Cultural Crosspoint

Design for intercultural agency through an ethnography-based design process

Cultural Crosspoint is a newspaper-based intervention intending to provide tools and strategies for older Chinese immigrants in New York City to cope with issues caused by cultural differences. This intervention also shows one possibility of promoting cultural change and respecting the agency of individuals in a community at the same time. The project had emerged from a 4-month collaboration with Open Door Senior Center, where I participated in older adults' everyday activities, assisted in the English class, and consistently involved older adults' feedback in the development process.
Open Door Senior Center
MFA Thesis
My Role
Ethnographic Research, Design Research, Ideation, Prototyping, Communication Design
Core77 Design Awards 2020
Strategy & Research
Student Notable
Ethnographic Research

I based the majority of my research and design iteration process in The Open Door Senior Center in order to learn the social practices of older Chinese immigrants and their interpretation of these practices. I attended one of the English classes in the senior center 2-3 days a week throughout the project. Besides attending English class, I as well participated in other activities in the senior center, had conversations with people and explored the neighborhood. This long term engagement helped me build trust with my participants and gave me a holistic view of older Chinese immigrants' lives.

Insight 1 : Learning English is not an urgent need
Most old Chinese immigrants don’t have strong motivations to learn English. Learning English is a choice but not an urgent need. Even among English class attendants, who choose to learn English, none of them expressed that they have urgent needs to use English, but all said it is better to know English well. This insight informed my decision of stepping back and investigating older Chinese immigrants' motivations for learning English before entering the design phase.

Insight 2 : Newspaper is their facebook :-)
As young people use social media every day, reading newspapers is older Chinese immigrants' daily routine. They read Chinese newspapers that cover current affairs in the US and the greater China area. As a result of lacking access to technology, the newspaper is a dominant information source in this community.

Design Research

4 skills sheet

The worksheet has 4 areas showing speaking, listening, writing and reading, 4 types of English skills. It was designed to prompt older immigrants, both English learners, and non-learners, to think about the occasions where they need or want to use English. It was proved by participants’ reaction that breaking down English, this abstract concept, into 4 specific aspects helped them recall their experience better. 

Based on the stories collected from the conversations, I made the following diagram demonstrating the 5 major motivations for learning and using English. Among these motivations, 4 of them are associated with the deeper wish of adjusting to the relocation and the other one comes out from resisting the negative changes of the aging process.  

Capacity: retain the ability to handle everyday tasks
“ Can you help me translate the English letter? Let me pick up your lunch! ”

Participants want to handle tasks that they currently have problems with due to their limited English proficiency: ordering food in restaurants, reading letters and filling out forms, just to mention a few.

Identity: achieve the ideal power dynamics
“ I am afraid my grand kid will feel awkward if I don’t say anything to his friends.”
Many older immigrants, especially those who came to the US in their late life, experienced changes in power dynamics with their family members. This motivation sometimes underlies or overlaps with other motivations. For example, the desire of becoming a good grandparent might promote one building connections with one’s grandkid; wishing to be more independent from one’s kid might motivate one to handle daily tasks.

Connection: connect to family, social circle and the larger society
“I want to talk to neighbors in English instead of using body language.”
Learning English helps them better connect to English-speaking family members and it also reflects their wish to have a stronger connection with, and be more integrated in the larger society.

Exploration: experience new things in a foreign environment and culture
“I can’t understand the menu in McDonald’s so I only go there when I am with my son.”
Some participants expressed their desire for traveling around and better experience American culture. An adventure can be as small as going to a McDonald’s and ordering food.

The tension: maintain tradition vs promote change
These 4 motivations are all associated with a deeper wish of adapting to changes caused by immigration or relocation in New York City. I identified a tension between “maintain tradition” and “promote change” among these motivations. “Maintain tradition” refers to the idea of pursuing similar situations as before the relocation and “promote change”, on the opposite, describes the intention of wanting changes to happen after the relocation.

Idea cards

After understanding older Chinese immigrants’ major motivations for learning English, I brainstormed ideas corresponding to these motivations and presented them through a set of hand-drawn cards. This activity was designed to invite research participants to verify the insights and provide feedback on several early design directions. When having conversations with participants, I showed them the cards, described the problem I wanted to solve and what my idea/design is. I observed the reaction of the participants and asked them to share their thoughts. 

