Exploring Intercultural Interaction Through the Lens of International Volunteers from Mainland China
Date: 16 August 2021
University of Exeter
Doctor of Philosophy in Education
Due to the ongoing processes of globalisation and internationalisation, working collaboratively with diverse individuals is an essential skill for living in the 21st century. In the context of China recently, international volunteering programs emerged as a new trend of sojourning abroad that similar to studying and working abroad, ...
Due to the ongoing processes of globalisation and internationalisation, working collaboratively with diverse individuals is an essential skill for living in the 21st century. In the context of China recently, international volunteering programs emerged as a new trend of sojourning abroad that similar to studying and working abroad, providing individuals with a unique opportunity and an unfamiliar context in a microcosm where they can experience working collaboratively with people from diverse backgrounds. Despite international volunteers can be valuable participants for studies in the intercultural communication field, research has not kept pace with the phenomenon. This study focuses on exploring international volunteers from Mainland China’s lived experiences of intercultural interaction resulting from overseas volunteering projects in countries over 4 continents, most of which are non-English speaking countries. The focus of the study is not limited to intercultural contacts with hosts in the volunteering destinations, but also includes contacts between participants and other international volunteers across the globe. This study employed individual semi-structured interviews with 12 interview participants as primary data source, and reviewed 182 existing narrative reports to provide contextualising orientation material prior to the interviews. While semi-structured interviews allowed me to interact directly with my study group to gain a complex, detailed understanding of their experiences, the reports were written following the guidelines set by the volunteers’ organisation and offered me the chance to understand volunteers’ experience without my intervention. The findings provide deep insights into the phenomenon of intercultural interaction. Specifically, this research project reflects participants’ understanding towards the notion of ‘intercultural interaction’, highlights the benefits of and barriers to intercultural interaction, and identifies competencies needed for intercultural interaction as well as potential strategies for developing those competencies. The findings indicate participants view the term ‘intercultural interaction’ from an essentialist or a non-essentialist perspective, and individuals with more experiences of interacting with diverse individuals tend to view this term from the latter perspective, regarding daily communication as intercultural interaction. The vast majority of participants reported improved interaction with people worldwide, even participants who described negative and unsatisfying volunteering experiences. Intercultural interaction helped participants to challenge long-held stereotyped beliefs and preconceptions. Five major inhibitors of intercultural interaction were found in this study: language related barriers, a lack of perceived commonalities, perceived discrimination, unwillingness to communicate and political factors. The current study reveals that sometimes discrimination from others is unavoidable and many stereotyped beliefs arise from various social media platforms. Tending to mingle with co-nationals was also found to inhibit international volunteers’ communication with culturally and linguistically diverse individuals, however, this might be a unique challenge that specifically targets individuals from countries of large population, like Mainland China. Additionally, nine interrelated important competencies have been identified on the basis of participants’ intercultural interaction experiences with diverse individuals in non-English speaking countries. Among the identified prominent competencies, three have not yet been included or emphasised in previous literature. First, to employ dance and music as creative forms of communication to facilitate participants breaking the ice with diverse individuals. Second, to provide emotional support, primarily manifested in this study in the form of being friendly and kind for others to feel psychologically safe to communicate. Third, to adopt technological-based tools to assist communication. It is hoped that these distinctive competencies could provide further guidance to the future development of competency models for intercultural interaction. The study has addressed the importance of experiential learning. It would be beneficial for individuals from Mainland China to possess more authentic intercultural interaction experiences to enhance their intercultural interaction competencies, even short-term experiences would help. Moreover, this study implies that in order to raise students’ competencies in intercultural settings, universities and schools not only need to create more intercultural interaction opportunities with diverse individuals for students, but also need to provide additional instructions to support and guide students to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural settings.
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