had taught with the Peace Corps overseas and who were currently working in an educational institution in the United States. Specifically, I travelled to each participant’s town for one weekend where I conducted open-ended, face-to-face interviews. Participants also responded to two writing prompts, one before we met for our interviews and one after all of the interviews were completed. Additionally, participants were invited to share artifacts from their teaching or personal life that they felt were meaningful. For the participants in the study, these included photographs, a video biography, gifts from students, a motorcycle, an earring, and various souvenirs. All of the participants, their friends, and the villages and cities in which they have lived have been given pseudonyms.

The focus of this study is the intercultural meaning created through participants’ experiences and then shared through their stories. A number of authors have stressed the important role that story-telling plays in expressing lived experience, in representing a sense of identity, and in connecting to issues with broader social significance (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Rosenwald & Ochberg, 1992; Fox & Kloppenburg, 1998). As RPCV educators and their shifting intercultural teaching contexts are the topic under study, I note especially Clandinin and Connelly’s (2000) claim that narrative inquiry ← 7 | 8 → within the education field is concerned with “broad questions of how individuals teach and learn, of how temporality (placing things in the context of time) connects with change and learning, and of how institutions frame our lives” (p. 1). They also saw “teaching and teacher knowledge as expressions of embodied individual and social stories” (p. 4). In this sense, teachers do not simply tell stories, they live them through “epiphanies, rituals, routines, metaphors, and everyday actions” (p. xxiv), in specific moments in time, and in relation to other people.

Interviewing each participant in their home contexts, accompanying them through their daily routines, and reading their reflective writings proved invaluable for giving me a sense of how participants constructed and negotiated their perceptions of self and their social relationships. Their stories also highlighted their changing theories about what is pedagogically relevant to teaching in intercultural and multicultural contexts. After reading through the interview transcripts and participant writings, four broad story categories emerged: culture shock stories, reverse culture shock stories, identity shift stories, and pedagogical stories. For this study, I have included five stories for each participant: one for each of the above categories plus an additional story in any of these categories that I found especially interesting.

Additionally, as an RPCV educator myself in Cameroon, Africa, from 1996–1998, I have included some of my own stories between the other chapters, which I have labelled “interplay” stories. Thematically, these stories intersect, converge with, and at times diverge from participants’ stories. My goal is not to suggest that my experiences and insights have more value than those of my participants. My hope in including these “interplay” stories is to add layers of complexity and multiplicity to the other chapters as I struggled to develop my own self- and intercultural awareness.

The Participants

The participants for the study were four RPCVs who were educators both overseas as part of their Peace Corps assignments and in the United States at the time of participation in the study. In addition, two of the participants taught secondary school classes before joining the Peace Corps, and the other two participants worked as educators in other countries following their Peace Corps service. All of the participants were recruited through purposeful “snowball sampling,” which involved the use of social networks to locate participants ← 8 | 9 → (Warren & Karner, 2010, p. 143). I did not know any of the participants prior to this study. A brief biography of each participant is presented below.

Joe, Peace Corps Moldova 2006–2008

“Joe” was a 58-year-old Hispanic male. He was divorced with three children. Prior to joining the Peace Corps, Joe had worked as an oil field hand for 20 years, competed in karate tournaments as well as managed and taught in karate schools for 15 years, and worked as a private investigator and a bail bondsman in addition to many other short-term jobs. He had also taught at two different high schools after earning a bachelor’s degree in English/Journalism in 2000 (he went on to earn a teaching certificate in 2004). First, he taught speech at an inner city high school for 1 year and then he taught speech and journalism for 5 years at a different high school.

When I met with Joe, he was teaching sophomore English at the same high school where he had taught for 5 years prior to joining the Peace Corps. Joe also noted that the town where he was currently living revolved largely around a “huge” and “powerful” local ranch. The majority of students at Joe’s school were the children of the Hispanic ranch workers and the children of newly arrived Hispanic immigrants who lived in a neighboring farming town. Joe also had a few international students, from a nearby university that attracted some international families, and he also taught some of the children of the white ranch owners. For his Peace Corps service, Joe taught English as a foreign language at a university in an urban city in Moldova, a country in Eastern Europe, for two years from 2006 to 2008. His students at the university were older professional adults, most of whom were women and many of whom had some knowledge of English.

When I asked Joe why he joined the Peace Corps, he said that he “had always had a really restless spirit,” that he was “never happy” wherever he was, and that he always felt that he should “be somewhere else because it might be better over there.” He also said that after 6 years of teaching, which he described as “sitting and worrying about these kids,” teaching felt “kind of trivial,” which I understood as meaning “lacking excitement,” since he contrasted it with his exciting life as an investigator and bail bondsman, during which time he tracked down fugitives. In short, Joe believed the Peace Corps would give him the chance to see if teaching in another setting would be “better,” or rather, more stimulating. ← 9 | 10 →

Harley, Peace Corps Kazakhstan 1999–2001

“Harley” was a 33-year-old Filipino American woman who was working as an associate director of International Programs and Services at a Midwestern university at the time of our interviews. Her job entailed welcoming international students, providing orientations for them, and ensuring they followed the Department of Homeland Security’s regulations regarding study in the United States. She also taught a class called “Transitions,” which she described as a freshman experience course to help international students adjust to American culture. The topics she covered ranged from U.S. classroom culture, academic dishonesty, local history, and finding ways to interact socially with Americans, among other topics. In addition, as an educator and a world traveler, she also offered intercultural communication presentations, not only for international students, but also for local students and community members.

For her Peace Corps service, Harley had hoped to be posted in the Philippines, since she was familiar with the language and culture, but due to the timing of the next group of volunteers leaving for the Philippines, she decided to accept a post in Kazakhstan, which she happily discovered was considered a part of Central Asia. Harley taught English at the primary and secondary levels and held conversation classes for local teachers for 2 years from 1999–2001. Additionally, she was the first volunteer to serve in the small rural village where she taught. After completing her Peace Corps service, Harley began teaching English for a private company, and taught in Japan (2001–2002), Thailand (2002–2004), Poland (2004–2006), and Kyrgyzstan (2006–2007). Altogether, she lived outside the U.S. for 8 years and returned in the fall of 2007 to begin a PhD program in education and human resource studies. Although she said she would have felt comfortable getting her doctorate overseas, she also believed that a degree from another country would not have been perceived as carrying the same weight as a degree from the United States.

In discussing her personal background, she noted that her parents were born and raised in the Philippines and therefore she grew up with many Filipino values and customs in addition to her American ones. She herself was born in the U.S. on the East coast but raised since the age of 4 on the West coast. I couldn’t help but think of the symbolism of East meeting West as Harley talked about her experiences living between Filipino and American cultures and her considerable travels in both Asian and European countries as well. When we talked about why she wanted to join the Peace Corps, two ← 10 | 11 → significant experiences stood out for her: travelling to the Philippines, and taking care of her younger brother who was in a coma due to a near fatal drowning accident, both of which had occurred since she was 10 years old. She said that travelling to the Philippines made her realize that “people don’t live the same way as we live in the United States.” By travelling to the Philippines, she also began to recognize that although she was American, she was different than other Americans, and likewise, that although she was Filipino she was different from other Filipinos as well. She said this sparked her interest in learning about different cultures and their customs.

With regard to her brother, she noted that, “all my time from when I was 10, the rest of primary school and the rest of high school, everything was about my brother; taking care of him.” She also said that she attended a university within a short driving distance of home so she could help take care of him on the weekends. She mentioned that she struggled with the desire to leave her brother to go and help other people, but ultimately, she felt that she had a “need” and a “calling” to join the Peace Corps. She also felt spiritually connected to her brother and that she had his blessing to pursue her calling. Her parents were another story. She said they were “pissed” about her joining the Peace Corps because they “worked so hard to get out of that” so that she would not have to grow up “poor and would have all these opportunities.” She explained to them it was because she had “opportunities” that others didn’t that she felt the need to “give back to the people” who didn’t have those opportunities. She added that her parents finally began to accept her decision but only about six or seven months after she had left for the Peace Corps.

Ryder, Peace Corps Kenya 1987–1990

“Ryder” was a 46-year-old white male who was an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern university at the time of the study. For his Peace Corps service Ryder taught English in forms 1–4 (basically ninth–12th grade) at a rural boarding secondary school in Kenya from 1987 to 1990. His students were the children of subsistence farmers who grew crops mainly for survival. Ryder taught with the Peace Corps for 3 years and then stayed in Kenya on his own for a fourth year during which time he home-schooled adult non-Kenyan students in English. While Ryder was in Kenya, he also married a Kenyan woman who returned with him to the United States in December of 1991. They subsequently had one child together and a few years later they divorced. Following his return from Kenya, Ryder also began work on a master’s degree ← 11 | 12 → in English, which he completed in 1994. After completing his degree, he took a job as a curriculum writer in Saudi Arabia, but switched to teaching English in a college preparatory program for a large oil company there. He stayed in Saudi Arabia 6 years and returned to the U.S. in 2000. He ultimately received his PhD in linguistics in the fall of 2008 and began teaching in his current position that same semester.

As Ryder described his life prior to joining the Peace Corps and his reasons for joining it, he began,

Maybe I should preface this by telling you I grew up in a four-room house with no inside toilet…there was no water heater…[the bathtub] hung on a pinning nail from the backside of the house…that’s the level of poverty I’m talking about. I’m not talking about working class.

He also explained that his mother left their home when he was very young so that his father, with the assistance of social services, raised him, his three brothers, and one sister. Additionally, Ryder felt that due to his poor upbringing, others had little expectation that he would be successful. In turn, this gave him the desire to “prove people wrong” and to be successful.

Ryder had originally intended to join the Air Force until he discovered that his weak eyesight would prevent him from being a pilot. He offered, “I wanted to get out…I wanted to go somewhere I had never been before and where I’d never known anyone who had been.” The thought of travelling was appealing but he couldn’t afford it on his own. He said he had always thought the Peace Corps “looked cool.” He remembered a specific Peace Corps commercial with a “guy in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts walking up a muddy, slippery hill” carrying a bucket of water on his shoulders while drums were playing in the background. But, it wasn’t until his college roommate received a letter from the Peace Corps that it brought the idea of joining the Peace Corps closer and gave him “another possibility…to see the world.”