"Fake" newspaper

this method locates in the middle ground of research and prototype. Inspired by the fact that newspapers are the dominant media among older Chinese Immigrants, I came up with the idea of using newspapers as the place to put interventions thus it has the potential to impact a larger population, beyond this senior center. This prototype was designed to test older Chinese immigrants’ attitudes towards this format and what content they would like to see.

Design Proposition

Design may have colonial features when it carries a set of specific ontological and epistemic notions and is forcefully imposed on a context. A profound insight from my previous research is, my design interventions more or less reflect certain kind of attitudes about how should this immigrant community interaction with the larger society. The ontological nature of design and its colonial tendency cautioned me to be careful about not to impose my ideology and attitudes on the community that I designed for.

In order to be clear about how I hope my design intervention influences older Chinese immigrants’ intercultural strategy, I made the following diagram. One overarching insight from the research is that the older Chinese immigrants population has various demands and motivations in terms of how and how much they want to integrate into mainstream society. Defining a position for the design intervention that helps people who have these needs as well as not impose certain attitudes (one should integrate into the mainstream society) on the entire community is the biggest challenge.

The choice of using newspapers to locate design interventions is my answer to this challenge. It is an ambient, not forcing approach and gives agency to each individual to decide how to use these tools and resources. Shaping the media environment also means that design intervention has the potential to impact the larger population.

Cultural Crosspoint

My proposed intervention is a new section in existing Chinese newspapers called: Cultural Cross Point. It helps the readers, especially those not familiar with digital media platforms, to better understand differences between American and Chinese culture and provides strategies to cope with issues caused by these differences. The aim of this intervention is to give immigrants tools to have more intercultural interactions if they desire while letting individuals make choices at their own time and pace. It consists of 4 sections:

  • Cultural differences
    Articles about different aspects of Chinese and American culture will be posted in this section. The topics cover a wide range and  are mainly associated with everyday life. The example on the newspaper is about neighborhood relationships. The article is neutral and has no judgement on both sides of the culture.
  • Comic series “a new immigrant family”
    “A new immigrant family” is a comic series that depicts stories happened in a fictional new immigrant family with a focus on the intergenerational aspects. The main characters are the grandma, who came to the US to take care of her son’s family, and her American-born grandkid. There is a language barrier between them but they both try hard to connect to each other with other ways. The stories are evolved from these interactions.
  • Place, activity and food
    These two sections introduce place, activity and food that the readers can experience in New York City. My previous research demonstrates that, for many immigrants, even those who have been in New York City for a long time, ordering food in non-Chinese restaurants is still challenging.
  • Mini English class
    In this section, games like crossword puzzles and wordsearch that help one build English proficiency will be incorporated. Learning English is a need for immigrants, especially new immigrants, and they are also the major readers of ethnic newspapers. Adding English-learning content can make these newspapers cater to the need of their readers better. Other ways to encourage readers to use this section is by newspapers collaborating with local business like bakeries and makes the participation rewardable.
Reflection: maybe I was wrong!

As I always did before, I brought the newspapers to the senior center to ask for feedback from older Chinese Immigrants. To my surprise, many of them told me the contents I designed can educate immigrants who behave improperly in American society that jeopardize the public perception of Chinese immigrants as a whole. This pattern I observed from the comments is the last thing till now that triggered my curiosity. It made me think, probably I was wrong on one conclusion I made before.

I used to consider older Chinese immigrants as separated from the larger society and nor interested in integration. I drew this conclusion based on the fact that few of them are proficient in English and have limited direct social connections with mainstream society. As someone who speaks a English as a second language, I failed to understand the way they integrate in the society. From their reaction to the newspaper, I realized that even though they don’t have any social connection and can’t speak English thus are not able to vocalize themselves in mainstream society, they made great efforts to pick up the social norms and habits after they came to this country in order to make the mainstream view them, and the immigrant community at large, positively. In this way, they are definitely an integrated part of the society.