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Podcast interview with Jo Bloxham

Janina Neumann (00:26):

Welcome to The Bicultural Podcast.

Today I’m delighted to be joined by Jo Bloxham, director at Kynfolk.

Jo Bloxham (00:34):
Hello. Hi Janina, I’m good thank you.

Janina Neumann (00:36):
Brilliant. I’m so glad to have you on my podcast.

Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Jo Bloxham (00:41):
Well thanks for inviting me. It’s my second ever podcast. I’m terribly excited. I’m Jo. Basically, as you say, I’m director of Kynfolk, which I think always sounds very grand. We’re a small, nimble company. So I am director. I’m also the filer. I guess I probably feel more like an intercultural facilitator, I guess that kind of sits a bit more comfortably. But technically yes, I’m director of Kynfolk. So I’ve been in education and learning about 30 years, which seems a terribly long time. I’m going to be very British, talk about my work. British people often do that, don’t they, when they introduce themselves. So I started off as a geography teacher many years ago and was very interested to get into international education. So I kind of foresaw a career perhaps working with, I don’t know, one of the big international development charities in education.

Jo Bloxham (01:39):
I was posted out for a couple of years to Zimbabwe. That was the plan, but just very last notice I was re-rooted to China, a place that I didn’t know very much about at all. Perhaps apart from learning a bit about the one child policy at school, that was probably all I knew. So I was like, oh, what’s this going to be like, I’m really not sure. And of course it was a sort of pivotal period of my life really, where it completely changed what I wanted to do in my career. So I came back from having taught in China for a couple of years and really felt that I wanted to do something to try to help people understand each other. I had no idea what that would be called, but I guess having lived in China, I’d heard a lot of people have kind of ideas about my culture that I didn’t feel were quite right. And I’d obviously gone out with lots of preconceptions about China having well, or had no conception perhaps, about some aspects of Chinese life.

Jo Bloxham (02:38):
So I kind of felt that seemed just wrong and silly. And so I wanted to find somewhere I could work in that space to help people understand each other. And I came back from China, did a masters at SOAS and then saw a kind of dream job that literally was what I was looking for working at an international development charity on a youth project that brought young people together to live together, volunteer together for six months. There was a massive learning component in that. And that’s I guess where I went, this is it, this is the intercultural facilitator. This was the job that I was dreaming of but didn’t know what it was called. And I worked there really happily for five years. It was so instructive. And then I launched in a sort of professional career as an intercultural facilitator, which I’ve done for about 20 years, I think. Just under 20 years. Scary. That’s the professional me.

Janina Neumann (03:39):
That’s so cool.

When you were placed in China, what were some of the conceptions or ideas that people in China had about the UK?

Jo Bloxham (03:53):
I need to situate this because I think if anyone’s working in China now, obviously people have a much better idea. People travel a lot more from China, particularly from the bigger cities and if you’ve got a bit of money in your pocket. But in the area I was working in, which was northern Hubei, which often if I tell Chinese people the name of the small city where I lived, they think I’ve said it wrong because it’s not well known. And so most of the people there, with the odd exception, a couple of people had worked with some of the Russians that had built an HPD dam in the town. And a couple of people had gone to do masters overseas. Most people hadn’t traveled and didn’t have regular contact with people from outside of China. This is back in the nineties.

Jo Bloxham (04:42):
So people would often ask questions about why do you make young people leave your families when they’re 18? Why don’t you love your elderly? These are the ones that really stick in my mind that I would regularly be asked and obviously were quite challenging to answer. And also it really made me think about, okay, why do we put old people in old people’s homes? And it really made me question quite a lot about my own culture. And equally, I’d gone out there thinking that the government would check all of my lesson plans for teaching in a small teacher training college. I’d gone out with silly notions as well. And obviously the beauty, I think for a lot of people that get to live in another culture is you just discover how similar you are. Yes, there are differences, but actually, you can make a friend, even though you hardly know each other’s languages. But because you’ve got a similar sort of spirit, you can make a friend or you like basketball so you can connect through that. And I guess that was a really nice thing to experience.

Janina Neumann (05:46):
That’s really interesting.

And what do you think that tells you about Chinese culture? Those two questions, why do people make their child leave at 18 and why do people perhaps not respect the elderly from their point of view?