Hyacinth, Peace Corps Kenya 1984–1986

“Hyacinth” was a 52-year-old white female who had been teaching English as a second language (ESL) at the middle school level for 11 years when we met. Before joining the Peace Corps, she had taught 2 years of seventh- and eighth-grade language arts, 12th-grade remedial English, and ninth-grade Spanish at an inner-city school. After returning from the Peace Corps, she taught ESL for 13 years at a high school in an American city on the Mexican border. ← 12 | 13 →

When I asked how she arrived at the pseudonym “Hyacinth,” she explained that she and her husband enjoyed watching the British comedy Keeping Up Appearances and Hyacinth was the main character. Having watched and enjoyed the show myself, I knew that Hyacinth was a snobbish middle-class housewife who failed miserably and humorously at her attempts at social climbing—often because neither her richer nor her poorer siblings (or anyone else for that matter) behaved in exactly the way that she believed they should according to their social status. Having spent a good deal of time getting to know Hyacinth (the teacher), I found her to be quite the opposite of her television namesake. Because, Hyacinth’s husband played an important role in her Peace Corps experience, I have given him the pseudonym Richard, which was Hyacinth’s husband’s name on the TV show.

For her Peace Corps service, Hyacinth spent 2 years teaching English in a secondary school in a small town in the central highlands of Kenya. She, like Ryder, taught the children of subsistence farmers, and although there was some overlap in the Kenyan cultural practices they pointed out, their experiences and the insights they drew from them were largely different. When I asked why Hyacinth joined the Peace Corps she explained that her brothers were “hippies in the 1960s” and the ideals related to the Peace Corps were “floating around” in the “general consciousness” of the 1970s when she was in high school. She had also been a Rotary exchange student in Australia the year after she graduated high school, which she counted as a “really, really positive experience,” so she felt “eager” for “another international experience,” especially one that was “helpful to others,” “adventurous,” and “a real learning experience.”

Hyacinth also said that joining the Peace Corps would offer the opportunity to meet “like-minded,” “adventurous,” “fun,” people with “similar values” who were “trying to make a positive difference in the world.” She added that in the back of her mind, she thought it “would be a great place to meet a life partner,” which turned out to be true in her case. Richard was also a Peace Corps volunteer leaving for Kenya at the same time as Hyacinth. While he recalled meeting her during their Peace Corps training in the U.S., she remembered meeting him on the flight to Kenya. She explained that they were seated alphabetically and that due to the spelling of their last names there was another volunteer in the seat between them. She said, “My last name started with an A, I was sitting next to Cindy [A] who got up and went to the rest room. He was a B, he moved over, it was a 27-hour flight.” Even though Hyacinth noted it “was not a done deal,” by the time their plane landed they ← 13 | 14 → felt a “real connection” to each other and they ultimately married in Kenya 3 months before their Peace Corps service ended. At the time of my interviews with Hyacinth, she and Richard had just celebrated their 25th anniversary.

Looking Through a Post-Structural Hermeneutic Lens

At the heart of the current study is the question of how the self/Other relationship is perceived and acted out personally, culturally, and pedagogically through RPCV educators’ experiences. For this study, I chose to examine RPCV educators’ experiences through a post-structural hermeneutic lens. A post-structural hermeneutic lens seemed especially suited to this study as post-structuralism works to elucidate not only how the Other is created, but also how the encounter with the Other can stimulate learning, a sense of ethics, and the claiming of human agency. It does this in different ways. First, post-structural hermeneutics calls for openness of, and play with, the structure through a process of “decentering,” which challenges the hierarchy of self over Other. Second, it suggests that meaning is not fixed, objective, and singular, but rather changing, subjective, and multiple, implying the need for the negotiation of meaning between self and Other. Third, it examines the ways in which social institutions engage in the process of othering, that is, using differences to create and exclude the Other. And lastly, it takes the stance that recognizing the differences between self and Other rather than making the Other over in the image of the self or silencing the Other has both ethical and educational implications. Each of these topics is discussed below.

To appreciate how post-structural hermeneutics seeks openness of, and play with, the structure it is important to understand how Western cultures such as the United States are shaped by a structuralist view of reality. Stam (2008) wrote that “According to the ‘binary opposition’ theory of the structuralists, reality is formed by certain theoretical and cultural opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy, which structure reality” (p. 12). Some examples of binary pairs include male/female, logic/emotion, light/dark, clarity/ambiguity, and so on. Within each of these pairings is a hierarchical center whose purpose is to “orient, balance, and organize the structure” (Derrida, 1978, p. 278). In order to achieve a sense of stability, all movement within the structure is directed toward supporting and maintaining the hierarchical center. As such, ← 14 | 15 → playing with the structure or shifting the focus of the structure is strongly discouraged and often punished.

In order to open up the structure and allow for play, Derrida (1978) proposed “decentering” (p. 280)—a move that rejects the center’s primacy and destabilizes the structure. While this destabilization can produce anxiety, clinging to an inflexible structure based on binary oppositions creates as much anxiety as it seeks to avoid by attempting to fix people into simple dualistic categories that fail to acknowledge the multiplicity of self and Other. Post-structural hermeneutics rejects a dualistic view of reality by recognizing the “multi-memberships, the mutations, the individualizations and the personalization of behavior and conduct, the contraventions, the crossings, the stripes, the alternate routes, and the cultural margins” (Abdallah-Pretceille, 2006, pp. 481–482) that challenge dualistic structures. For the intercultural relationship, this involves resisting the hierarchical privilege of self over Other. It also implies the need to tolerate the anxiety and perceived loss of control in rejecting this structure while simultaneously locating the “secret place” (Derrida, 1978, p. 6) within the structure that is open to change.

In a related way, Derrida also demonstrated that meaning, like structure, is not fixed, but is open to multiple interpretations. He did this by exposing and subverting the dualistic oppositions in texts, by going below the surface of the text to find “hidden alternative meanings,” and by pointing out the “undecidables” or “aporias” within a text that do not “conform to either side of a dichotomy or opposition” (Reynolds, 2010, Introduction). In the poststructural sense, then, meaning is “never fully present” in words or the concepts they signify; rather, meaning is “contextual,” relational, and infinite, making any final definitive meaning impossible (Quigley, 2009, p. 6).

This view underscores the slipperiness of meaning and points to the difficulty in assigning meaning to the words and actions of others. For the intercultural self/Other relationship, this signals a need to suspend judgment and assume a position of “not knowing” the Other. In not knowing the Other, meaning is developed through the questioning of the self and through the negotiation of meaning along with the Other within a specific context. Even then, such meaning is not fixed but subject to (re-)interpretation at a later time.

Understanding the ways in which social institutions work to structure the self/Other relationship within society and the self is another poststructural theme relevant to the current study. In Civilization and Madness, Foucault (1965) demonstrated how social institutions such as churches, hospitals, and ← 15 | 16 → government agencies work in concert to create the Other through the “exclusion” of difference. Foucault related this exclusion to the rise of leprosy in Europe, and explained that exclusion was a means of keeping leprosy “at a sacred” (p. 6) distance from polite society. But even after leprosy began to disappear, both the physical and theoretical structures for excluding difference remained, creating a cultural demand for the exclusion of other differences that could be labeled as “madness.”

On a more personal level, Wang (2004) showed how the social structuring of the self/Other relationship becomes inculcated both in and as the self. Through her historical deconstruction of Western Greco-Roman philosophy and Eastern Confucian philosophy, Wang revealed how a masculine hierarchical structuring of both philosophies creates the feminine Other. She argued that “Due to the cultural demand for feminine invisibility, woman does not really have a self” (p. 46) and therefore anything feminine is seen as Other. In highlighting the ways in which the feminine Other is created socially, Wang urged the fluid claiming of one’s own subjectivity and human agency in response to culturally prescriptive narratives, while recognizing that notions of subjectivity are culturally embedded in their own right. This suggests that while the reach of social structures may be inescapable, one can shift one’s response to it and find other meanings within it. It also implies the need to reclaim that which has been excluded, including the feminine Other.

For the intercultural teaching/learning relationship, I think it is important to be aware of how social institutions, including schools, may be engaged in this process of Othering. Likewise, it is equally important to recognize the ways in which the post-structural subject—in this case the RPCV educator— negotiates their culturally nominated social positions in order to create freer, more complex inter/subjective relationships within the curriculum. I would also argue that recognizing the subjectivity of both self and Other has ethical implications, as both self and Other reject their object positions, and differences between self/Other become valued.

A post-structural hermeneutic view of the ethical self/Other relationship is expressed in Todd’s (2003) Learning From the Other. Drawing on the work of Levinas, she wrote that it is the “break between self and Other where…both the conditions for ethics and the possibility of teaching and learning” (p. 29) are located. Maintaining the “break” between self and other involves resisting attempts to change, fix, or make the Other over in the image of the self. Preserving difference also provides the self with opportunities for learning and growth in that difference creates the need for the (re-)negotiation and ← 16 | 17 → (re-)consideration of unshared meanings. Without the difference to self, the self has the potential to stagnate in a pool of sameness.

This understanding of learning and ethics as connected to the rupture between self and Other has profound implications for curriculum development in a globalized world. Certainly it shifts the role of the teacher and the focus of curriculum that have been primarily concerned with standardization, unification, and the elimination of difference, toward a curriculum that also allows for the non-violent cultivation of, and learning from, difference. But while the ethical relationship with the Other can help foster this shift, Todd (2003) also recognized that it is the “very anxiety over encountering difference that…provides learning with its fiercest form of resistance” (p. 11). For the current study, however, I believe that the anxiety and resistance over encountering difference in the form of RPCV educator culture shock and reverse culture shock can also promote learning and ethical understanding in the intercultural relationship for purposes of curriculum development.

Using a poststructural hermeneutic framework to guide my analysis, the data (the interview transcripts, the writing samples, and the personal artifacts) were treated as texts and were analyzed in two separate “readings.” The first reading of each text was more hermeneutic and interpretive in nature. This reading focused more on the “significance” and “meaning” that certain aspects of intercultural experience held for the participants for the purpose of creating a shared understanding (Wong, 2005). The second reading was more deconstructive and destabilizing in nature. For this reading, I looked at the beliefs that were “privileged” by the participants in their stories as well as those that were “deemphasized, overlooked, or suppressed” (Balkin, 1995–1996). For both readings, I used a variety of techniques in conjunction with various theoretical positions, empirical research findings, popular media views, and my own experiences, in order to analyze the texts. By offering a doubled reading of participant texts, I hoped to both demonstrate the value in participants’ perspectives and then decenter those perspectives as a way of making a space for other potential meanings.

