Learning different cultures firsthand

Posted December 20, 2019 at 9:00 pm

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By Julie Ann Madden

An Akron-Westfield teacher has taught in multiple cultures — from Germany, South Korea and Hong Kong to the United States.

This past fall, Akron-Westfield Elementary Art Teacher Elaine Lawrensen, who also teaches Middle School Language Arts, returned to the local classroom after leaving A-W to teach at Asian International schools the past decade.

Lawrensen taught two years in South Korea and eight years in Hong Kong after teaching in Germany and at Akron-Westfield.

“My husband and I wanted our children to learn about different cultures,” she told The Akron Hometowner.

Lessons include how to handle culture shock and it affects everything from academics to medical and financial services.

International schools are private schools, therefore, there are high expectations for academic achievement, said Lawrensen, an International school teacher, who shared that one of her fourth graders’ parents wanted to know what career she thought their child should have.

In Iowa, it’s not mandated until eighth grade that students and their parents plan out their high school schedule for a career.

“In Hong Kong and South Korea, parents feel school is their child’s job,” said Lawrensen, adding parents are paying tuition for their children’s education. “They are much more serious about academics.”

When a few of her Asian students felt Lawrensen was giving too much homework, she surveyed her students. One fourth grade girl only spent about 30 minutes on homework and practicing her musical instrument while a fifth grade boy spent 1.5 hours nightly.

After reducing the amount of homework she gave, Lawrensen learned some parents didn’t feel their children had enough homework and gave them more to do.

“Most families live in small apartments,” said Lawrensen, explaining apartments are about 700 square feet and the apartment buildings are a minimum of 40 stories tall. They don’t have yards to play in. If they do something outdoors, they have to go to nearby parks.

The high academic expectations begin when parents become pregnant as they register their unborn child in Kindergarten, which is for three- and four-year-olds, based on the the British academic system.

“When I was teaching fifth grade there — every subject was about a year ahead of what U.S. students learn,” said Lawrensen. “Students have to be interviewed and pass tests to get into the really good high schools. If they don’t pass, they go to the local schools. Parents have their children doing extra things — playing instruments and participating in athletics like swim team — to make them better candidates to get into the good schools.”

“Some students feel too pressured to excel from an early age,” said Lawrensen, “and the pressure can come from mom and dad or grandma and grandpa.”

Parents can send their students to local schools in their area but going to an International school is desired so they can go on to college in the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand or Australia.

“The kids know a lot more about geography and other countries,” she said, explaining the families travel more, living close to a large airport in a small country. The United States is so big compared to Hong Kong, they are more affected by what’s going on in the world than here.

“There aren’t many discipline problems,” said Lawrensen. “There, kids want to learn and they don’t talk back. They’re still kids and want to have fun but they give best effort. Once in a while you’d have students who got in trouble or were disrespectful, but their parents are paying for their education so if you let the parents know, that was usually all it took.”

It’s the difference in cultures, she said. The Western society is a guilt-innocent culture while the Asian culture is an honor-shame society — they bring honor or shame to their family. The older you are, the more respect they give you. “Teachers are usually well respected.”

No matter what school public or private, students attend, they are required to wear uniforms, said Lawrensen, noting many students here might say they wouldn’t like not having a choice of what to wear. However, her daughter actually liked it because it made the choices simpler. Uniforms give kind of unity — there you are just one of 7 million people, and with each school having its own uniform, you know where they go to school. It also gives more equality — you don’t know whose family has more wealth than another.

The school year is 190 days long — 10 more than the American 180 days, she said, explaining they have only six weeks of summer vacation with more breaks throughout the year. Christmas is usually 2 to 2.5 weeks long, followed by the Chinese New Year celebration of a week or more.

Hong Kong doesn’t have all the rules about Christmas such as not being allowed to say “Merry Christmas” in certain American situations.

“They honor all religions,” said Lawrensen. “It’s more honoring their ancestors. They have a lot of traditions such as a day to clean the graves of their ancestors and many places have incense burning at different times of year. A lot of family is honoring traditions.”

Other differences included not writing checks, using cards and cash, except for school lunches and using taxis and the Mass Transit Railway (subway) instead of having a car, said Lawrensen. “Many families have live-in helpers.”

“With medical services, you pay up front, then submit it to your insurance company,” she said, noting this keeps medical costs phenomenally low.

“When doing banking, what takes a few minutes here can take an hour or so there,” said Lawrensen. “They are very precise” and supervisors check the tellers work before your transaction is completed. However, her husband noticed if a person had “enough” money in the bank, their transactions were completed much faster.

The Lawrensens returned to the United States to be closer to their families. He grew up on the South Dakota side near Beresford and she grew up in Rock Valley.

All three of their children live in the United States now. Their son married the “neighbor girl” so they have a daughter-in-law from Hong Kong.

One difference for Lawrensen is that she can have students creating artwork of snowmen here — many of her Asian students hadn’t seen snow.

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