A university official running global programs lamented in his blog that global citizenship, a term that is meant to convey concern for global social justice and taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the earth is being misunderstood by many students. Students he spoke to thought that global citizenship meant the ability to feel at home in London – a place that did not say global citizenship to him. While I applaud Americans becoming aware of and caring about the global community as a whole, I firmly believe that a profound knowledge of a foreign culture is an essential component for a true global citizen. And without wishing to be too shocking — the UK (including London) is part of a foreign culture.
There is an irritating assumption out there that the UK and the US are the same in culture or so similar it’s the same thing. Our cultures are not the same as any Briton who has worked in the United States can testify. How many times have I heard British people say “I thought it would be simple to understand American culture, but we’re so different!” It is time to correct the impression that Britain is the “easy” study abroad option. Otherwise we will end up with ‘pseudo global citizens.’ What is a ‘pseudo global citizen?’ Well for a start it’s someone who can ignore a vibrant and influential culture that is still evolving after 1000 years.
Culture. American students are vaguely aware of a difference between the American and British variety judging by their advice to others in blogs “not to speak loudly” in public when they come to the UK. They imply that once you lower your voice and get familiar with the city and traffic, you will be “comfortable” in British culture. But there are two ways of being comfortable in a culture. The first is by engaging with it. The second is by ignoring it. Those interested in the former will find there is more to being comfortable with British culture than voice decibel levels and historical sites. A culture is its people and that feeling of comfort should go both ways. You feel comfortable with them and they with you. American students headed for British shores should always take a cold, hard look at their goals and desired outcomes for studying in the UK. Because even those who want to engage often fail to do so and then when it comes time to sum up their experience, they are at loss to convey their semester or year in a way that stands out from the crowd applying for the same job or place at grad school.
There is no question that it is far harder for Americans to become culturally attuned to the UK (and vice versa) than ever before. This is due in part to the prominence of American media output but it is also related to the increasing amount of time that students spend online. Watching films online, facebook and skyping home all combine to make acculturation more difficult for today’s student than for those of us who studied abroad before the advent of digital technology. However, cultural learning has always required effort and ultimately it is down to the individual. Here are some pointers on achieving a deeper understanding of Britain.
1. Approach the UK as you would China — as a foreign society (because that is what it is.) It may help to think of yourself as a fluent but non native English speaker to enhance your listening and make you aware of subtle differences in vocabulary and meaning. Some examples are the use of “clever” and the phrase “table an item.” Always ask the connotation or meanings of words if they sound a little strange.
2. See the country. Imagine foreign students in the US limiting themselves to the town or city where they are studying and then saying “time to go to Mexico so I can see something new!” If you are in London in particular you need to see another part of the country. Not because London is not Britain but because it is only one manifestation of it. Head for one of the famous cathedral towns in the north. Go to the rebuilt industrial centers like Liverpool and no one should leave the UK without visiting Welsh castles or the majestic city of Edinburgh – all are reachable by train.
3. Visits outside the UK. Since you are living in the UK, if you decide to travel why not try approaching your foreign travel from the British or European point of view instead of just as an American. If you plan to visit Spain for example, do some research on the British relationship with Spain first. It need not be political. A million British people live in Spain. Ask what British people think of the relationship before you go and then in Spain ask about Britain. You may get some very interesting perspectives. Definitely research the European Union and discuss it with people in both countries.
4. Don’t just read one British newspaper. Read them all from time to time. They all have a different readership and the more you learn about them the more you will know about all of British society, not just one group. If you cannot relate to one of the papers — that’s the one to ask a British person about. Also listen to British radio – British people do. The most enlightening discussions on politics, race, culture and the arts are there.
5. Check your cultural progress. After you have been in the country about two months pretend that you have been asked to speak to a group of American secondary school students about the UK. Ask yourself if you could off the top of your head give them interesting information about the country. Do you understand what the British mean when they talk about their constitution? Could you explain the House of Lords? Their highest court, their politics? What do people mean by “the city?” It’s a good way to see if you have gotten lazy. Usually students are enthusiastic about taking in new cultural information in the beginning then they settle into a lifestyle and slack off a bit or even stop learning about the country they are in. If you have been on the sidelines a little too long, give yourself a pep talk and get back onto the field.
6. You can learn a great deal from acquaintances. Seniors, families and teens all have interesting opinions on their country. The British can be reserved but it drops away when you have a common interest. If you are having trouble meeting British people, try joining clubs or regularly attending worship services. They will very likely have refreshments afterwards where you can casually chat. If you are beginning to realize that Americans are not all that interesting in the UK, rest assured that foreign students at a place of worship will be noticed and welcomed. Become a “friend” of a museum, theatre or professional drama school. You will get ticket breaks and be invited to special events.
7. Leave the US at home. By all means stay in touch with family and friends but do a study abroad health check once in a while to be sure you are not using your US links as a crutch. Integrating into a society takes constant exposure to that society. If you are in London you will know that it also offers the attractions and distractions of many other cultures and digital technology makes “going American” all the time a great temptation. Resist that temptation. Instead of watching a US film or spending hours on facebook go with a friend to see a British play.
It takes curiosity and determination to delve into British culture but it is fun and the rewards last a lifetime. You will be appreciated by the British themselves and your efforts will mark you out from the pseudo global citizens who think mastering a few cultural details makes them experts. You will also impress the skeptical graduate admissions officer or employer who may have developed a habit of reclassifying study abroad students to the UK as tourists.