Operationalizing post-structural hermeneutic theory as a method of analysis proved no easy task, however. Without any specific guidelines, I used a number of strategies to aid me in my analysis. One strategy I used was to offer two different readings of the metaphors that participants generated in their stories, similar to Koro-Ljungberg’s (2004) post-structural metaphorical analysis. One example of this can be found in Joe’s metaphor of intercultural experience as “walking on ice,” which I analyzed in terms of danger and ← 17 | 18 → vulnerability in the first reading and then as part of the process of “learning to ice skate,” in which feelings of danger and vulnerability were part of the process of navigating intercultural contexts for the re-reading. Another technique was to shift the focus of the story from one country to another in order to destabilize the internal meanings of certain themes. For instance, Hyacinth focused on male privilege in Kenya and then I switched the focus to male privilege in the U.S. for the second reading by adapting McIntosh’s (1989) process for revealing “white privilege” as a way of making “male privilege” more visible in the United States. I also sometimes analyzed a story in terms of its positive and negative aspects, such as in Harley’s story about her bicultural identity, which offered both challenges and benefits in different ways. In addition, I looked at different cultural and personal meanings for the same words used by participants as in the case of “caring” and “acceptance” for Joe, “fatalism” and “generosity” for Ryder, “individualism” for Harley, and “sameness” and “difference” for Hyacinth. I also sometimes used two different “lenses” to read and re-read a story. In Hyacinth’s story about learning to “weave” people into the fabric of her life, I used a cultural lens in the first reading and a gendered lens for the second.

Additionally, for both layers of analysis, I used available empirical research, theoretical perspectives, popular media reports, and my own experiences as an RPCV educator to guide my analysis. My goal, as previously stated, was to offer alternative readings of the same experience in order to demonstrate the elusiveness of a single, unified meaning. It was not to inadvertently create a dualistic hierarchy between the two readings or to minimize the participants’ views or beliefs by suggesting that other perspectives were more “correct,” but to offer various viewpoints that may be more reflective of the range of diverse perspectives of RPCV educators overall.

Further, by using a post-structural hermeneutic perspective to analyze data I hope to bring theoretical depth to narrative inquiry as well as to enrich theoretical understandings of the experience of culture shock and reverse culture shock. In considering the place and balance of theory in narrative inquiry, Clandinin & Connelly (2000) noted that others have criticized narrative inquiry as “not theoretical enough” (p. 42). Although they did not reject theory out of hand, they suggested that the starting point of narrative inquiry is “experience as expressed in lived and told stories” (p. 40) rather than the study’s theoretical implications. Their concern seems to be related to the ways in which theory may work to structure or overshadow experience through theory’s privilege over experience within formalistic traditions. ← 18 | 19 → Recalling Derrida’s (1978) insistence that the relationship between self and Other be understood “from within a recourse to experience itself” (p. 83), I believe that the close relationship between theory and experience within a post-structural hermeneutic paradigm can work to allay this concern, in that it privileges neither theory nor experience but accepts both as parts of a whole that cannot exist completely separately. In fact, I argue that individuals act with certain theoretical intentions in mind. The actions they ultimately take in relation to others and the ways in which they perceive the outcomes, in turn, add support for their perspectives. Englehart (2001) asserted that attempts to dichotomize theory and practice create a “confusing enigma” (p. 371). She explained, “Practice is theory-in-place. Theory is practice-to-be, waiting to be enacted. Theory, then, is one’s understanding of the world. Practice is the enactment of that understanding” (p. 372).

She also noted that despite the perhaps uncomfortable “marriage” between practitioners and theorists, “neither divorce nor separation is possible” (p. 372). To that extent, I attempt to demonstrate the strong connection between post-structural hermeneutic theory and lived experience and to show that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, even if there is the tendency to think of theory and practice in this way. ← 19 | 20 →

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Before getting to the participants’ stories there are other “stories” that need to be told in order to create the context from which this study springs. These stories include a discussion about the current movement toward the internationalization of curriculum studies, some of the important questions being asked in this ongoing dialogue, how this internationalization shapes educators’ identities, and some of the ways in which educational institutions are promoting this internationalization. A second section offers a brief look at the Peace Corps—its beginnings, its proposed functions, the critiques levelled against it, and the storied perceptions of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) educators. A third section outlines the ways in which culture shock has been defined and conceptualized psychologically and metaphorically, with particular attention paid to aspects related to self-awareness, identity, learning, and growth. A fourth section similarly considers the ways in which reverse culture shock has been defined as well as some of the reasons why it remains relatively less explored than culture shock.

The Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

Since 2001, the International Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies (IAACS) has envisioned the internationalization of curriculum studies ← 21 | 22 → as both a “worldwide” dialogue regarding curriculum practices and a critique of the uniformity and standardization of curriculum encouraged by marketplace globalization (Pinar, n.d.). Gough (2003) further defined the internationalization of curriculum studies as “a process of creating transnational spaces in which scholars from different localities collaborate in reframing and decentering their own knowledge traditions and negotiate trust in each other’s contributions to their collective work” (p. 68). Others added that it is geared toward “the promotion of global peace and well-being” (Lee, 2007) and pointed out that such work is “never over, always on-going” (Smith, 2003, p. 46).

Pinar (2000) visualized the internationalization of curriculum studies not as an attempt to create a unified or standardized global curriculum but rather as a “conversation” (p. 5) that transcends national boundaries. He also argued that the internationalization of curriculum studies can work to counteract the “naïve,” narcissistic, and “imperialistic” inward focus of the American curriculum (pp. 4–5) by seeking to share with and learn from the practices of other educators working on both the local and global stages. I particularly appreciate this notion of curriculum as conversation, in that it suggests that through the sharing of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings from differing perspectives, something unique may be created in the interplay. I also note that such interplay requires the ability to reframe one’s way of knowing not as the way, but as one of many ways, to trust others and to be trusted, and to recognize that any conclusions about curriculum are never final, making such conversation both ongoing and multi-directional.

Within this transnational curriculum conversation, educators and curriculum researchers are voicing their concerns about the ways in which the neo-liberalist market practices that drive globalization are affecting the nature of public education and curriculum. Smith (2003) argued that these practices work to “delegitimize public education,” “commercialize the school environment” and pressure governments and schools into “adopting a human capital model of education” (p. 38). Sahlberg (2004) added that a key focus of the neo-liberalist agenda is standardization (especially through testing), which pits students, teachers, and schools in competition against one another (p. 67), de-professionalizes teaching, and “narrows curriculum and learning to basic skills in core academic subjects” (p. 76). While responding to these challenges, curriculum scholars are also asking broad questions particularly relevant to teaching in a globalized world: “How can we think globally without enacting some form of epistemological imperialism” (Gough, 2003, p. 63)? How can we teach “ethics and a sense of global responsibility that go beyond the bounds ← 22 | 23 → of the knowledge economy” (Sahlberg, 2004, p. 66)? And, “How should we address the topics of culture and identity in the organization of school knowledge” (Matus & McCarthy, 2003, p. 76)? Certainly, there are no easy answers to these questions, but in their asking and in contemplating issues related to the globalization of public education, one gets an idea of the tenuous contexts within which educators operate. While it seems that economic globalization works to standardize the curriculum without regard for local contexts or individual experiences and reduces both teachers and students to economic tools of the marketplace, the internationalization of curriculum studies, as a critique of globalization, works to engage educators in local, national, and international contexts in a dialogic exploration of differences, ethics, culture, and identity through curriculum in pursuit of self-understanding and mutual respect.

Another thread within this conversation on the internationalization of curriculum studies attends to the identity and position of teachers. Speaking at the LSU conference on the internationalization of curriculum, Pinar (2000) offered the following point of view:

we teachers are conceived by others, by the expectations and fantasies of our students and by the demands of parents, administrators, policymakers, and politicians, to all of whom we are sometimes the “other.” We are formed as well by their and our own internalized life histories. These various spheres or levels of self-constitution require investigation. Locating the process of knowing in the politics of identity suggests escaping the swirling waters created by the demands and pressure of others. The capacity to stand calmly in a maelstrom can come only with the knowledge of other worlds, with living in other realities, not split off or dissociated from the world of work. “Separate but connected” permits us to enter the work world in larger, more complex roles than those prescribed for us, making it less likely that we will collapse upon the social surface, reduced to what others make of us. (p. 10)

This perspective underscores some of the basic assumptions of my study, specifically that teachers are made “other” through the “expectations,” “fantasies,” and “demands” of others as well as through their own “internalized life histories.” This offers a fertile ground for curriculum inquiry in the spaces between and among the fantasies and the lived realities. Also, that the “process of knowing” is linked to the “politics of identity” underlies the belief that what one experiences of the world shapes both one’s identity and what one knows of the world, including teacher beliefs about the nature and the delivery of curriculum. Additionally, that “knowledge of other worlds” and “living in other realities” enables one to move beyond the teaching roles created by others and implies that the experience of otherness holds the potential for ← 23 | 24 → learning and growth. And lastly, that embodying an identity that is separate from, but connected to, the insular world of the school prevents one from becoming immersed in institutionalized definitions of one’s role. It also permits drawing insights and developing one’s identity in spaces beyond the school walls.

Pinar’s (2000) assertion that knowing is connected to identity, that teachers are formed (in part) by their own life histories, and that knowledge of, and experiences living in, other realities are important for teacher self-understanding, begs the question: What life experiences do teachers draw upon in order to teach inter- or transnationally? This theme is explored by Merryfield (2000), who examined the lived experiences of 80 teacher educators who were recognized for preparing teachers to “teach for diversity, equity, and interconnectedness in the local community, nation, and world” (p. 430). An important goal of her study was to examine the relationship between the lived experiences of these teachers and how they conceptualize their work as educators. In reviewing the life histories of these teacher educators she identified a number of experiences that guide them in their teaching. These include experiences of being seen as “different” (p. 432) or as “the Other” (p. 434), experiences that enable them to recognize “contradictions between beliefs, expectations or knowledge and the multiple realities of experience” (p. 439), developing a “double consciousness” in response to experiences of racism (p. 433), experiences with teachers and parents (as children) (p. 434), experiences with students and parents (as teachers) (pp. 437–438), travel (p. 434), and living in another country (pp. 435–436). Merryfield also noted that many of the teacher educators in her study experienced “culture shock” at various transition points in their lives and that living abroad was often cited as being the most influential experience for middle-class white teacher educators in their work as multicultural and global educators (p. 439). That the experience of “otherness” led to a “double consciousness” and that culture shock and living abroad were key experiences in developing their intercultural understanding (especially for middle class white teachers) helps provide direction for the current study. It also leaves me wondering what the experiences of living and teaching abroad may hold for teachers who do not represent the majority. Additionally, this leads me to explore the relationship between the internationalization of curriculum studies and research on educator study/teach abroad programs more in depth.

