When I first moved overseas fifteen years ago, I was told over and over, “You are going into a new culture. Be a learner. You don’t know this culture. Be a learner.” Over and over…
It was good advice. Living in another culture means constantly bumping up against my own cultural assumptions about how things “should” work or what is the best way of doing things. Even after five years in my current country, I’m constantly learning new depths of the local culture. I still need to be a professional learner.
However, even in the beginning, I felt like there was something missing. Yes, I need to be a learner. And I certainly see the danger of people who come in without a learner’s attitude. But as a competent adult and as an IDEAS professional, I DO know something. I’m expert in what I do. That’s why I am going overseas to serve in a particular role. I don’t want to lose that in the process of learning.
Fifteen years and three countries later, I continue to ponder this question. Am I a learner? Yes, constantly. Am I a competent professional? Yes, but…
And that “But” is what I’ve realized is important. I am a competent professional in my own country, my own context. But I don’t know how my new culture looks at my profession. I don’t know what it means to be competent here. And certainly, I need to learn new ways of communicating, new ways of getting certain tasks done. I need to learn what resources are available here. And, I need to find ways to keep up with best practices in my profession, which is also constantly changing. I need to be a learning professional.
Recently, I was complaining to an IDEAS colleague about a school administrator who had made a decision that went against everything I think should be true for a good library. She wisely challenged me: Is my vision of an ideal library actually the ideal in this culture?
I’ve been pondering that question. It’s reminded me that I need to:
- Look at what ideals the local culture has for my profession.
- Look at my own professional ideals and sort through what is cultural and what I believe are key values that need to transcend culture.
- Figure out how to translate those key professional values into my current setting.
- And focus my efforts on ways my profession can truly have an impact in this cultural setting.
I’ve started to hold a continuum in my mind: here is where we are starting in this context; here is the goal (stripped, as much as possible, of my home cultural assumptions). And here is the next step I want to help people take to reach the ideal.
Now, when I talk to people about moving into a new culture, I tell them to be learning professionals and professional learners. It doesn’t mean giving up your expertise, but it means constantly evaluating that knowledge, learning to see it through local eyes and yes, learning a new and different way of being a professional. It’s the way we, as IDEAS professionals, are able to leverage our skills in new cultural settings to restore hope.
About the Author: Libby is an IDEAS Associate and professional librarian. She currently resides in the Middle East and works with school libraries in Africa and Asia. Check out a previous blog by Libby: A Librarian's Pick for Children and Young Adult Reading.