When people are asked to recount their exchange experience, most of them will talk about the landmarks they have been to, like Yosemite, the Great Wall of China, or the movie sets in Lord of the Rings. Some might also talk about the weather, like the cool and gentle breeze, or the warm evening sun. In these recounts, most of them are usually devoid of any human interaction, which I feel is rather troubling. We rarely hear recounts of that nice girl who loved cats, or that bookworm from Chicago who was also really good at Frisbee. What happened to all the awesome people they have met on exchange? Did they talk to their classmates, or have lunch with friends, or hung out with people on a lonely Saturday evening?
No, they have not. Most of us would rather stick to ourselves, or our bunch of Singaporean friends, and focus on going to places. Perhaps, a different city every week. If your goal is to visit a place, for the sake of visiting it, that’s fair. You may now proceed to strike it off your bucket list. However, please don’t confuse that with culture. They have a term for people like that. They are called “tourists”, or “passive observers in a vibrant and engaging community”. If being a tourist makes you happy, you should stop reading this article and continue to do whatever tourists do.
However, if your goal is to experience a culture, the fullness of what the place has the offer, read on.
Culture is not a couple of landmarks; it is the semiotics that are unique to a community. For example, when I say “home”, I picture my mum, dad, and little brother, sitting on a nice snuggly couch and talking over Channel 8 News in the background. You might picture something different, based on your memories of home, but it will probably be something similar. People from other countries would probably picture something entirely different. To them, “home” might be a lawn, with a nice bench, and a rake leaning idly by the fence. These differences arise due to the environment we are in. To fully appreciate a culture, we have to first understand the semiotics of the local community.
How do we understand something that is so fundamentally different? First, we have to make friends. We need to talk to people regularly, and connect with people at an emotional level, so that they will share their experiences with you, and in return, you will share your experiences with them. Overcoming the initial xenophobia is one of the most beautiful things that can happen during exchange. When I was in Berkeley, I regularly hung out with my Frisbee team and the people living in my cooperative. We would go to the movies, have picnics at the beach, play board games, eat out at fancy restaurants, and have conversations about our pasts and dreams. They form a huge part of my exchange experience.
However, we should not expect people to automatically be interested in us. We have to make the effort to know them. After all, we will only be there for a couple of months, perhaps they feel like there is no imperative to be friends. Moreover, most of them already have their own group of friends. It is up to us to take the initiative to know them. From my own experience, sometimes I would meet people who are unreceptive to my attempts to know them, but I didn’t give up, because there will always be nice people around, and there are usually more nice people than unfriendly ones.
We can only experience a culture by integrating into a community. There are subtle differences in humor, music, expressions of love and anger, lifestyle, fashion, and fundamental viewpoints on life. The only way to learn these nuances is by emulation, like how a baby would emulate their parents to learn about the world. We might be aware of some salient differences, like how Americans are more liberal or like how the Chinese are more conservative, but we can only truly know if we experience it ourselves. Most of these fleeting experiences and emotions cannot be described with words. For instance, even if I tell you that most people living in Berkeley cooperatives cooked their own meals (since it was too expensive to eat out) and they have fun cooking with people, trying out new recipes, and worrying about groceries, you still can’t fully comprehend the entirety of their experience because you are not there to experience it yourself.
When I was in Berkeley, I tried to live like a local. I joined them in their simple daily activities. I would cook every day and worry about buying groceries, like a local. I also hung out with the friends that I have made. We would go to the movies, play board games, have conversations at the dinner table, give people prank calls, or just relax at the dining room. These are the moments that I cherish the most.
The pinnacle of cultural immersion is when we give back to the community, because all locals contribute to their community in some way. For instance, you can organize a movie outing, or a Chinese language class, or a hike. While I was in Berkeley, I wanted to organize a Frisbee workshop for the people in my cooperative, although I ultimately couldn’t due to time constraints. However, I hoped that I have still managed to introduce a part of Singapore’s culture. Before I left, I wrote ‘Thank You’ cards to a bunch of my close friends because giving heartfelt messages is something that we frequently do, especially for birthdays and farewells. Through this, I hope that I have left a unique piece of our student culture.
Beyond the cultural experiences that we gain by being part of the community, the greatest joy of all is making friends. We may find some of the kindest and most amazing people who we will ever meet, only if we care enough to find them. Perhaps you will come to realize, as I did, that there are more similarities than differences between us. We are all bound by the same human emotions – courage, empathy, enthusiasm, kindness, and love. These emotions don’t change across cultures because they are a part of the human condition. They connect us as humans, regardless of where we are from, and this is what makes our exchange experiences so meaningful and memorable.
Pictures by Wei Xuan
About the Author
Wei Xuan is smart, witty, and handsome, and is always eager to make friends. His number is 9748 9770. You could meet up with him for lunch if you want to know more about him.