In a poll conducted by the International Association of Universities (IAU) that asked 176 higher education institutions in 66 different countries about ← 24 | 25 → their “practices and priorities of internationalization,” two of the key findings are that “Faculty are seen as the drivers for internationalization” and that the “Mobility of students and teachers is considered to be the most important reason for making internationalization a priority” (Knight, 2003, p. 3). Along these lines, Schneider (2003) found that study abroad is the top strategy for internationalizing secondary teacher education employed by many colleges and universities across the United States. More recently, Fischer (2008) argued that study abroad programs aimed at college/university faculty members themselves have been posited as a means to “create more-global campuses by cultivating a faculty of internationalists,” and such programs are recognized as a “bright spot” in higher education institutions’ “otherwise uneven efforts at internationalization” (p. 1). These findings underscore the important role that faculty and educators in general play in the area of internationalization. They also suggest that study abroad programs are a key factor in the development of educators’ international and intercultural awareness. It should be pointed out that study abroad is perhaps a misnomer in that such programs for teachers often involve not only studying but also teaching abroad. My subsequent use of the term “teacher study abroad” is used to denote the case in which educators not only travel abroad, but also teach abroad. In that the Peace Corps offers the opportunity to live and teach abroad, I would argue that it too is a special type of teach-abroad program, although there are considerable differences in structure, mission, and time spent in the host country. In spite of these differences, many of the experiences and the challenges faced by teachers in foreign environments are similar. Therefore, I think a brief review of the research on teacher study abroad, specifically those with a teaching component, can offer insights into the experiences, opportunities, and tensions that RPCV educators face in teaching in foreign environments, as well as what it may mean for the internationalization of curriculum studies.

Sandgren, Elig, Hovde, Krejci, and Rice (1999) theorized that educator experiences abroad lead to both self-awareness, defined as a “new or keener recognition of one’s thoughts, emotions, traits or behaviors,” and social awareness, described as a “new or keener recognition of social reality,” and that these changes in awareness foster changes in course content, teaching techniques, philosophy of teaching, and/or interactions with students (pp. 48–49). Many of the studies reviewed here seem to draw upon this same understanding, that experience is the key to unlocking other ways of viewing and interacting in the world. In general, the experiences that pre- and early service primary and secondary teachers in teacher study abroad programs ← 25 | 26 → engage in are related to dealing with differences in culture, both outside the school (adjusting to housing, shopping, and travelling) and within the school, through differences in curriculum, teacher roles, classroom management styles, school facilities, and teaching materials. They also sometimes deal with language differences. According to the research, navigating these differences provides opportunities for teachers to challenge mis/perceptions of the host culture, to shift their worldviews, and to develop self-awareness, self-confidence, intercultural awareness, personal and professional efficacy, and empathy for, or trust in, those seen as culturally different (Brindley, Quinn, & Morton, 2009; Cushner & Mahon, 2002; Escamilla, Aragon, & Fránquiz, 2009; Malewski & Phillion, 2009b; Pence & Macgillivray, 2008; Schlein, 2009; Tang & Choi, 2004; Willard-Holt, 2001; Zhao, Meyers, & Meyers, 2009). Other teachers, reflecting several years later how early teaching experiences abroad affected them in the long-term, also noted that teaching abroad gave them a greater self-confidence as well as a “more flexible sense of themselves and their own teaching” and an “increased comfort and ability to work with ambiguity and uncertainty” in foreign contexts (Garii, 2009, pp. 96–97). But, Garii (2009) wondered too how this “increased flexibility” translates to their teaching practices back home (p. 99), a theme I explore in the current study.

Although these studies point to the positive and transformative effects of teacher study abroad, some argue that neither placing people from different cultures in close proximity (Leask, 2004) nor experience by itself (Merryfield, 2000) is enough to foster the ability to teach from an intercultural or transnational perspective. Others contend that educator study abroad can be linked to “neo-imperialism, empire building, and the advance of global economic, cultural, and political systems” (Malewski & Phillion, 2009a). These assertions point to tensions within the study abroad literature. Willard-Holt (2001), for example, found that after teaching abroad for one week in Mexico, one teacher exhibited not just self-confidence, but “overconfidence,” saying that they could now “do anything,” and two others appeared to consider themselves “experts on multicultural teaching and the Mexican culture” (p. 514). Other research suggests that some teachers have difficulty making a connection between their experiences teaching abroad and teaching in the contexts of their classrooms at home (Schlein, 2009; Tang & Choi, 2004; Willard-Holt, 2001). And while teacher study abroad is touted as providing white middle-class teachers—who represent the majority of the primary and secondary teacher population in the U.S.—the opportunity to experience life ← 26 | 27 → as an Other (Garii, 2009; Merryfield, 2000; Schlein, 2009), Phillion and her colleagues observed that for some white teachers, the study abroad experience actually “reinforced—rather than challenged—feelings of blessedness and engendered…a ‘revival’ of White privilege” (Malewski & Phillion, 2009b, p. 53). In the case of minority educators, however, some reported greater acceptance, even popularity in some cases, or experienced less overt racism while teaching abroad than they did in the U.S. (Cushner & Mahon, 2002; Garii, 2009; Malewski & Phillion, 2009b; Zhao, Meyers, & Meyers, 2009).

In various ways, these tensions enable both educators and curriculum researchers to examine more closely the “interrelationships across identity, power, and experience that lead to a consciousness of other perspectives and a recognition of multiple realities” (Merryfield, 2000, p. 440). For example, Escamilla, Aragon, and Fránquiz (2009) utilized the tension between U.S. teachers’ “unconscious internalized beliefs about the inferiority of Mexican schools” (p. 275) and the reality they experienced in Mexican classrooms during a study abroad trip, to enable a shift in the U.S. teachers’ thinking about Mexican schools’ ability to provide a good education. Additionally, Malewski and Phillion (2009b) investigated how race, class, and gender shaped the study abroad experience and the worldview of two pre-service teachers—one a socioeconomically disadvantaged white female, the other a Hispanic male. In both of these studies, the tensions related to identity, power, and experience were generative sources for understanding relationships in “embodied and shifting” (Schlein, 2009, p. 28) intercultural contexts. Therefore, I argue that the tensions between differing perspectives are beneficial and should be incorporated into, rather than eliminated from, the learning process. In that these tensions develop contextually and relationally, the implication is that they cannot be “taught” through a curriculum of standardization, but rather are “experienced” and can be analyzed in an internationalized curriculum of conversation for both the challenges and the opportunities they may reveal.

The Peace Corps and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Educators

In this section I offer information about the Peace Corps past and present in order to provide a historical context for the current study. I also present some of the critiques of the Peace Corps, followed by research related to RPCV ← 27 | 28 → educators and their insights. According to the Peace Corps (2010b) website, as of this writing there are 8,655 volunteers and trainees working in 77 countries. Of those that are serving, 60% are women, 40% are men, and 19% are minorities. The average age of a volunteer is 28, although there is no age limit. The largest numbers of volunteers work in the Education sector (37%) and the largest percentage of volunteers serve in Africa (37%), followed by Latin America (24%), and Eastern Europe/Central Asia (21%). The website also indicates that the task of the Education volunteer is to “introduce innovative teaching methodologies, encourage critical thinking in the classroom, and integrate issues like health education and environmental awareness into English, math, science, and other subjects” (Peace Corps, 2010a). To me, it seems that the goal of introducing “innovative teaching methodologies” implies the superiority of PCVs’ teaching methodology, even though the majority of volunteer teachers are not education majors, lack teaching experience, and have little to no knowledge of the local teaching context (myself included). Likewise, “encouraging critical thinking” suggests a lack of critical thinking in the countries being served. Nowhere is it suggested that the education volunteer should be the learner, but rather a leader and an expert.

According to government documents (in Schur, 2000), the Peace Corps was created through Executive Order 10924, signed by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961. It was later established as an independent agency through Public Law 87–293, approved by Congress on September 22, 1961 (pp. 10–14). The Peace Corps’ three-point mission, which hasn’t changed since its creation in 1961, is “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women,” “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” and “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans” (Peace Corps, 2008, “The Peace Corps’ Mission”). While, on the surface, this mission points to the somewhat altruistic goals of providing assistance in the form of trained workers to countries in need and promoting cross-cultural understanding in those countries, another more political motive seems to underlie this mission: the use of American idealism to stamp out the spread of communism in developing countries. President Kennedy noted that unlike the U.S., the Soviet Union “had hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors, and nurses…prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism” and he was looking for a way to actively involve Americans in what he saw as the fight for democracy (Peace Corps, n.d.). Additionally, Schur (2000) believed that Kennedy hoped ← 28 | 29 → to “counter negative images of the ‘Ugly American’ and Yankee imperialism” by sending idealistic young Americans to spread goodwill in Third World countries and “help stem the growth of communism there” (p. 5). This means that the Peace Corps would be used, not only to supply other countries with trained workers or to promote cross-cultural learning, but also to create a positive image of America while spreading a decidedly American vision of democracy and freedom. And while Fischer (1998) agreed that the early Peace Corps administration promoted a form of cultural imperialism, he also argued that it is the experiences and the stories of Peace Corps volunteers that challenge that mission as well as the negative stereotypes of people in the non-Western world. Perhaps this is what may be called the “Peace Corps paradox”—that in some ways the Peace Corps, even today, functions to both support and counteract its own neo-colonialist assumptions.

Critiques of the Peace Corps, both at home and abroad, seemed to spring up almost immediately after its inception. At home, in August 1961, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) were worried that volunteers would be “living under abnormal conditions and encouraged to take part in the life of the nation, tribe, or community…as individuals….Separated from the moral and disciplinary influences of their homeland” and that “serious consequences” would result (in Longsworth, 1971, p. 84)—the implication being that the American way of life is “normal” and that volunteers need constant reminding of this normalcy or they may be led astray. Abroad, on the other hand, the Austrian philosopher/Roman Catholic priest Ivan Illich (1968) was concerned about U.S. volunteers’ effects on his adopted country of Mexico. In a speech he gave at the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP), he referred to all U.S. volunteers as “salesmen for the middle-class American Way of Life” and “vacationing do-gooders” who turn up in every corner of the world to “pretentiously” impose themselves and “create disorder” in other cultures, without considering the people in those cultures. He also noted that

The Peace Corps spends around $10,000 a year on each corps member to help him adapt to his new environment and to guard him against culture shock. How odd nobody ever thought about spending money to educate poor Mexicans in order to prevent them from the culture shock of meeting you? (p. 3)

He has a point. While Peace Corps volunteers (myself included) are often heralded as martyrs for a cause, it seems that little thought is given to the ← 29 | 30 → damage we may do—inadvertently or otherwise—in the countries we are intended to “serve.”

