During my first winter as an English teacher in Prague, I asked my students to brainstorm words related to the eve of St. Mikulas, which Czechs celebrate on December 5. Hell was a popular response, as were devil, angel, candy, chains, potatoes, coal and tears. None of my classes mentioned the words saint or bishop, the position for which Mikulas is celebrated. When I asked some of my students to elaborate, they explained: “At night, Mikulas comes and puts in the socks many good things or maybe, if child is bad, potato or coal or onion.”
It didn't sound too different from the American Christmas stocking. Then they explained that people frequently dressed up in groups of three: one angel, one devil and one saint. I was shocked to hear that the devils sometimes grabbed the children and stuffed them into large sacks.
"Maybe if the child is not so well in school, the devil he say, "Ah, I know you are not so good at school so maybe I take you to the hell," they explained.
I spent the better part of a rainy Sunday with Edward T. Hall's "Beyond Culture," which essentially makes the argument that people, over long periods of time, create "extensions" like language and institutions as specialized responses to specific problems and that these evolved extensions make up what we refer to as culture. He also argues that culture influences the way certain behaviors and skills are valued, and that failure to acknowledge and respond to cultural differences can lead to confusion and anxiety.
Telling young children that they're going to Hell wasn't a fashionable holiday celebration where I grew up, but it was the sort of cultural difference I was prepared to encounter in another country. Threatening toddlers with damnation was just one more thing that made Czechs Czech, like eating fried cheese with mayonnaise or advertising erotica on public trams. What caught me off guard were the cultural differences I wasn't prepared for, the kind I hadn't even thought about before I moved.
My entire education, up to that point, had occurred on the East Coast of the United States in the mid-Atlantic region, most of it in Maryland. I had eight years of Spanish lessons, six of French and two of Chinese to give me a sense of how to learn language. I knew how to elicit repetition, build vocabulary, and explain grammar. What I didn't know was how to teach adults who'd grown up under Soviet rule, with a completely different style of education. Some of my students resisted responding to questions unless they could do so as a group. Others demanded rote repetition and book work, two tasks I'd found particularly dull and unhelpful in my own studies. My experience highlights another factor Hall discusses in his book, namely that it's difficult to recognize the characteristics of one's own culture unless directly contrasted with another system because people tend to assume that their habits and actions are universal.
Some of Hall's arguments seemed overly simplified to me, which may have simply arisen from the necessity of making his argument clear to a diverse group of people. But I agreed with most of what he said, particularly in terms of recognizing that different cultures, despite their differences, are not all the same. We have different ways not only of acting, but of thinking and perceiving the world, and recognizing those differences is an essential step towards successfully working together.