How To Avoid Becoming a Pseudo Global Citizen

Reposted from engageabroad. – Originally posted on .

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  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.

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