August 8th, 2013
Jet lag woke me up at precisely 4:50 a.m. this morning and the stifling heat kept me awake. Today’s’ forecast was 37 C, but I could see fluffy clouds blowing in from the south, from the Sahara actually. It is after all, the world’s hottest desert. It would have to be, for its winds to deliver such heat, all the way up here in Northern Germany.
At about 5:30 I walked out onto our small 2nd floor balcony to watch the sunrise and enjoy the rare warm breeze. It made me think of the hot Santa Ana winds back home in Los Angeles, which seasonally blow across the city from the Mohave Desert in late September. The Spanish colonizers originally called them the Satanas (a term referring to Satan). Known today as the “Devil’s Winds,” they are aptly named as they seem to provoke unsettling emotions in humans and animals alike.
Hmmm, perhaps these hot Saharan winds arouse similar feelings of distress, I thought as the unusual sound of a man and a woman arguing loudly in Arabic drifted across the street. I realized it must be one of the new Syrian refugee families just recently arrived and I knew that although exacerbated by the heat, it certainly was not the cause of their distress.
Across the wide grass divider of our busy street is a post WWII large 1950’s, god awful ugly apartment building, taking up about 1/3 a city block which is home to a mostly immigrant population from Africa, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, and Turkey. Directly next to it, the City of Bremen converted an empty office building into emergency immigrant housing for Syrian Refugees. Germany has recently taken in over 10,000 Syrians, and the numbers are growing.
I began to try and imagine the kind of collective emotional pain and stress that building must be experiencing, and started to think about what it really means to abruptly find yourself forced to adapt to a foreign land in the most difficult possible of circumstances.
Around the corner, a late-middle aged woman supports herself by renting rooms to foreign students. The Chinese, French, Spanish, American, Japanese, and Korean students living there must also share some of the same issues of assimilating (or not) into their new land. I compared myself more with them, but I wondered what we all possibly, may have in common.
Here are three things that address issues which foreign students may find beneficial to consider, while keeping in mind that they are, unlike asylum seekers and refugees, there by choice.
1. Am I Becoming One of Them?
Living in another country, with radically different social customs, cultural practices, foods, and strange foreign languages can be described as challenging at best. Adapting and adopting foreign ways slowly and often reluctantly, some people have a better time of it than others. At the end of the day, cultural identity is really a question of each individual’s personal journey.
While trying to define one across the boundaries of different countries and continents, it is important to understand and accept that although you may begin the process of ‘cultural assimilation’ your core values really do not change. As immigrants, if we can soften around this idea and acknowledge that we will always be Syrian, American, or Chinese first, we will have an easier time trying on our new culture, without the burden of feeling we have to become it, no matter how long we plan to stay.
That is an entirely different thing than finding what we like or really dislike in our new land. If you are open minded enough, you might come to understand that what you judge about your new culture is always filtered through your primary cultural identity. Unlike refugees, international students have chosen to place themselves in situations that demand that they acknowledge not only their “otherness” but a certain level of acceptance, less they bury themselves in an isolated study/work experience.
This self -acceptance can help make the entire experience more harmonious, less critical, and less judgmental of our hosts, and ourselves for that matter.
2. I Speak English Now.
Of course it is paramount to be able to communicate freely and without hesitation. It is always awkward and embarrassing at first, to do the simplest things, like going to the market, the pharmacy, and god forbid, speaking on the phone. I never thought about it, but it may be even more difficult and more frustrating for foreign students in comparison to the refugee population. The refugees, after all are usually in groups, affording somewhat of a buffer zone against the immediate need to talk in a foreign tongue. Usually a young student ––in the case of Syrians who possess a high literacy rate, will have one person who can help translate for families and groups of individuals, to help start things off.
Students however are expected to have achieved a certain mastery of the host country’s language. There is no doubt that studying a foreign language can reap huge personal and global benefits. It is an almost instantaneous way of opening up to the world and its people, and it has the proven, added benefit of improving thinking and personal communication skills. And, in today’s global economy, that can only be an asset.
However, say in learning English, it is important for students to realize that it takes much longer to acquire “academic language” proficiency rather than conversational language proficiency. Be patient, and don’t be afraid to ask for help, even though doing so may bump up against your own cultural comfort zone. Professors in most major universities are well aware of the “academic gaps” in the language learning curve.
Once you are over the shock of hearing a foreign tongue spoken 24/7, the best advice is to not take yourself so seriously, and not be afraid to make mistakes.
3. What About Money?
How will we survive this decade? How will we prosper, thrive, feed ourselves, and take care of our families in this increasingly interconnected pressure cooker of economic agendas and global resource challenges? It is almost impossible for university students to ignore this changing economic landscape when choosing a school or a topic of study.
Studying abroad is a wonderful way to open up to the world, and it prepares students to be open-minded, thriving individuals in our rapidly changing “borderless” world. And ultimately, offers them a competitive edge when engaging in international business or profiting from the mind expanding experience of being forced to look at the world through different eyes.
However, what happens if you find yourself living in a culture with different measures of success? Depending on the over-arching cultural and parental notions of success, whether in life or career many students today choose majors which they hope will bring practical and financial success.
In an interesting article on the Yale Daily News website, the staff reporter, Antonia Woodford discusses the concern the university has about the shift away from Humanities Majors towards Economics. Mostly, international students are not as familiar with “liberal arts” as the American students generally are. However, the concerns about finding a job after completing school, with a higher paying salary add to the pressure and seem to have become infectious in the student body as a whole. She quotes Moira Fradinger GRD ’03, director of undergraduate studies for the Comparative Literature Department, “…I can recall many conversations with students who say, ‘Shouldn’t I do economics, rather than literature? Their concern is mostly how they’ll be able to find a job after Yale, and whether they should follow the advice of their parents and major in economics… in an increasingly globalized world, knowing foreign languages and literatures is an “incredible asset” but that students often do not realize how widely they can apply these skills to jobs.”
Woodford also quotes Yale College Dean Mary Miller as saying that,”… taking just a few courses in a humanities field can significantly enrich students’ intellectual experience.”
A Softer Landing
As the world grapples with ever increasing populations of immigrants; from international students to refugees of brutal civil wars, environmental disasters (man made or natural) or epidemics, many cities have found themselves dealing with the emotional strain on both the immigrants themselves and the societies they land in. Issues such as feelings of isolation and “otherness” of both students and refugees alike need to be on the radar in a big way.
As a footnote, I found a very inspiring news item the other day about the way the city of Augsburg, in the southwest of Bavaria, Germany has decided to tackle the rising issue of asylum seekers, which could potentially become a worldwide role model. The city of Augsburg has found a dignified way to address the social, personal, and cultural needs of its newest residents, by creating a grand experiment, aptly named the Grandhotel. It invited artists to create and live in one building alongside newly arrived refugees and help create a free-thinking, creative environment to help everyone deal with the culture shock, and find ways to lead a fulfilling life, while sharing the challenges of daily food and shelter. The result is a communal living experience, which is really worth checking out. Follow the link below and click on You can get it Here to read translations from German into English and Spanish. Perhaps it is the grain of sand in the oyster for all you Urban Planning students out there!
Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com / E: firstname.lastname@example.org