Saturday, September 27, 2008

Intercultural Differences

For this summer vacation, I was attached to a shipyard for my internship. In this shipyard, the workers were mainly from foreign countries such as India, Bangladesh or the nearby neighboring countries such as Myanmar. The majority of these workers were from Bangladesh.

At the entrance of the shipyard, there were numerous gantries which were similar to those being using in the MRT stations. Most of us who worked in the shipyard were given electronic passes which we would have to tap in at the electronic card reader located at the gantries to go in and out of the shipyard. At the end of the working day, all of us would queue up at the gantries to tap our cards so that we could leave the shipyard.

Usually the queues at the gantries would be very long since there were a few thousand workers working in the shipyard. I noticed that they often like to stand very close to each other when they are queuing up. Additionally, when the gantries were open, they would be shoving each other to make their way out of the shipyard. All these made me felt very uneasy as I felt that they were rather rude and they were standing too close to me for my comfort.

I guess this is one of the situations where there would be conflicts between different cultures. For the Bangladeshi workers, it did not occur to them that there was such a problem since it was part of their culture. Since I was not immersed into their culture before, I had problems accommodating to their behavior. Over the duration of my internship, I slowly got used to this and was no longer bothered by it at the end of my internship.


Brad Blackstone said...

Excellent example of the power of proxemics, Wei Kwan! I wonder if your sense of social space has forever been affected by this experience. On a more practical level, is there any way that the shipyard could have alleviated this situation?

Thanks for the detailed presentation of this scenario.

Oxy said...

Hello Wei Kwan,

Yes, it appears to me that Bangladeshis are much more comfortable with physical contact such as holding hands and embracing as compared to Singaporeans.Perhaps they do not see shoving people as rude at all.

I have noticed that when I was in Thailand as well. The Thai women often like to sit pressing their shoulders or body against me. I was assuming that that was a gesture of friendliness, to show that they were treating you as one of them, so I had to fight the urge to move away.

Perhaps it was the same for the Bangladeshis?

Wei Kwan said...

Hello Brad,

I guess my sense of social space has been slightly affected by this experience. Nowadays, I don't really mind if people stand or sit really close to me. In fact, near the end of my internship, I would slightly push and shove my way in the queues so that I can get out of the shipyard faster !

I don't think the shipyard could have alleviate this situation. In fact, I prefer the shipyard not to do so as a form of respect for their culture. As long as the queuing up are done in an orderly and safe fashion, it is alright for this practice to be carried on.

Wei Kwan said...

Hello Oxy,

Actually I'm not that sure if it's the same for the Bangladeshis. Now that you asked, I regretted not asking them why do they behave this way :)

joyce said...

Hello Wei Kwan,

I was thinking that the reason Bangladeshis feel comfortable with physical contact may be that they form very close-knit groups in their communities or villages back home. In Singapore, we do not have such opportunities for close interaction from young. Moreover, the different races create a barrier for any form of physical contact as well.

Another reason I can think of is that the Bangladeshis share a common bond by coming to work here in a foreign country to them. Hence, they tend to gather and form close-knit groups where physical contact may mean comfort and reassurance to them. Anyway, the workers are always employed in a large group at once and it is natural for them to come together.

Wei Kwan said...

Hi Joyce,

The reason that you gave sound plausible too. It's true that in Singapore, there is not much opportunities for close interaction. After all, most of us live in the high-rise flats or apartments in this concrete jungles. Gone are the days of the kampong where the communities are known to be closely knitted and people knew each other very well.

I was also thinking along the line that their behavior also reflects the values held by society. For example, Singaporeans are known to be "kiasu" or in other words, afraid of losing out. This perhaps stems from the values being held by most of us due to pragmatism being advocated by the government. Well for the Bangladeshis, the reason that they behave this way may reflect some of the values that they hold. Maybe it reflects the way they like to do things in a fast and concise manner ? I'm not that sure :)