Thursday, September 20, 2007


Someone pointed out to me once that blogs were a difficult media in that you never knew if the information written in them can be verified. I thought about this for a while and then realised I only really read blogs of people I know. So if I am really concerned about the legitimacy of what people are writing I can either personally ask them or leave a comment.

This is the good thing about blogs, in this sense they are only as 'true' as you wish them to be. I tend to trust the things my friends say more than journalists ( which surprises me!). For example a friend of mine I met travelling many years ago in Laos, has just started a blog about his life going to university in Beijing. He is an American citizen, but I believe he has Chinese heritage. The interesting thing is I find myself much more interested in what he says and much less cynical than if I were reading a news report. Maybe because he has no agenda to sell papers or bag out Chinese political stance. For example he writes about the internet restrictions ( for example blogger and wikipedia) that Chinese people endure, I was shocked. I think I might have read it somewhere before- but I never realised it was true, if you know what I mean.

It made me re-realise something I thought a lot about when I was an exchange student in Costa Rica (age 15, year 10 at high school), which is that people really relate to and believe what people say when the people that are talking are 'like them'. After a year in Costa Rica I felt much more at home in Costa Rica than I would in any other foreign country and even considered going to university there. The reason I like and believe the things my friends write on their blogs is because in some sense I feel sure that they are like me ( or me like them) and we are trying to understand the same things, have the same values and can easily communicate.

This wasn't the case when I first started school in Costa Rica, I was at a public school with 1200 students, none of whom spoke English (even the English teacher), very few had any real sense that Australia was a place somewhere. I felt very distanced and lonely. But this is ideal motivation to learn to speak another language and culture and after a while I did.

Afterwards, in what now feels a little naive, I always wished that those leaders that started wars, had been to high school for a year in the country they were invading/bombing/occupying. Then they would feel very strange, because they would know if they just spent a bit of time with any of the people in that country they would know how to communicate well and feel some solidarity with the population. The negative aspects of 'us' and 'them' largely dissolve when you get comfortable communicating linguistically and culturally.

I must admit this is one of the things that impresses me most about Kevin Rudd, I know at least that he has some sense that behind every 'other' (Chinese/Iraqi/French/Russian persons) is a human he could communicate with if he learnt how, because he went to the trouble to learn Mandarin well.

So are bi-lingual people more tolerant to other cultures and languages? Can they cope with socially difficult situations more comfortably? And I know at least some of you have also been on exchange also- what do you keep with you from that year, how does it influence your career and work?

What do ya think bloggers.....?


Blogger bulanjdjan said...

How has been a high school exchange student affected me, personally and professionally?

I think I'm a linguist because of the experience. Sure, maybe I might have been a linguist anyway, but the path was clearer after that year.

I know I definitely have more empathy for anyone trying to learn English than any monolingual. And not just trying to learn English in a different country, but trying to eke out an existence in a country where you don't speak the language. I was SO lucky that I had a host family who sheparded me through, and helped me navigate the gross and finer points of detail of Dutch social, cultural and linguistic norms. I can't imagine having had such a blessed run if I'd had to do it all on my own.

I think I also fundamentally *get* that language is a key component of cultural identity and practice, and that cultural identity isn't optional, or something you can change overnight. And I don't mean that one can only understand this if one has been an exchange student - hopefully all humans have this insight!! - but I know I learnt it for real on my exchange. I think the idea of knowing it attracted me to going on an exchange in the first place.

I also learnt what it was like to have to shut parts of yourself off for long periods of time. Maybe because my language skills weren't good enough to express myself. Maybe because there weren't any outlets locally for certain creative urges. Maybe because certain cultural norms from home just didn't 'carry' - humour particularly. And humour, often, is the relief of 'getting' it.

The struggle between personal values and being asked to go against them to 'fit in' culturally was another important lesson. It's easy to surround yourself with like-minded people in your own context and not be particularly challenged by them. When you enter another context, and recognise a stranger's humanity and make a connection and are then confronted to go against your values, you have to learn to use grace to maintain equanimity - both within and without. Dunno if I've particularly achieved that just yet!!

My corny summary? The realisation that there is pluralism in the world, and that's a good (not threatening!) thing.

7:29 pm  
Blogger Sophie said...

Wow, thanks bulanjdjan, that was a really insightful response. My Costa Rican host father recently contacted me and I was trying to explain to him how much that year had meant to me and influenced my life.

I think one of the most important things I learnt is knowing the feeling of your language and culture not being recognised or respected by the larger dominant population....

8:27 pm  
Blogger bulanjdjan said...

I think it's also interesting to think about what motivated you/me/others to go on exchange in the first place.

I described all these things I got out of the experience, but maybe I was destined to learn those things anyway, because of my interest in different languages & cultures and the space in between and in the overlap.

And maybe I just aspired to know those things through experience, as I had already taken them in intellectually prior to going on exchange.

I wonder if I could tell you what I learnt, which I hadn't expected to learn? This may be more interesting or revealing than what I was *predestined* to experience/learn.

Well, I learnt I have an ability in learning languages I hadn't yet identified. I knew I was interested in learning languages, but hadn't ever learnt a language (even at school) before I went OS at 18.

I think I also learnt that I am Australian, and I need to be able to be Australian, where I hadn't felt connected to any sense of 'nationality' or 'cultural identity' before I was a fish out of water.

I also learnt the value of sitting down to an evening meal with a family and sharing conversation and laughter. This isn't anything to do with being in a Dutch context, or because I'm Australian. But my host family did it where my Australian family didn't. And I loved it!

I also learnt that teasing is universal!

1:17 pm  
Blogger Catalin said...

Sophie, what a great question, and Bulanjdjan, what great responses!

I didn't go OS until I was 27, but have some of the same feelings as both of you about my experiences of having lived in three other countries.

A cfew other effects: I am much more okay with ambiguity than I ever was before I was immersed in another culture & language. Before, I had always felt like I really had to know what was going on, what had been said, etc. Of course, living in another place, I found that I often didn't know for sure (or even at all) what was going on, what had been said. I think that was a good lesson for me and made me more flexible and more sympathetic and patient with people who are confused, even in their own language & culture.

Another thing, and this relates to your blog comment, Sophie, is how the countries in which I have spent time are much more REAL to me than they were before and than other countries are. When one of them is in the news (and the countries I've lived in or visited extensively are all countries that are not much in the American news), I feel a strong sense of connection and relevance.
I agree that all national leaders, maybe all people, should have spent time living in another country, especially one with a very different culture from one's own. I am waiting for a former Peace Corps volunteer to be in the White House!

11:59 am  

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