Another critique from the early days of the Peace Corps is that media portrayals of the Peace Corps experience are “too glowing, too glamorous, and too pat” in that they offer an “unvarying image of hardship, of sacrifice,” overstate the PCV’s potential as change agents, and that the difficulties some volunteers face are often “depressingly ordinary” (“Congress Told of Volunteer Problems, Too,” 1963, p. 4). This is not to say that volunteers do not face challenges or make sacrifices in joining the Peace Corps, simply that media images that present a uniform picture of Peace Corps life fail to capture the multiple facets of the actual experience. These media portrayals may also lead to unrealistic expectations on behalf of volunteers and affect the ways in which they envision their role.

More recent critiques include Strauss’ (2008) contention that the Peace Corps too often recruits young, inexperienced volunteers for jobs overseas for which they are ill-prepared, and as such they fail to offer the kind of assistance that host countries need. He also argued that the Peace Corps fails to properly assess its development efforts. A former Peace Corps Country Director in Cameroon from 2002–2007, Strauss wrote:

This lack of organizational introspection allows the agency to continue sending, for example, unqualified volunteers to teach English when nearly every developing country could easily find high-caliber English teachers among its own population. Even after Cameroonian teachers and education officials ranked English instruction as their lowest priority (after help with computer literacy, math and science, for example), headquarters in Washington continued to send trainees with little or no classroom experience to teach English in Cameroonian schools. One volunteer told me that the only possible reason he could think of for having been selected was that he was a native English speaker.

In response, some argued that “The Peace Corps is really more of a cultural-exchange program than an international development organization” (Clark, 2008) whose success “should be measured by how many cultural barriers and misconceptions have been cast aside and been replaced with a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the world around us” (Phillips, 2010).

In my own experience as an RPCV English teacher in Cameroon, each of the critiques above, as well as their counter-arguments, hold some merit and none alone present a complete picture of life in the Peace Corps. They do however provide certain tensions that RPCV educators must and do negotiate in various ways. A recurring tension seems to exist between the way RPCV ← 30 | 31 → educators’ roles are envisioned and portrayed by others and the actual lived reality of the RPCV educators’ experience. The ways in which RPCV educators negotiate this and other tensions are a prime concern of the current study.

Turning more specifically to the literature on RPCV educators, their experiences and insights have been catalogued in three main venues: through research on inner city/urban schools, through doctoral dissertations, and through newspaper and magazine articles (which were presented in the introduction). I begin with the research on inner city/urban schools. Immediately after the first groups of RPCV educators returned to the United States, they were assumed to possess certain attributes that made them especially qualified to teach in the inner city, namely, a “sense of commitment, desire to serve, flexibility, understanding and energy” (Daly, 1975, p. 385), as well as “knowledge of developing lands and peoples, their experience with different cultures, their adaptability to new and unfamiliar conditions, their skill in applying knowledge to practical problems” and the willingness to work in “undesirable” conditions (Ashabranner, 1968, p. 40). A more recent article makes a similar claim, suggesting RPCV educators’ suitability for teaching in inner-city schools because they “have learned how to deal with the economics of scarcity” (“Peace Corp is Good Preparation for Teaching,” 1993, p. 20). Ashabranner also saw similarities between teaching in Third World countries and teaching in inner cities. He wrote:

The volunteer usually must function in classrooms plagued by overcrowding, insufficient and irrelevant textbooks, bad discipline, and negative attitudes stemming from his students’ poor preparation, low physical stamina, and weak motivation. He encounters, in short, conditions strikingly similar to those in our own blighted inner-city schools: the nation’s number one problem in education today. (p. 39)

In his research, Longsworth (1971) found, however, that there are differences in the teaching contexts, namely that the respect shown teachers in other countries is not necessarily the case in the American classroom (p. 87). And RPCV educators respond to the classroom management issues they face in U.S. schools in a number of ways, including scaling down their expectations of students, finding ways to remain flexible and innovative—even more so than in their Peace Corps classrooms—and quitting teaching altogether (Ashabranner, 1968, p. 41).

In spite of these challenges, RPCV educators have been recruited for at least two notable projects that focus on inner-city and urban education: The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching and the Peace Corps Fellows/USA ← 31 | 32 → program. In 1963, the Cardozo Project sought to recruit 10 RPCVs to labor alongside social workers in developing curriculum at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. Their task was to develop “teaching techniques and teaching materials which are meaningful for culturally deprived children” as well as to “determine the kind of teacher-training best suited to urban high schools” (“Congress Told of Volunteer Problems, Too,” 1963, p. 5). In a letter sent to potential RPCV candidates, the principal of the school wrote that the project would determine:

whether two ingredients—a mostly Negro mid-city school in the center of a disadvantaged area of Washington, and the enthusiasm, creativity, and sense of social dedication which Peace Corps Volunteers have shown abroad—can be put together in a way which will light an intellectual fire and thereby perhaps begin a revolution in American urban education. (p. 5)

Later, the Cardozo Project began recruiting other types of teachers besides Peace Corps volunteers and the program eventually closed in 1968 (Daly, 1975, p. 385). Almost two decades later, the Peace Corps Fellows/USA program was started by former Peace Corps volunteer, Dr. Beryl Levinger, to recruit RPCV educators to work in the New York City school system in recognition of their “Innovative and practical ideas about education,” their “Sensitivity to cultural differences” and their “Tenaciousness in adverse conditions” (Peace Corps, 2010c). Today, Peace Corps Fellows complete internships in “underserved American communities” in a variety of areas including: Education, Community/Economic development, Business Administration, Public Policy, Leadership, Environmental Affairs, and International Political Economy and Development (Peace Corps, 2010c).

While much of the research, as noted above, is focused on the RPCV educator as especially, if not magically, qualified for teaching in the inner-city or urban school, I think it is also important to understand how the RPCV educator might function in public schools in general. The need to work, perhaps more diligently, with suburban and rural teachers in exploring the curriculum from an intercultural perspective is also suggested by a report from the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality and Public Agenda (Rochkind, Ott, Immerwahr, Doble, & Johnson, 2008). Through their phone interviews with 641 1st-year teachers, they found that in contrast to those teachers who plan to work in “high-needs schools,” the teachers “headed for more suburban and working-class schools are just not prepared for the diversity they will find” (p. 12). ← 32 | 33 →

Scholarly dissertations have also provided insights into RPCV experiences with teaching and living abroad. A Peace Corps Wiki chronicling the “Dissertations Relating to Peace Corps” (2010) provides an index of 51 master’s theses and/or doctoral dissertations written between 1964 and 2008. Nine of these dissertations relate to RPCV educators. Three of these dissertations are particularly relevant to the current study (Cross, 1998; Hammerschlag, 1996; Myers, 2001). In general, these dissertations examine RPCV educator’s experiences teaching abroad and their effects on teaching at home, albeit in slightly different ways. While Cross (1998) looked at how the Peace Corps experience affected RPCV’s personal and professional efficacy, Hammerschlag (1996) and Myers (2001) wanted to learn how RPCV educators incorporated their overseas experience in their teaching. While all of the studies found that the Peace Corps experience increases RPCV educators’ intercultural awareness, Myers and Cross discovered that the effects of the Peace Corps experience were more profound on the teacher as an individual rather than on their teaching. At the same time, Hammerschlag noted that RPCV educators perceive a more direct connection between their experience and “how and what they teach” (p. 147). Cross, who was the only researcher to perform classroom observations, however, indicated that the increased intercultural awareness that RPCV educators spoke about during their interviews was not necessarily observable in their teaching. Additionally, the RPCVs in these studies are framed in uniformly positive and glowing terms as “gentle idealists, supporting forms of activism for human rights, and helping people help themselves to build a better future for themselves, their children, and families” (Myers, 2001, p. 21); as having “spirit,” a “can-do attitude,” and “the ability to triumph in the face of difficult school situations” (Cross, 1998, p. ii.); and as possessing the “traits of altruism, dedication, selflessness” and a willingness to “offer more time than they are paid,” engendering jealousy and resentment among some of their host country counterparts (Hammerschlag, 1996, p. 51). Further, despite being labeled altruists, Myers discovered that the main reason the RPCV educators in her study joined the Peace Corps was “personal achievement and self-gain” (p. 201). In some ways this suggests that RPCV educators are shaped a great deal by the media images indicated in the critiques presented earlier in this section. Some might say that the uniformly positive portrayals of RPCVs, despite what their experiences reveal, point to a gap in intercultural awareness by providing a one-sided perspective and concealing the complicated nature of Peace Corps experiences. I suggest that exploring all ← 33 | 34 → facets of Peace Corps experience, both the seemingly “positive” and “negative” aspects, does not detract, but rather adds to that experience.

Culture Shock

In this section, I offer some of the ways in which culture shock has been conceptualized and defined, the causes of culture shock, the stages of, and emotional reactions to, culture shock, the limited research on teacher culture shock, and potential uses of culture shock in the curriculum. According to the literature, the term “culture shock” was initially used by Cora Du Bois in 1951 to describe the experiences of anthropologists working in the field, but it was another anthropologist, Kalervo Oberg, who later popularized the term and extended its use to include other groups working in foreign countries (La Brack, n.d.; Hart, 2005). In 1954, Oberg referred to culture shock as “a malady…an occupational disease of people who have been suddenly transplanted abroad” with its own “etiology, symptoms, and cure” (p. 1). Along these lines, some have suggested that culture shock is similar to some forms of mental illness (Kron & Faber, 1973; Weaver in Hart, 2005). This categorization seems to focus on the “negative” emotional reactions associated with culture shock. Others, however, tend to emphasize the positive outcomes of culture shock as a “learning experience” (Sitton, 1976) leading to “a state of high self- and cultural awareness” (Adler, 1976). Still, others point out that self- and cultural awareness are not necessarily givens, that “emotional…stagnation” (Garza-Guerrero, 1974), or the development of negative stereotypes of other cultures may result (David, 1971). Taking these perspectives together, perhaps it is safe to say that there are both negative and positive aspects of culture shock, the experience of which holds at least the potential for learning and growth.

The most common causes of culture shock for the sojourner in the foreign culture are a loss of familiar cues such as words, gestures, customs, and beliefs (David, 1971; Kron & Faber, 1973; Oberg, 1954); the enormous loss of “love objects” such as family, friends, language, music, and food (Garza-Guerrero, 1974, p. 410); a lack of understanding of other cultures as well as a means to fully communicate within those cultures (Oberg, 1954); and ethnocentrism (Oberg, 1954; Sitton, 1976), which Oberg defined as the “belief that not only the culture but the race and the nation are the center of the world” (p. 6). The literature also suggests additional causes that compound the experience of culture shock for Americans, such as the middle-class focus on “practical and ← 34 | 35 → utilitarian values” and “work as a means to personal success” (Oberg, 1954, p. 7) rather than relating success to the interrelationships of race, power, and social status, leading to the belief that Americans are “culture-free” (Adler, 1976; Stillar, 2007) products of their own individuality, and therefore able to “adjust to anything” (Adler, 1976, p. 21). In reviewing these causes, it seems that culture shock involves the realization that one’s own meaning and value systems are not shared universally. They also suggest that the experience may be especially difficult for sojourners who do not consider their values and beliefs as culturally derived.