Jo Bloxham (06:04):
Yeah, I guess it does really come down to the kind of the individualistic culture, the collectivist kind of mindsets and obviously now I’m a parent and I’m bringing up my kids in an individualistic culture. We focus a lot on independence from a very young age. And of course that’s not the only way to live. You can be interdependent. And it’s not like we’re polar opposites in that way. We have lots of overlaps. But I guess there are different priorities for people. So I think that was really interesting. There were many other aspects of that learning. So realizing that when I made decisions, I had to learn to think a little bit more in a group way and not just say yes, I want to do that, or no, I don’t want to do that. But actually to be a bit more considerate of what was my place in the hierarchy? What was I expected to do? I guess I just had to start learning something a little bit different. So that kind of all linked to that more sort of collectivist way of thinking.

Jo Bloxham (07:08):
And I guess when we are thinking about, even when we get older, that independence can be really important. So I think perhaps sometimes unconvincingly to my audience I would say my grandparents, who were still alive then, wouldn’t want to live with us. It would drive them absolutely crazy to live with us. They liked having their own space and their own music on and it being quite quiet sometimes. They valued living by themselves. Which is not to say that would be a whole truth. I think sometimes more connectedness with families would’ve been kind of a really nice thing for them too. But yeah, the thought of them living with us wasn’t something that really appealed to them. But I’m not sure people always believe me when I said that. So I think it does kind of highlight one of those aspects of cultural difference. Both those questions kind of link together, actually.

Janina Neumann (08:04):
Yeah. That’s really interesting because I heard on the radio that actually my generation, so people in their twenties or early thirties, they actually value more the opinion of their parents than perhaps the baby boomers. The baby boomers generation wanted to go out there and make a life for themselves and perhaps didn’t value as much the opinion of their parents, whilst I think that’s really interesting where it’s now almost going the other way.

Jo Bloxham (08:38):
And it’s interesting to hear, I was working with some students yesterday actually and a woman from India was discussing how things are changing in India and how people are becoming a bit more individualistic. So I guess that always reminds us that cultures aren’t static. They’re very changeable. Yeah, very interesting.

Janina Neumann (08:59):

So what impact do you think that experience has had on your life?

Jo Bloxham (09:05):
Living in China? Wow. I think it’s had a really massive impact in lots of different ways. A, it gave me a job that I absolutely love doing, so that’s an amazing kind of gift for anywhere to give you. Because that’s where I started just asking lots of questions and I was really lucky to have people around me that had the time and patience and the ability to explain things to me. So that kind of gave me this job, being an intercultural trainer, that I really love. It gave me a love for languages, which unfortunately being at school had never really given me. I sort of just about scraped a French O level. But when I got to China, I definitely wasn’t the fastest language learner, but I loved it and I stuck at it. And still my Chinese is not very good, but it has really sparked a curiosity about many, many different languages.

Jo Bloxham (10:01):
And I guess it gives you that understanding if you’ve come from a very monolingual environment, which I did when I was younger, just how easy things can get lost in translation, how you have to really slow things down and be really careful not to judge people by a simple choice of vocabulary. So it’s given me that. Obviously it’s given me lots of insights into my own culture. It makes me question things that probably would’ve been a norm to me. So I guess some of my behaviors are now perhaps not typically British. Sometimes I think I try to be very active. If I see somebody who perhaps looks like they’re newly arrived in the UK and they’re a little bit lost, I don’t perhaps worry that I’m going to be nosy or interfere. I’ll be much more active in helping them.

Jo Bloxham (10:52):
And I’m sure I’ve got some of that from being in China where literally, I was back there in 2018 and if you stop for 30 seconds on the subway, some lovely person will come and offer to help you. That’s been my personal experience. So I think I’ve hopefully learned some good things from other cultures and tried to incorporate that into my life. I’ve been very struck by traveling in West Africa as well. So I traveled in Ghana with work, largely taking a bus, and it really struck me how people are so welcoming of strangers. So even if you have an empty bus, you go and sit with the other people that are there, whereas British people will space themselves out on the bus as far as possible. And I think sometimes these experiences really make you reflect on, are we really doing things the best way? So it kind of gives you maybe some better choices for how you live your life.

