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Becoming a World Citizen – Part 3

Updated: Apr 3

I wrote in parts 1 and 2 of this series about Dr King’s famous “world perspective” and how, in aspiring to that ultimate goal, the learning of new languages and the barriers that the experience breaks down, can be an essential step.


But it’s only a first step, because while speaking a language provides an entry point to a new culture, there’s so much more to be explored. And that exploration, like any experience in a foreign city or country, can be by turns exhilarating, thrilling, and thoroughly discombobulating. I’d love to believe what people say – that travel broadens the mind. But I’ve met too many people who come back from a travel experience with a narrower mind than before – judging rather than seeking to understand what people do “over there”. I’d go so far as to say that only travel with an already broad mind broadens the mind.


Just as new languages first challenge and then shatter your preconceptions about how the world speaks, sounds and writes, then experiences of culture around the world can bring into question many of the things you held to be “normal”.



Photo by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash


Having grown up in Wales, and gone to university in England, my first real experience of living abroad was as a student in Germany. A friend of mine invited me for a game of squash, and what better way to relax after a hard hour of chasing a tiny rubber ball than to go the sauna. What I didn’t expect was that his girlfriend would also come along, and that it was perfectly natural for everyone to go into the sauna naked. Now I’m no prude, and soon got used to it, but it was still a different take on being at ease with the human body than had been the norm in rather protestant Wales. And I imagine the very thought of a unisex sauna would be perfectly acceptable to some of you, while it would make others run for the hills.


A year or two later, I was in China, and invited a group of my students to my flat on the college campus. Quite calmly, they set about opening my drawers, pulling out pictures and asking questions. And of course they were never shy about asking how much you earned, whether you had children, and if not, why not, while commenting on the size of your nose, or how thin or fat you were. And so it was that throughout my time in China, another fairly fundamental Western notion of privacy and personal space was challenged.


My life journey took me next to Turkey, where shop owners would remember you if you’d only bought a single aubergine weeks earlier, and had a gift for interpersonal relations born of centuries of cross-cultural trade, and then on to Prague, where I would visit the same tea shop for a whole year, and where the owner never once gave any sign of recognising me. Maybe that was a legacy of the communist years, and things have changed now, but in that moment, one of my fundamental beliefs about human interaction was challenged – that we recognise and acknowledge those we have met (and perhaps especially if they’re customers!)


Fast forward to my time in Africa and the whole notion of time on which my life depends (I sometimes think I was a Swiss clock in a former life) was buffeted and thrown into question. I would ask people when they would turn up at my place, only for them to say “In the evening”, and be incredulous if I required greater detail. And then when I would turn up at their place in similar relaxed fashion, I’d sometimes be told “you’re late!”


And so it went on, through four decades of living in other countries, and still I’m learning every day. Spain is less culturally different than countries I’ve lived in like China or Bangladesh or Somaliland, but I still have constant reminders of how “things are done differently here” – to such an extent that while my own personal values and habits remain consistent, I now expect and adapt to almost anything the world can throw at me in terms of different cultures. Just like my linguistic certainties, my cultural certainties have been slowly dismantled, and I move happily among peoples from the entire planet, intrigued and curious.


And perhaps in those last two adjectives lie the keys – a set of attitudes which we can identify and nurture – which I’ll explore in the last part of this series.


Translations




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I wish I could have moved around like this Andrew! Not just spending a couple of weeks on holiday, but stay long enough like you to discover the local customs. Well, my life's not over yet! 😄

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Haha far from it! Yes I've been very lucky in that respect to have worked in many places. But you don't have to live in a place for two years to be curious about differences either. And of course we can find people from every possible culture in our own cities too...

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