A good deal of the literature also focuses on the stages of, and emotional reactions to, culture shock. Zapf (1991) identified 19 examples of stage models from 1954 to 1985 (p. 108) and his is not an exhaustive list. Although each model uses different terms for each stage, they tend to follow a similar four-stage model expressed by Oberg (1954), with an initial Honeymoon stage characterized by a superficial fascination with the new culture (p. 2); a second Crisis stage when the newness wears off and physical and/or emotional discomfort sets in (p. 3); a third Recovery stage in which the sojourner begins to adapt linguistically and culturally to the new environment (pp. 3–4); and a final Adjustment stage in which the sojourner accepts and enjoys the new culture as “just another way of living” (p. 4). And within these stages, the research lists a number of variable emotional reactions to culture shock, including some that are considered “negative,” such as frustration, anxiety, depression, anger, helplessness, fears of being cheated, contaminated, or disregarded, and a strong desire to return to the home culture (Adler, 1976; David, 1971; Oberg, 1954), and some that are “positive,” such as excitement, fascination, creativity, a sense of challenge, stimulation, enthusiasm, and confidence (Zapf, 1991).

While it is important to be aware of the stages of, and responses to, culture shock as points of reference, Garza-Guerrero (1974) and La Brack (n.d.) suggested that the models may be too simplistic and too linear in their focus. For example, La Brack wrote that these models

did not capture either the apparent “messiness” and unpredictability of the process, nor did they account for cases where it appeared that the stages did not occur in order, were frequently repeated, seemed compressed or blended, or were absent altogether. In that culture shock may or may not occur in stages with or without accompanying emotional responses, the research suggests the need to approach culture shock as perhaps a predictable occurrence, yet one that has contextual and individual implications which cannot be predicted in advance. ← 35 | 36 →

One might conceivably ask at this point how the study of culture shock relates to teaching and how it may be utilized for educational purposes. Kron and Faber (1973) believed that the “great increase in student and teacher mobility” (p. 507) is cause for examining student/teacher relationships in terms of culture shock. They further argued that teacher performance is “adversely affected by culture shock” and that students also “suffer if the teacher’s reaction to culture shock is highlighted by anxiety, frustration, self-doubt, shouting, fear, and other disabling symptoms common to the phenomenon” (p. 507). In the time following Kron and Faber’s article, little (if any) research has dealt explicitly with teacher culture shock within public education, even though the statistics presented in the opening of that paper indicate heightened student mobility leading to teacher anxiety over cultural differences. For teachers in teach-abroad programs, culture shock was alternately mentioned in negative terms by Cushner and Mahon (2002), in positive terms as a form of “dissonance” by Tang and Choi (2004), while a third study found the interplay of both “consonance” and “dissonance” equally meaningful in shaping teachers’ experiences (Brindley, Quinn, & Morton, 2009). I expected to read more detailed accounts of culture shock in the Peace Corps dissertations I reviewed earlier, however, culture shock was offered almost in passing, and there was no real attempt to link culture shock to the myriad experiences and perspective shifts their participants recounted. It is possible that the label “culture shock” may have negative or painful connotations that conflict with the positive image of the Peace Corps, but while I agree that the experience of culture shock may be a painful one, it need not be disabling. I share Adler’s (1976) assertion that culture shock is at once a “form of alienation” as well as symbolic of the “attempt to comprehend, survive in, and grow through immersion in a second culture” (p. 14). In short, the so-called disabling aspects of culture shock listed above appear to be an integral part of the process of developing a sense of self and intercultural awareness. The trick is in utilizing the “negative” aspects of culture shock to stimulate learning and growth.

In considering how a notion of culture shock may be invited into curriculum in a broad sense, I draw on the literature that brings together the theoretical (Adler, 1976), practical (Sitton, 1976; David, 1971), analytical (Archer, 1986), and metaphorical/spiritual (Hart, 2005) aspects of culture shock. From a theoretical perspective, Adler considered culture shock as a transitional experience indicative of a shift from low to high personal and cultural awareness. Unlike the models that view culture shock as a sickness to be cured, Adler believed that the final stage of culture shock “is a state of dynamic ← 36 | 37 → tension in which self and cultural discoveries have opened up the possibility of other depth experiences” (p. 18). In order to understand culture shock as a transitional experience, Adler made the following four assumptions: Each person experiences the world through culturally prescribed values, assumptions, and beliefs; most people are unaware of their values, beliefs, and attitudes, and movement into new environments and new experiences “tend to bring cultural perceptions and predispositions into perception and conflict”; through the resulting “psychological, social, or cultural tension, each person is forced into redefinition of some level of his/her existence”; and “The reorientation of personality at higher levels of consciousness and psychic integration is based upon the disintegrative aspects of personality” (pp. 14–15). For the teacher, this implies developing an awareness of, and ability to separate, one’s culturally nominated and personally modified values, assumptions, and beliefs with regard to cultural differences. It also suggests tolerating and exploring the tensions that such a realization may produce, recognizing all the while that before growth, a certain sense of disintegration and disorientation must be experienced. These are certainly no easy tasks, especially since there is what I perceive to be an American cultural value on avoiding and/or escaping the state of dynamic tension that is key to Adler’s theory.

Focusing more specifically on classroom practice, Sitton (1976) argued that culture shock has largely been ignored in schools. He suggested taking an interdisciplinary anthropological approach to curriculum that focuses on cultural differences despite his notion that a “melting pot dogma, along with the fear of controversy and lack of teacher preparation, has worked to keep curriculum and methods designed to teach about cultural difference out of the classroom” (p. 207). According to Sitton, a foreign culture (or subculture) may act as a “necessary other” providing the “supreme pedagogic strategy for studying one’s own culture and oneself” (p. 209). Within his intercultural curriculum, the primary role of the teacher becomes that of cultural “learner” and only secondarily that of change agent (p. 209). While Sitton urged the study of “whole cultures” through ethnographic accounts, especially in the Social Studies classroom, he did not indicate clearly how the experience of culture shock may be brought into the classroom. In that culture shock may be considered a form of experiential learning, David (1971) believed that the “extremeness of the experience seems to be important in developing self-awareness” because it “takes a severe jolt for many of us to overcome our complacent acceptance of culturally determined behaviors” (p. 47). While I appreciate Sitton’s emphasis on cultural differences, the role of the teacher as ← 37 | 38 → cultural explorer, and the self-awareness that culture shock may inspire, I am also concerned that cultures may be presented as simplistic, static, unchanging and that their study at such a level may not advance the learner beyond the Honeymoon stage. I also wonder if the RPCV educator can take on the role of “necessary other” in order to create the culture shock needed to inspire self and cultural awareness, not only abroad where they are necessarily the Other, but also at home, where they may be expected to support the status quo.

From an analytical perspective, Archer (1986) discussed a self-reflective process for teachers to use in analyzing what she called “culture bumps” in the classroom. She said that “A culture bump occurs when an individual from one culture finds himself or herself in a different, strange or uncomfortable situation when interacting with persons of a different culture” (pp. 170–171). She believed that in recognizing and depersonalizing the uncomfortable encounter with cultural differences in the classroom, the teacher may use the discomfort to open dialogue with the self and with students in order to explore differences at an emotionally safer cultural level. Archer’s (1986) process asks teachers to:

  1. Pinpoint some time when they felt “different” or noticed something different when they were with someone from another culture.
  2. Define the situation.
  3. List the behaviors of the other person.
  4. List their own behavior.
  5. List their feelings in the situation.
  6. List the behaviors they expect from people in their own culture in that same situation.
  7. Reflect on the underlying value in their culture that prompts the behavior expectation. (pp. 171–172)

From my perspective, Archer’s reflective process is a non-threatening and non-violent method for exploring cultural differences in the self, the classroom, and the curriculum. It also points to the role of underlying cultural expectations as a factor leading to culture shock. The questions she posed may also be useful for analyzing my own participants’ experiences with culture shock in their classrooms.

And, lastly, I note a metaphorical/spiritual approach to culture shock in Hart’s (2005) linking of the stages of culture shock and reverse culture shock to Campbell’s study of the “hero’s journey” in ancient mythology. In using the metaphor of the hero’s journey, Hart opened a pathway for understanding ← 38 | 39 → culture shock and reverse culture shock in a way that resonates, at least in Jungian terms, deep within the psyche. The myth of the hero’s journey spans many cultures and is readily accessible in popular literature and media. It involves an otherwise ordinary person leaving home, facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, completing some type of heroic task, and returning home with new-found wisdom. Some examples of the hero’s journey in American film culture can be found in the Star Wars series, the Alien(s) series, the movie Avatar, and certainly all of the comic book hero film series. The myth of the hero’s journey also appears in the ancient stories of spiritual teachers—Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and many others. These spiritual stories seem to form the basis from which current hero’s journey myths are drawn. I would also argue that it is the myth of the hero’s journey that underscores the Peace Corps ideology and experience.

With regard to culture shock, I note that in Hart’s (2005) schematic the “Ultimate Ordeal” in the hero’s journey is related to the “Crisis” stage in culture shock. According to Hart it is through this stage that the hero “gains enlightenment through her actions” and is thus transformed. I think it is also interesting that through this process, the hero learns to walk in “both worlds,” which may complicate her life once she returns home. In fact, as Hart noted, “Sometimes the hero returns and her world does not want what she brings” (2005). I feel the significance of this work is to point out the spiritual aspects of culture shock in a way that is easily accessible to teachers and students due to the proliferation of hero’s journey myths in the popular media of many cultures. I wonder too if the participants in my study drew upon their own myths and metaphors in order to understand their Peace Corps teaching experience.

Reverse Culture Shock

Unlike culture shock, reverse culture shock (also called reentry shock) appears to be somewhat ignored and under-theorized in the literature even though many consider it to be more challenging than the experience of culture shock (Anjarwalla, 2010; La Brack, 1985; Miller, 1988; Sussman, 1986; Szkudlarek, 2009; Weaver, n.d.). For example, La Brack (1985) believed that reverse culture shock is under-theorized because it is not seen as a problem, and in some “conservative and hierarchical societies” reverse culture shock is a sign of “disloyalty, subversion, or even mental incompetence” (p. 16). ← 39 | 40 → I think it is also possible that some consider reverse culture shock simply a mirror image or extension of culture shock and therefore it needs no further theoretical underpinning. However, the research suggests that while the emotional reactions to culture shock and reverse culture shock may be similar, the causes are somewhat different. Therefore, I begin by reviewing some of the causes and emotional responses to reverse culture shock, followed by a review of the scant literature on teacher reverse culture shock.

