It was recently the Lunar New Year and schools all over Asia, maybe all over the world, prepared for the celebration. In many schools, the lions and dragons came to dance, and the students were invited to dress in “traditional Chinese clothes” or at least dress in red, the lucky color associated with this festival. It was an opportunity for students to understand and respect the cultural significance of the Lunar New Year and to celebrate it in a way that was authentic and respectful. This included involving students and families from the community in the planning of the celebrations and providing educational opportunities for all students to learn about the cultural significance of the festival, its traditions, and stories. It was a time of year when we were reminded of our Chinese Zodiac animal and the characteristics of the year to come, in this case the caring Rabbit.
Events like this are opportunities for students to develop an understanding and respect of different cultures, going beyond the visible culture at the top of the cultural iceberg (Hall, 1976), often framed as the “Fs”: food, flags, festivals, and fancy dress, and diving more deeply behind the festivals’ significance and meaning to the host country.
I work in an international school. As with many international schools, we have a focus on “international mindedness” and “global citizenship.” We are concerned with developing intercultural understanding in our students, actually in our whole school community. We endeavor to develop respect and understanding of different cultures, learning to appreciate rather than appropriate. Dictionary.com defines cultural appropriation “as the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture …without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.” The “Fs” at the top of the iceberg can sometimes be cultural appropriations, for example, fancy dress mimicking a culture without understanding, invitation, or context. As Jason Papallo and M’Liss DeWald state in their EdWeek article, “one example that is very relatable to students is that of Halloween—a time of fun, excitement, and unfortunately cultural appropriation. While most Halloween costumes are harmless, some are not.” This is something to educate ourselves and the students about when we are inviting students to dress up, in particular for events such as “international days” or Halloween, encouraging them to think critically about the costumes and decorations they choose to use.
In international schools, the school year is usually punctuated with celebrations of different festivals. The schools I have worked in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and now Thailand, have all had huge celebrations for Halloween. These celebrations have involved dressing up, decorating, haunted houses, games, and lots of sweets or candy! Halloween activities in the classroom are more about decorations than education about the origins of this festival. In all of these schools, it is one big party, much like the modern-day celebrations in America. Interestingly, last year, the Western Academy of Beijing recognized the anglo-centric dominance of Halloween and shifted the focus to having a Diversity Autumn Festival celebrating autumn festivals from around the world. Food for thought.
Christmas has also been a common denominator in all international schools I have worked in. A lot of effort goes into decorations, gift giving, parties, performances, and a varied amount of education behind the traditions, origins, and understanding of this festival. It is easy to understand how festivals such as Halloween, with its focus on spooky dressing up and sweets, and Christmas with Santa Claus, presents, and parties, are so popular in schools. Sweets, presents, and scary witches: very child centered elements to a celebration! However, it is important not to let these more global, sometimes commercialized celebrations dominate at the expense of others.
Years ago, Ray Davis from the Council of International Schools (CIS) was visiting the school at which I worked in Bali, Indonesia. His comment has stayed with me all these years, “When you walk into the school, do you know which country we are in? If we transport the school and place it in a different country, is it obvious which country the school is from?”.
How much value is placed on the host country? Are we understanding, respecting, and celebrating the culture of the host country with the same prominence as we celebrate other festivals from around the world?
At a school in Bali, one of the major annual festivals celebrated was the “Ogoh Ogoh” parade before Nyepi, the Balinese New Year. Every year, for 24 hours, the airport on this busy tourist island is closed. This is the day of silence-no traffic, no music, no TV, no lights….no school! Even the mosques respect this day, and their minarets are silent. The day before Nyepi is another matter. It is a day of noise, parades, music, and monsters. Huge statues called Ogoh Ogoh, representing evil spirits, are paraded through every village accompanied by hundreds of people and loud music.
Learning about this festival became embedded in the curriculum. Every class in the primary school collaborated with the school gardeners to develop their design skills and make a class Ogoh Ogoh for their own monster parade that would be watched by the whole school community. The huge statues were processed around the carpark by the students, dressed in traditional Balinese clothing. The gamelan orchestra accompanied the parade. Each year gamelan musicians from the local community came to the school to work with the Year 5 classes. They worked with the school music department to run workshops so the students could learn the traditional accompanying music. Like the Ogoh Ogoh parades that happen around Bali later that evening, the parade was a chaotic, noisy, and colorful affair. The whole school community learned about, created understanding, and appreciated the local culture. This annual school event is one example of the value the school placed on the host country, its traditions, rich culture, and talented people.
I am currently working in a school in Thailand, a country with a rich culture. The next big festival celebrated by the school will be the Thai New Year festival called Songkran. The students will be learning about the traditions and history of this festival. The school will be decorated, and the community will be invited to wear Thai clothes on that day. As someone fairly new to the country I am looking forward to learning more about the culture and traditions of my host country, showing appreciation and respect by wearing culturally appropriate clothes, and sincerely hope that the engagement, excitement, and enjoyment of this festival is given similar, or even greater importance than Halloween!
Hall E T (1976) Beyond Culture, New York: Anchor Books
Beccy Fox works at KIS International School, Bangkok.
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