Lost meanings in cultural contact by Kiko Qin

Lost meanings in cultural contact: Stories from Chinese students’ outdoor recreation

Experiencing local culture is a huge draw for international students when choosing where to study. In New Zealand, outdoor recreation has become one of the popular options for international students wanting to “taste” Kiwi culture, mostly because of the tourism campaigns that promote it so well.

For example, if you visit the 100% Pure New Zealand tourism website, the photos on the front page reflect an impression of “outdoors”. You can see people walking on mountain paths, rafting in rivers, fishing on boats, or biking along tracks. There’s even a shot of a bathtub installed outside.

But the challenging thing is most outdoor recreation happens in public spaces which are used more for recreation than as cultural delivery sites. This means that while locals might have an emotional attachment to an outdoor place, it is a mere physical landscape to newcomers. In this human-place contact, places lack the ability to explain themselves.

Outdoor recreation also exists in different cultural layers for locals and Chinese students. Locals regard outdoor recreation and settings as part of their lives, in what’s called the implicit assumptions layer of culture: for locals, outdoor recreation doesn’t need much context to be understood. The phrase “outdoor recreation” has an embedded local meaning to Kiwis; they understand things like the equipment and skills needed, and any physical requirements.

But it’s a totally different story for Chinese students.

To them, outdoor recreation in New Zealand is a new cultural experience, which requires a highly contextualised background to understand. China has a different landscape and cultural tradition from New Zealand and what Kiwis assume is “common” is not necessarily coded in Chinese students’ cultural system.

Of course, they understand how common outdoor recreation is as a leisure option. But it is the particularity in outdoor recreation that is difficult to process. This different thinking towards outdoor recreation creates an asymmetric communication scenario that causes Chinese students to generate their own version of outdoor recreation in New Zealand: “pretty mountain, pretty river, pretty boring,” as one participant summed up.

Chinese students admire the natural beauty of New Zealand.

There were sparkles in their eyes when they described the beauty of nature to me. The breath-taking pink clouds, the dark sky decorated with millions of twinkle stars, and the trees in different shapes all over the place.

But they also felt confused: “Is that all?”

Are these mountains, rivers, and birds themselves the only way this idea of ‘outdoor’ represents New Zealand? Or are there more local meanings embedded in outdoor recreation? Like Uluru (Ayers Rock), which is not just a geological miracle but is also central in many ancient Aboriginal myths. What are the indigenous stories of Aotearoa’s outdoor landscapes? How was the land shaped during colonial times? These questions are present but often go unasked by Chinese students, and unanswered by their New Zealand hosts.. Eventually aesthetic fatigue is formed, and the outdoors is summarised as “boring”.

What a pity the cultural meaning of nature is lost due to communication glitches. It is even sadder that when these students went home. “Boring” is the way they described New Zealand.

Let’s gear up to show them what Kiwi culture is.

Let’s start to talk.

It won’t be easy. Gerry Philipsen, Professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of Washington, has suggested a concept called “the distinctiveness of speech codes”. It means each culture has a different speech code, or way of communicating, that is unfamiliar to outsiders. But he also hinted a way through this distinctiveness, with the “three general cultural communication forms”: ritual, myth, and social drama.

If we could find similarities across these three communication forms, we could find a shared foundation for communicating.

By addressing the similarity between cultures, we can raise the resonance among different people, generating a foundation for cultural communication—for example, the story of Rākaihautū, the creator of the Lake Tekapo (or Takapō). In Māori myth, he uses his magic stick, the Kō, to dig up the lake.

This simple symbol of a magic stick can be observed across different cultural groups: Moses had one to separate the sea, and Harry Potter had one to defeat a man without a nose. In China, the Monkey King has one to defeat evil.

If we can integrate these kinds of cultural symbols into outdoor settings, it will improve the cultural visibility of outdoor places and raise the awareness of local culture among outsiders.

In the case of outdoor recreation, the current state of cultural communication appears to follow a one-way pattern rather than fostering an interactive process. Chinese students have the opportunity to experience the Kiwi style outdoor setting, but their inquiries and interests in cultural embodiment are not being fully acknowledged and addressed. To add more interactive communication in such a cross-cultural outdoor recreation experience, one crucial part is to improve the capacity to express cultural embodiment. One of the many suggestions is the role of cultural mediator to help communication between international students and outdoor places. A cultural mediator could be anyone from individuals such as classmates or homestay family members, to institutions like universities – or even statues and architecture which could deliver cultural elements intentionally or unintentionally. Utilising this role properly, we could generate a sustainable circle of Kiwi cultural experience as “noticed-questioned-informed-solved-accumulated-noticed”.

The importance of a cultural mediator was hinted at in my research as Chinese students addressed the influence from their homestay families, universities, and student clubs. Their main source for participating in outdoor recreation was field trips organised by these groups, which formed their impressions of local outdoor experiences. No matter whether these groups were aware or not, they played the role of cultural mediator. In this case, we should start to value the function of cultural mediators. Perhaps, we could start with increasing their cultural awareness of their habitat.

The benefits of efficient communication are two-fold. First, it could improve the local experience of international students. International students are not only provide an economic boost but also help spread a positive image of New Zealand via word of mouth. Helping them to grasp the culture of New Zealand is a good way to spread a positive impression of all the country has to offer. This will become even more important in a competitive post-Covid environment. Second, it could also provide some cultural reflection for the local community as well. The cultural communicating process could enhance local knowledge and foster greater cognition of their Kiwi identity. Embracing local knowledge and sharing it with the world will enable New Zealand to be seen, not only as a place of beauty, but also of deep cultural significance. If we can effectively teach visitors about the culture and history that has shaped Aotearoa, no one will call it ‘boring.’

Kiko Qin is a student at Lincoln University and won the 2023 Student Blog Writing Competition with this entry.