Jo Bloxham (11:49):
And then there’s the practical stuff. I still eat lots of Chinese food. I still try and learn how to cook Chinese dishes. And I’m a terrible cook. I never cook British food. You could probably count the number of British cakes I’ve baked on one hand because I find all the detailed measuring really dull. Whereas in China, they’re kind of much more, you taste things and you try it. And particularly when I was a teacher in China, my students would often cook with us and that lovely communal kind of cooking really suits me because I love chatting, as you’ll tell from this podcast. So I still eat lots of Chinese food and my family, now they eat Chinese food, which even though none of my children or my partner have ever been to China, but they’re all really into Chinese food. So I guess it has amazing impacts that you don’t predict.

Janina Neumann (12:41):
That’s really interesting.

And I’m just thinking about what do you think are the main differences or similarities between the Chinese and the UK culture?

Jo Bloxham (12:55):
Yeah, it’s really interesting because I think often you’re brought in as an intercultural facilitator to kind of cover the differences. And those are obviously really important and we don’t have to approach them with fear or negativity, but I think it’s really interesting to look at the commonalities tier you say. And I think one of the things, I guess we can be both within British culture, and obviously these are big generalizations and in Chinese culture, we can cover our emotions. I think both of those cultures, we can perhaps understand that, we can relate to each other because an angry British person, we don’t tend to fully express that. In public, we tend to put a little lid on it and I’ve had a lot of other people describe British culture as quite passive aggressive sometimes. I can really see why people say that.

Jo Bloxham (13:51):
And I guess, Chinese people, again, generally wouldn’t openly express dissatisfaction. And I think sometimes there are kind of degrees. So I remember very clearly a Chinese colleague of mine who did a PhD in the UK describing how he had to learn to be 10% more expressive so that his British colleagues would notice when he didn’t like one of their ideas, because if he just did it in his sort of normal way, they just kind of overlooked it. So I think there are perhaps differences, but I think we have that in common. I guess we kind of use a bit of understatement. Both of us on both sides, we’ll talk about a little bit of a problem where it means it’s a big problem, things like that. So I think it’s quite nice to discover those commonalities that perhaps you weren’t expecting.

Janina Neumann (14:43):
Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s also really important to also focus on the similarities because differences we can’t sometimes bond over. But it’s also really interesting because to kind of communicate that to someone is really hard. It’s almost experiences. It’s like, look out for this and then see how other people react to it. Because when you tell someone because that person’s used that phrase, you know you just feel it in your body that they actually mean it’s a bigger issue than they said.

Jo Bloxham (15:21):
And I think it’s really nice just to really remember that at the end of the day, we are human. So we might have differences in what time we get up and when we eat or how we eat and how we manage problems, how we manage relatives, we will have all those differences, but we have so many commonalities in experiencing grief at some point in our lives or the joy of a birth. We all have to eat at some point. And in some way we have to manage our relationships with other people. So there’s always this huge ground for commonality. So yeah, I think it’s always good to kind of remember that too.

Janina Neumann (16:04):
That’s really interesting.

And how do some of the differences appear in education? What are some of the things where you look out for these perhaps differences or when people struggle when they’re, for example, in the UK or in China?

Jo Bloxham (16:22):
I think probably one of the things that I find, as you know, Janina, I work quite a lot in universities in the UK and what I will often get from lectures and teachers in the UK is around participation. And I think sometimes we forget just how much, obviously our education systems, they’re just cultural constructs. We have this kind of idea of participation, and sometimes we haven’t even defined it that clearly to ourselves. And I think that’s quite interesting. But people will often comment on different levels of participation in class. And of course, for a Chinese student, there can be multiple reasons why they won’t participate in the same way as say, a UK student. So one example would be many Chinese students have kind of been brought up to think that if you ask a question in a group, you’ve to be really mindful that you are taking up everybody’s time and we’re back to that kind of group thinking. So you should be thinking about other people.

Jo Bloxham (17:20):
Now, I don’t know what you’re like Janina, if you’re at a seminar or something and you don’t understand something, but I’ll ask 10 questions and not think for a second that I’m being selfish because I’ll be like, I’m a learner, I have a right to this learning and I’m going to ask my question. And for a Chinese person that might be quite selfish. It potentially involves a little bit of loss of faith, perhaps because they’re showing they haven’t understood something. And potentially it also creates a face losing situation for the teacher because it’s highlighting that they haven’t explained something very clearly, potentially. So a lot of the teachers I work with would be really happy if a student asks them a question because they didn’t understand something, but the student might be worried that they won’t be happy and will find that that’s created a loss of face for them.