One of the most frequently cited causes of reverse culture shock appears to be its unexpectedness and consequently the sojourner’s lack of preparedness for the experience (Anjarwalla, 2010; La Brack, 1985; Miller, 1988; Sussman, 1986; Szkudlarek, 2009; Weaver, n.d.). That returnees do not expect to experience reverse culture shock is due to a number of reasons. One reason is the way in which the notion of “home” has been idealized. La Brack (1985) said thoughts of “going home” seem to “conjure up images of warmth, acceptance, familiarity, scenes of reuniting, and leave no room for negativity or ambiguity” (p. 4). Returnees may also be unaware of the changes in themselves and their home culture that occurred while they were abroad (Sussman, 1986) and fail to consider that their “self-system and the former social system” have been progressing along “divergent paths” (Jansson, 1975, p. 136). Returnees also expect the people in the home culture to be understanding and supportive, yet may find that friends, family, and colleagues lack interest in their experiences abroad and may expect the returnee to act “normal” (Sussman, 1986). Family and friends may also show little empathy for the difficulties returnees face upon their return (Weaver, n.d.) or view the returnee’s problems as being due to a willful “refusal to act ‘normal’ and ‘fit in’” (La Brack, 1985). The returnee may be labeled as a “deviant” (Jansson, 1975; La Brack, 1985) and as a “minority” as “defined by those who remained in the group” (Jansson, 1975, p. 137). Adler (1981) added that xenophobia, or the lack of understanding of and appreciation of foreigners and foreign experience, also plays a negative role in the way returnee’s workplace effectiveness is rated.

In addition, Weaver (n.d.) believed the underlying cause for the difficulties related to reverse culture shock appears to be a breakdown in interpersonal communication. He wrote:

When people communicate, they send messages not meanings. The meanings are in their heads, and the messages merely express them…what would be a message to one person may have no meaning whatsoever to another. Of course, most people assume everyone else pays attention to the same messages they do and that everyone gives the messages the same meaning. (p. 3) ← 40 | 41 →

This research points to the seemingly overwhelming mismatch in expectations on behalf of both the returnee and those in the home culture as a major cause of reverse culture shock. Chief among these expectations appears to be the belief that meanings are shared, perhaps due to the illusion that neither the sojourner nor the home culture has changed. The research also points to the home culture’s considerable attempts to divest the returnee of their hard-won, newly acquired “deviant” identity. It is the RPCV educator’s struggle with the home culture’s attempts to redefine them and the ways in which they communicate and obfuscate their deviant identity in their teaching that helps shape the current study.

Some of the emotional responses to reverse culture shock include: euphoria, anger, a sense of powerlessness, a fear of rejection, guilt, pain, a sense of being out of control, frustration, aggression, hopelessness, helplessness, disillusionment, increased sleep, avoidance of others, and a denial of the impact of reverse culture shock (Jansson, 1975; Weaver, n.d.). Weaver (n.d.) also offered that “The increased global-mindedness of returnees is sometimes accompanied by increased intolerance of parochialism on the part of those at home” (p. 8). But, as with culture shock, it is difficult to predict how the returnee will respond or make meaning in any specific context. While the research here paints a somewhat negative experience of reverse culture shock, the opposite is also possible, and more likely there is a mix of both positive and negative experiences that accompany reverse culture shock.

Despite La Brack’s (1985) contention that as a stressful transitional experience, reverse culture shock can, like culture shock, be a valuable learning experience (p. 11), I could find no explicit attempt to explore its utility in the public school curriculum. Perhaps this is due to the stigma surrounding reverse culture shock that La Brack hinted at in the opening of this section, or perhaps it’s because of the lack of teachers who experience reverse culture shock. For this review, I located only one autobiographical example of teacher reentry (Miller, 1988), but the teacher apparently did not go back to classroom teaching upon her return, so it is not clear how her experience of reverse culture shock may have affected her teaching at home. Still, her experiences and insights are valuable in preparation for the current study.

Miller’s (1988) experiences of reverse culture shock tend to confirm the research presented above. She was unprepared for the force of the reverse culture shock she experienced and felt unable to adequately communicate her experiences teaching abroad, especially to friends, who seemed to lack interest in her experiences and simply wanted her to be the same person that she was before. ← 41 | 42 → Issues surrounding food and shopping seem to be especially shocking. She spoke of the shock she felt regarding overinflated prices, waste, and excess, and the occurrence of obesity among so many young people. These perceptions are similar to those of RPCVs who indicated in U.S. Peace Corps & Graul (in Szkudlarek, 2009) that some of the most challenging aspects of reverse culture shock were “materialism, waste of goods, indifference of home country citizens, and the fast pace of living” (p. 11). Additionally, Miller felt “paralyzed” by having so many choices in her market and “immoral” after eating a meal in a restaurant equal to six weeks’ salary for a teacher in her host country (p. 15). She also indicated that as a woman who left her 51-year-old husband and two children (who live away from home) to teach for a year abroad, she was criticized particularly harshly. Although painful, Miller’s experiences with reverse culture shock also enable her to challenge some of her cultural beliefs:

Many basic American cultural assumptions make no sense to me. I do not believe that more is better, that it is wise to borrow now and pay later (or never), or that history has no place in current affairs. I believe that it is socially destructive to pursue policies geared to short-sighted monthly balance and to brazen competitiveness. (p. 21)

Despite the overwhelming cultural force to negate her overseas experience, she refused to reject her experience as “non-transferable” (p. 22). To overcome her feelings of helplessness, she seeks out the company of others who have taught in her host country, keeps contact with friends in her host country, continues to study and practice the art form that she learned in her host country and helps prepare other teachers to teach abroad. Spending time with others who share both experiences teaching abroad and reverse culture shock at home has enabled her to laugh at other “peoples’ insensitivity and superficial questions” (p. 23) and led her to characterize American life as focused on “Emotionalism,” “Expense,” and “Ego” (p. 24).

Miller’s (1988) narrative evokes her struggle to maintain her double consciousness while her home culture seems indifferent to this heightened awareness and in some ways seems intent on negating it. I think it is important to note, however, that her initial feelings of shock and paralysis caused her to reflect on her intercultural beliefs and challenged her to develop a creative synthesis of both her foreign and home cultures in her personal life. Yet, missing from her story are the ways in which her experience of reverse culture shock and the resulting insights affected her classroom teaching, a gap I hope to address in the current study. ← 42 | 43 →

· 2 ·



Joe was a 58-year-old Hispanic male teaching sophomore English at the time of my interviews with him. Joe had also taught speech at an inner-city high school for 1 year and then speech and journalism at another high school for 5 years prior to joining the Peace Corps. During his Peace Corps service, Joe taught English as a foreign language at a university in an urban city in the Eastern European country of Moldova from 2006 to 2008. I met Joe at his home on a hot and dry sunny summer morning. Outside, cotton-candy clouds filled the wide blue sky. Inside, we sat face to face with a small table between us in front of two large open windows at the front of his house. As we talked, the curtains floated up from time to time thanks to a gentle breeze, and as they moved back and forth, they sounded like soft ocean waves lapping the seashore. During the interview there were also birds chirping, a mourning dove cooing, and cicadas intermittently stopping and starting their engines. It was as if nature were providing both an audience and background music for our interview. Later we also took a short tour of the town where Joe lived and continued our interview at the high school where he taught. ← 43 | 44 →

One of the first things I noticed about Joe was that he wore a small golden cross earring. During the interview, Joe referred to the earring as being part of his Christian identity. He noted, “I wear this earring because I’m a Christian….I’m letting people know this is who I believe in.” When I asked him what the Moldovans he encountered thought about his earring, he said they “hated it” because they saw it as “sacrilegious.” Our brief discussion about the meaning of Joe’s earring reminded me of a time when I bought a large wooden carved statue of Ganesha, a Hindu god in the form of an elephant, while I was in India to attend a friend’s wedding. Upon my return to the U.S., I moved the statue around my house trying to find the perfect spot for it, ultimately deciding it looked best in my guest bathroom. When my Indian friends saw the statue in the bathroom, they were, well, horrified. A god in the bathroom with a toilet!? I ultimately gave the statue to them as a belated wedding present because I realized that while for me the statue was a beautiful work of art, for them, it was a living deity. That these religious objects—the golden cross earring and the Ganesha statue—held different meanings from different cultural perspectives, raises issues of negotiating meaning across cultural boundaries. Who “owns” the meaning of an object? How does one show dis/respect for such objects? Can different meanings co-exist? To what extent am I willing to hold fast to my meaning? As borders open and boundaries shift, these questions become more relevant. Perhaps an important first step in contemplating these questions lies in realizing that other perspectives exist to begin with.

Although Joe addressed a number of themes in his stories, he seemed to continually return to the notion of care—especially how his Peace Corps experiences made him a more caring person and educator. He also emphasized the need to teach students how to be creative, so I have titled his chapter Toward a Pedagogy of Creativity and Caring. For Joe’s chapter, I have included one culture shock story, two identity shift stories, one reverse culture shock story, and a final story about his pedagogy. The first story deals with the culture shock Joe experienced while attempting to learn the languages of Moldova. In the first reading of the story, Joe shared his feelings of vulnerability and sense of danger involved in learning a new language and negotiating a different culture. In re-reading the story I look at the ways in which vulnerability may be considered a strength and how danger might be useful. In the Identity Shift I story, Joe shares an experience in which he discovers a woman who had committed suicide outside his apartment building in Moldova and how uncaring the other Moldovans were with regard to the woman’s death. He also talks about the Moldovan’s acceptance of their domination by others and ← 44 | 45 → how healing this acceptance was for him. I read this story in terms of acceptance as a lack of resistance and as a form of healing. In re-reading the story, I find that acceptance can actually be a form of resistance but that it is not necessarily healing. In the Reverse Culture Shock story, Joe talks about how his return to the U.S. made him realize how uncaring and materialistic Americans are. Through his Peace Corps experiences, Joe explains how he became less materialistic and more caring and how he refused to “play the game.” In re-reading this story I look at the concept of “postmaterialism” and how one may “play the game differently.” In the fourth story, Identity Shift II, Joe discusses how he took on a new Moldovan identity and became more caring, which he related to self-sacrifice. In re-reading the story, I question the notion of taking on a completely new identity and look at caring in terms of self-gain. In the fifth and final story related to Joe’s pedagogy, he explains how teaching in Moldova, where rote learning was the standard pedagogy, highlighted the need to teach his students (both in Moldova and the U.S.) how to be creative. Through my re-reading, I find that rote learning can be a form of so-called “meaningful” learning and that creativity is not necessarily a positive value.

