It’s been about a month since I returned from my short exchange program in the UK and it already feels like forever ago.
The university went about managing 140 students from all over the globe in several ways. On the first day we were given a lecture on cultural exchange, where they impressed upon us the importance of waiting until the little man on the traffic light was green before crossing the street. On each bus ride, a student representative would stand up and tell us we had to wear a seat-belt and refrain from drinking alcohol on the bus. On the last day, we were given a second lecture. “Don’t expect everyone at home to want to hear you talk about your trip all day. Pick several key points”. It was a deeply strange experience, probably underpinned by the logic of insurance.
People have strange perceptions of Australia. The dangerous animal stereotype is so real.
Real quote from a British woman we met on a train:
My brother went to Australia eight years ago. He got chased by an ostrich.
My first module was entitled The English Country House. I had no idea what it would entail; I chose it because it was the most distinctly British option on the list – and I ended up having the time of my life and securing friendships stronger than many I have at home (not even exaggerating). We looked at the aristocracy, the structure of parliament, the monarchy, and mansions (yes, I’m replicating those on The Sims for my DA this semester). We visited three country houses: Temple Newsam, Castle Howard and Harewood House, finding particular enjoyment in the dress-ups (including my dude friend, Pantelei, who made a smoking scullery maid).
My second module was entitled Heretics, Witches & Conspirators: A History of Fear 1500-1700. It is true I chose this class in an attempt to live out my dream of being Harry Potter, but I got a lot more out of it than I originally thought. The theme of the class was tolerance – over the two weeks we studied this, we never came to a clear conclusion of what that word actually means. It’s downright scary what people will do to each other over differences, and how they justify it.
Each day I sat beside a Chinese boy, and as our tutor lectured or asked questions about the set readings, he would be typing various words she spoke into Merriam Webster online in an attempt to understand the conversation, live. A Finnish boy, at the beginning of his presentation, made the disclaimer:
English is not my native language so this presentation is probably not a good idea. Shit.
His English seemed perfectly understandable to the rest of us, yet he continued to make this disclaimer regularly when he’d raise his hand in class: “I could probably explain better in my own language, but . . . ” is how many of his conversations would begin. His need to justify himself before speaking in front of the class highlighted an anxiety that myself and other native English speakers did not have to suffer through.
Something different happened in this class – perhaps we all grew more comfortable, or worried less about pleasing each other or being polite, but cultural differences came very close to clashing dangerously. If it wasn’t for our tutor, who was quite probably coached in how to handle violent contrasts in cultural opinion, I think this tension would have escalated.
It was effectively a debate on freedom of speech; on the subject of tolerance, to ban free speech is to be intolerant of opinion, yet to allow it is, realistically, to give intolerance of minorities a platform of expression.
One girl offered the solution of a society which teaches its patrons to think before they speak; she said this was the best way of ensuring a balance between free speech and tolerance, using feminism as an example – pretty reasonable, right? Not so much for another student, who came from a culture which is much more male-dominated. He strongly (strongly) believed that having to think before you speak is misaligned with the concept of free speech. Given that English is his second language, this message came across much blunter than it was probably intended; he had a somewhat limited vocabulary with which to express his view. This is something I had to try hard to keep in mind whilst my inner feminist boiled with fury at what he was saying. Many in the class were becoming openly agitated, so our teacher ended that class extremely quickly.
Cultural Faux Pas
I had always thought it was Australians who adopted strange abbreviations for just about everything – but we aren’t the only ones. Just picture this scenario:
You’re sitting around a long table surrounded by a combination of Australians and Canadians. Your new Canadian friend has two drinks. She says we don’t need to wait for her to finish, she’ll just “double fist it” as we walk. The Canadians do not react. The Australians are choking on their own drinks. They can’t believe we haven’t heard of, and do not use, that abbreviation.
But you’re Australian, you have an abbreviation for everything!
(not quite everything, apparently). “Double fisting”, in Canada, occurs when one holds one alcoholic drink in each hand.
When we asked our Canadian/British tutor if she was aware of the double-meaning, she said she was not. She also seriously advised us against a web-search, warning us it would bring to our attention an area of the dark web we would not be able to unsee.
On our last night in London, we all sat around the common room and tried to plan the next time we would be together – the goodbye was way harder than I could ever have anticipated, after only four weeks of friendship. One girl web-search the midpoint between Vegas and Sydney (pretty much the midpoint between our entire social group) and it was a city called London on the tiny island of Kiribati (which we took to be nothing less than fate) – so guess where I’m going in 2020? 😉