Jo Bloxham (18:10):
And also participation, what does that really mean? For some cultures it means actively listening and reflecting on what your teacher’s telling you, but often in a Western educational context, we are valuing vocal participation. And I think sometimes as we’re not even that critical about what quality was that vocal contribution. We just like to feel that there’s some noise in the class and it’s quite affirming for the teacher. And yet for some of the students, they might feel that the quality of that discussion isn’t that high because the students don’t yet know enough to discuss that topic well, they would rather listen to the teacher. So I think it raises some really interesting questions about where we’ve come from, what our previous educational experiences have been. And those differences can play out. So stereotypes exist that Chinese learners are very passive. You sometimes hear that they’re passive learners, and I think that’s just a really big oversimplification of what’s going on.

Janina Neumann (19:15):
Yeah. And I’m just thinking about also in business, in meetings, there seems to be an emphasis in the UK business culture about that everyone’s opinion is really important in the way that we expect people to express their opinion. And we also perhaps might feel we need to say and state our opinion because it’s going to almost revolutionize the meeting. And I just find it interesting to hear thoughts on your experiences of that, or not that happening in Chinese culture.

Jo Bloxham (19:54):
I think that’s where different concepts of hierarchy really do play out. I can think back when I worked in an office environment and I could be in a meeting with someone who is both senior in age and in status, and I would’ve felt completely comfortable to publicly disagree with that person to give my alternative opinion or idea. Now, of course, if you are in a more hierarchical situation, you work for a government organization where the hierarchies are very kind of clear in Chinese culture. Back in China, younger members of staff, more junior members of staff may not feel comfortable to do that. It wouldn’t be seen as appropriate. So if you did want to have everybody’s feedback, you would need to think much more actively about how you are going to get that and be a bit more creative about it because just a public meeting may not be the place for you to kind of gather all those views because the purpose of that will be to hear what the senior person has to say, rather than the junior people.

Jo Bloxham (20:58):
Now, of course, it depends on the context. If you’re in a trendy little IT startup business in a Beijing suburb, the culture will be very different. So it really does depend on who you’re working with. But I think being mindful that hierarchy can be very important. It’s often the case that your most senior Chinese person in the delegation will come into the room first. And actually everyone will feel more comfortable if you behave in a way that’s respectful to that hierarchy. So if you are handing things out, it’s really important that you show your politeness and your respect by focusing on that, the most important person in that Chinese delegation, for example. And people feel uncomfortable if you apply what you think is right by sort of treating everyone equally. Actually that’ll make everybody else feel really, really uncomfortable. So I think, yeah, hierarchy does play out a lot in business meetings and we need to be respectful of that and think about how we’ll engage with that.

Janina Neumann (22:03):
Yeah. I think that’s really important. It’s about that other person, rather than how you feel comfortable because actually once you make other people feel comfortable, you usually feel comfortable as well.

And I’m just interested to hear more about the honor and dignity culture aspect. How do Chinese students develop their confidence? Is it different to perhaps students in the UK?

Jo Bloxham (22:36):
I think that’s a really good question. It is a question that people often ask about why does Chinese students seem to come to us quite late with problems that we have? And again, I think it’s really complex. I think we have to look at a whole range of options. I think we have to put language into the picture, not just culture. So I think if we are looking at research done on Swedish students in Sweden, they are always noisier. Even though the undergraduate courses might be taught in English or Swedish, research tells us that they’re always a bit noisier when they’re actually in their first language. So I think we have to look at how when you’re using a second language at a UK university, for example, that that’s going to impact on your feelings of comfort sometime to make connections with other people, to discuss a problem that you are having, because maybe you’re worried you’ll not say it in the right way. You might upset somebody. You might not have the vocabulary for it. So I think even just the language can sometimes hold us back.

Jo Bloxham (23:47):
Then you’ve got all the cultural things as well. So for example, we have this concept in British universities called a personal tutor. And I always think many home students are really confused by what is the personal tutor, how much their time can I have? Do I only bring personal issues to a personal tutor, or is it academic as well? Oh, okay. So I can bring some academic issues to them, my overall progress, but maybe not a specific about a unit. I should go to somebody else for that. So I think when we start looking at all these things, we realize that building trust, making connections, coming and asking for help, it’s very, very complex process. And there’s a lot at risk.