Culture Shock I: Intercultural Experience as Vulnerability and Danger

Despite his craving for adventure and excitement, Joe thought it was “strange” that he was sent to teach English in Moldova, given that he was fluent in Spanish. He had assumed that he would be posted in a Spanish-speaking country and would not need to learn a new language. He also felt he could have “done so much more” as a teacher in a Spanish-speaking country because he understood the language and the culture. Nonetheless, he accepted his Peace Corps assignment, but his difficulty in learning the languages in Moldova (Romanian and Russian) was an ongoing source of culture shock for Joe.

Ironically, it was because he was often surrounded by so many people that spoke English (his Moldovan English teaching counterparts, his language tutor that followed him everywhere and translated for him, his homestay mother and sister who had studied in the U.S., etc.) that it was “so horrible” to be “alone” when attempting to communicate with Moldovans who did not speak English. Joe said that “Language is such an indicator of who you are” that he felt “extremely vulnerable” because he couldn’t learn Romanian as quickly as he wanted to. He said that in the beginning he was only able to use ← 45 | 46 → the “most basic of words,” like a “small child,” and that he talked “like a baby,” which was a “very humiliating experience.”

When I asked him to describe a time when this difficulty with language made him uncomfortable, he stated emphatically, “if you’re asking me was I uncomfortable, my God, I was uncomfortable all the time, unless I was in the classroom teaching.” He said that in the classroom, if one of the students was having difficulty understanding him, the other students would happily assist by translating in Romanian. He also elaborated that he felt “inadequate” in his ability to learn the language and said that “the whole experience there was sort of like walking on ice…you didn’t know when you were going to give way because…you weren’t prepared.” He added that “not knowing how to communicate is the worst damn thing you can have…it stopped me from doing a lot of things that I would’ve liked to do because I didn’t know…how to speak to people.”

Joe also shared a story about a time in which his difficulty with language added to his sense of culture shock. It was during his first commute to the capital city where, as part of his training, he was to participate in a practice school at a prestigious university. He explained that his language skills at the time were very basic, and that although he was “honored” and “excited” to teach at the university, he simultaneously felt “nervous to break away from the group [of other Peace Corps volunteers] and the comfort they gave in familiarity.” As he waited for the “rutiera” (a 16-passenger van used for public transport) to arrive, he noted that the villagers were “staring” at him. Once inside the van, people filled both the seats and the aisles to the point that he “was pressed by people on all sides,” which made him “uncomfortable” due to the lack of “personal space.”

Joe only had a large bill to pay for the trip and he passed it forward with the assistance of the other passengers, but he didn’t receive any change back and didn’t know how to ask for it. During their first stop, Joe decided to confront the driver in his “best broken Romanian” but to no avail. He felt angry that the driver was ignoring him and trying to cheat him by pretending he didn’t know what Joe was saying. He recalled, “I was at a loss. I kept thinking, ‘Why in the hell did I come here?’ The people seemed so rude and uncaring. I was fuming and I felt so helpless. It was the helplessness that made it so unbearable.”

Fortunately for Joe, several of the women from his village began to yell excitedly at the driver, and the driver, giving a sheepish grin, finally returned Joe’s change. Joe felt “overwhelmed with gratitude” to the women, ← 46 | 47 → especially since they really didn’t know him, or anything about him, except that perhaps he lived in their village. He felt equally “helpless” in trying to express the depth of his gratitude so he simply said “thank you” in Romanian. Satisfied that he had finally gotten his change, he waited quietly for the van to depart. But a few minutes later, the van driver announced that he would not be driving them on into the capital. Joe watched as the other passengers quietly left the vehicle and began looking for an alternative van. He said he was “blown away with the fact that [the van driver] just quit driving us. The people there just accepted his decision without even a grumble.”

Once Joe finally arrived at the university, he used his experience as a discussion topic with his students. He wrote, “We had a great time getting to know each other based on the hardships of travel in a developing nation.” He also thought about the women in the van. He reflected that “in the hustle and bustle of getting [to the university], I suddenly realized the women of my village and how much it meant to me. It was heroic efforts like theirs that helped me to decide to stay there.”

In this narrative, Joe experienced some of the classic symptoms of culture shock (Oberg, 1954; David, 1971; Adler, 1976) including feeling “nervous” about leaving the comfort and familiarity of the other American Peace Corps volunteers, feeling “helpless” and angry about being cheated and not being able to communicate well, feeling “uncomfortable” due to being stared at as well as the lack of personal space, feeling “surprise” at the other passengers’ response to the driver’s decision to quit driving them in the middle of their trip, and, ultimately, questioning why he chose to be in Moldova in the first place. I was also struck by Joe’s feelings of vulnerability. According to Straub (2009), vulnerability is a part of the intercultural experience and is linked to the threat to one’s identity. He wrote,

Those who open up towards the Other and the Strange in certain ways compromise the Self…allowing the appearance of “weakness,” of vulnerability and mutability to encourage fellow humans in a way scarcely controllable to intrude upon, and interfere with the Self. (p. 220)

In “opening up towards” Moldovan culture through language learning and social interaction, Joe expressed both his vulnerability and the threat to his identity when he described feeling like a “small child,” “talking like a baby,” and feelings of unbearable “helplessness.” Small children and babies are especially vulnerable and dependent on others. Thinking of himself as both ← 47 | 48 → helpless and dependent challenged Joe’s notion of himself as an independent adult, which in turn made him feel “humiliated.”

Joe’s simile/metaphor of his intercultural experience as “like walking on ice” also spoke to his vulnerability. When someone is “vulnerable,” they are “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” (“Vulnerable,” 2012). Similarly, in “walking on ice,” there is always the threat of slipping, falling down, and getting hurt. Joe’s metaphor seems to express Joe’s underlying belief that intercultural experience can be dangerous. In describing his “whole experience” as “like walking on ice” because “you didn’t know when you were going to give way,” Joe also implied that the danger was ever present and could occur in ways that were “scarcely controllable” as alluded to in the quote above.

Re-reading Culture Shock I: Vulnerability as Strength and Danger as Useful

Joe’s intercultural experience seemed to draw out his feelings of vulnerability that he perceived in a negative light. However, some research has linked vulnerability to the development of emotional growth through the experience of stressful or traumatic experiences (Murphy & Moriarity, 1976; Updegraff & Taylor, 2000). Jordan (2008) shared the view that vulnerability holds the potential for “real growth” (p. 198), and she challenged dominant views of vulnerability as weakness. She wrote,

Models of strength, both in our psychological theories and in culture at large, emphasize strength in separation, supremacy of thought over feeling, objectification, and instrumentality….While this is supposedly a model of strength, it basically rests on a fear-based model that denies vulnerability. (p. 193)

Instead, she argued that in recognizing, “respecting,” and “supporting” (p. 198) our own and others’ vulnerability (but not over-valorizing it) one moves “toward empathy, true connection, and toward a model of deep human caring” (p. 190), an approach that she calls “strength in vulnerability” or “supported vulnerability” (p. 194). I agree with Jordan’s suggestion that acknowledging one’s vulnerability enables relating to both self and others in a different way. For example, in their study of vulnerability in the medical profession, Malterud and Hollnagel (2005) found that when doctors, who were often viewed as “omnipotent, detached, and impersonal,” shared their own feelings and experiences ← 48 | 49 → of vulnerability with their patients, their patients “appreciated” this sharing and found it to be “beneficial” to their own treatment (p. 348). In re-examining Joe’s story through the lenses of relation and connection, I found that while Joe’s vulnerability drew out a manipulative response from the bus driver, it also enabled the other passengers to demonstrate their caring and sympathy for Joe. This shifted Joe’s perception of Moldovans (at least some) from “uncaring” to “heroic,” which in turn encouraged him to stay in the country. Likewise, in sharing his vulnerability with his students after he arrived at the university, he was able to make a connection with them.

Jordan (2008) also argued that there is a gendered element to Western beliefs on vulnerability and strength that shapes and distorts gender differences. She quoted Miller, who stated that “In Western society men are encouraged to dread, abhor or deny feeling weak or helpless, whereas women are encouraged to cultivate this state of being” (p. 193). It is possible that Joe’s perception of his own vulnerability was cultured and gendered and heightened his experience of culture shock. I especially noted the way that Joe said it was his “helplessness that made it so unbearable.” I would also point out that it was specifically the women in the van who, despite not sharing a common language or cultural ties with Joe, appeared to acknowledge and respond to Joe’s vulnerable position.

Part of Joe’s experience of vulnerability was also expressed in his metaphor “walking on ice.” With regard to this metaphor, I note the underlying belief that intercultural experience is dangerous. While I had the distinct impression that, for Joe, the feelings of danger were negative, I consider the ways in which the notion of danger may be useful or helpful in intercultural experience. Foucault once argued that “everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do” (In Butin, 2001, p. 173). In viewing everything as dangerous, Foucault suggested that there are no definite solutions or final conclusions in the social world and that social relationships are unstable and shifting. This makes labeling the behaviors, the meanings, and the motives of others problematic. Through Joe’s experience (in this and in other stories), Joe’s labeling of Moldovan culture shifted a number of times between caring and uncaring, making any final conclusion about the culture as being one or the other impossible. Viewing everything as dangerous, in a sense, calls for staying attentive and attuned to these shifts and being careful in relationships with intercultural others not to confine them within stereotypical labels. ← 49 | 50 →

In re-reading Joe’s metaphor “walking on ice,” I also used Koro-Ljunberg’s (2004) post-structural metaphor analysis technique to locate alternative meanings within the metaphor. Two alternate meanings within Joe’s metaphor that come to mind are “Intercultural Experience as Learning to Ice Skate” and “Intercultural Experience as Un/Preparedness.” While for Joe, falling was seen as hurtful and as a failure to be “prepared,” in “Learning to Ice Skate,” falling down and feeling pain are parts of the learning process. Getting back up and moving past the fear of falling are parts of the process as well. For me, it seemed that it was Joe’s fear of falling that shaped his intercultural experience, especially in learning and using a new language. He noted feelings of inadequacy and helplessness when attempting to communicate with Moldovans in general, which in turn “stopped” him from interacting with them at times.


XII, 249
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2014 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XII, 249 pp.

Biographical notes

Jon L. Smythe (Author)

Jon L. Smythe is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who taught English in a rural village in Cameroon. He received his PhD in curriculum studies and social foundations from Oklahoma State University and is currently an enrollment services director and adjunct instructor at Tulsa Community College.


Title: Shifting the Kaleidoscope