An International Education

Much as I love to study (hem hem), being on exchange has become more about getting a thorough instruction in the university of life (yeah, I said it). Rubbing shoulders with students from all around the world has given me a far better international education than any textbook ever could. Just in the past week I’ve been privy to snippets of an insider’s life in Armenia, took a crash course in Polish drinking ritual during a fondue party, and sampled some truly splendid (if incredibly oil-rich) home-made Columbian cuisine.

Though I came here to learn French, and take in a bit of Swiss culture, I think I’ve actually learned much more about other cultures. Like I said, reading about countries and customs is all very well but it’s all just words on a page. Speaking with real live people who talk with animation and emotion about their homelands is the best way to learn about a country.

Plus, it’s just quite fun to see the numbers of countries from which people you meet come racking up. The more unusual the place and/or circumstance, the better. I had never met anyone from Azerbaijan before, let alone danced Argentinian tango with them, until last semester. I had to look up the Cape Verde islands on google maps after meeting someone from there because I was clueless as to where they are located.

Once, I found myself at an all-Romanian party (just…don’t ask, no idea why), taking part in their traditional dance, and also for some reason performing the tango in front of a load of strangers (again, don’t ask). Mixing mulled wine and rum sounded horrific to me, until I saw how my German coloc did it, melting a huge cone of sugar into it with some special apparatus probably only found in Germany; it actually tasted pretty good.

It’s been a rather bitter pill to swallow, but I’ve learned that American English is far more widespread in the world than English English, and I’ve come to accept (almost) that my Received Pronunciation is frequently going to be met with blank stares in the international crowd. Adaptation, not articulation, rules when trying to communicate effectively!

All this exposure has made me realise, despite the multicultural-ness of London, just how much there is out there, and how little I know of it all. It’s nigh on impossible to know about even half of the cultures on earth, and it is important to never assume you do. One shouldn’t make the grave error of thinking that, for example, eating at an Indian restaurant means, even slightly, that you know the first thing about Indian culture.

What I’ve learned from this is that there is no “one way” or “correct” way of living and being. However it is wrong when you assume your own way is the only way, superior to everything else, which is worthless or pointless. It’s also made me realise that one new culture is not enough. I want to live them all!

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