Jo Bloxham (24:29):
People will often worry. There are sort of psychological risks of asking for help that we have to be really mindful of. And I think these are things that there’s not a complete set of things that are different for Chinese students and home students. But when you layer on certain aspects like language, you can start seeing why that might play out a bit more differently because of course, home students will also feel there are psychological risks in going forward and asking for help. They’re slightly different, but there’s some overlap as well. So I think we often encourage teachers to not be looking for some magical cultural way of working with Chinese students, for example, but just to be really warm. And actually it’s those simple bits of being human with other people that will really help them come forward. So try to be warm, try to show that you have started to learn something about their culture.

Jo Bloxham (25:33):
Because then people come alive and they’re okay, so this other person’s not living in their own cultural bubble and expecting me to do all the work. They’ve also been learning about my culture and they’re coming some way towards me to learn something about how to say people’s names. And just start to put in place little steps where people are coming closer to each other, to repeat the messages of what you do and what you offer, to give clear examples of how you can help those students. What kinds of problems can they come to you about and start making sure. Because I think we often give people messages, don’t we, when they first arrive in a new place, and actually often when we first arrive in a new place, we are just startled by all the difference. There’s so much we’re being told that we can’t absorb it all. So we have to kind of go back to those things. So I guess there’s a lot there about what we need to do as much as what they need to do. Trust and connections are a two-way street, aren’t they?

Janina Neumann (26:37):
Definitely.

So on that subject of having a learning and a supporting strategy, what do you do at Kynfolk to help people on that journey?

Jo Bloxham (26:50):
Well, I guess we kind of are working at both of those ends. So we might be doing support with people who have just arrived in the UK. That might be with international students who are just arriving, or staff who are going to be working at a UK university. We might be working in a big corporate organization with people that don’t ever physically get to be in the UK, but they work with British people on a daily basis via Zoom or email or whatever it might be. So I guess we’ll be supporting those people and will also be supporting people who are long term based in the UK, but are working with very different student groups or audiences or colleagues from different parts of the world. And we will kind of support them to do that in a way that makes sense to them. We’re a very sort of small company. So the really nice thing about that is we can really sit and talk to the client right at the beginning and find out, okay, what is it that’s that’s going on?

Jo Bloxham (27:50):
So for example, the student group I was working with yesterday, they have a professional responsibility at the university and what’s been happening is a few people have been misunderstanding some elements of body language and perhaps judging that quite quickly before they really know each other. So we’ve just gone in and done a little session, really reminding people how much you need to sort of slow down judgements of others until you’ve kind of understood what’s going on. So I guess it’s very much focused on what that person needing at that point? And then we will work a learning intervention around that. So it could be really, really diverse. I think sometimes when I tell people I’m an intercultural trainer, they’re like, wow, that’s such a narrow job, but it really isn’t because people are working in so many different contexts that every week is very, very different.

Janina Neumann (28:49):
Definitely. And just from my experience as well, being an intercultural trainer is that you are on a journey yourself, your own cultural journey. And the experiences that you had perhaps a year ago, you might have had a different perspective of things now. And I think it’s really important to constantly be aware of your own kind of cultural bubble and it’s fantastic to have learned how you do that and how you so descriptively understand your cultural bubble and how you help other people to see theirs. So, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation, Jo.

And I’m just thinking about if people love listening to you and want to connect with you and perhaps also work with you, how would they do that?

Jo Bloxham (29:41):
Yeah, all sorts of ways. You can send me a pigeon, you can go on Twitter, you can go on LinkedIn. I’m sort of most active on those platforms. And then I put the odd thing on Instagram as well. So at Instagram and Twitter, I’m on @kynfolkjo. And I know Kynfolk is a little bit difficult to spell. So it’s K-Y-N-F-O-L-K. So yeah, probably connect with me on those platforms or jump on the website, which is kynfolk.com. So get in touch through that as well.

Janina Neumann (30:11):
Fantastic, Jo. Thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Jo Bloxham (30:15):
Oh, thanks for inviting me in. It’s been lovely.

Janina Neumann (30:17):
My pleasure. Thank you.

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