Engaging with foreign places

Following my previous posts about blocks and threads, I can now see why it is so important for people who stay in foreign places for a long time to engage with their histories and cultural scenes.

I am thinking particularly about students I know who come from far away but are carrying out research on some aspect of the cultural or professional life of where they come from. It may seem that what they need to do is to research that cultural scene. But so much can be learnt from researching the strangeness of the place where they are living. An opportunity not to be missed.

I am not talking about block thinking – this is ‘their culture’ and this is how it’s different to ‘my culture’. I am talking instead about searching for the threads that resonate with the ones that we have grown up with.

Now I can see why I was so interested in TV dramas, pop music, history and cultural references when I lived in Iran between the ages of 23 and 30. I was never a great language learner; but I think I did learn about the locatedness of things – what was going on and why it was going on – where people came from and the histories that gave them meaning. Somehow this helped me to think about who I was too. As my dear colleague Sue-san Ghahremani-Ghajar told me – when we travel to foreign places we can discover that ‘their stories are also our stories’. But we need to search hard for this connection; and we can only do it through thinking about cultural threads – not the blocks that keep us apart.

So this is why I constantly encourage students to watch British TV – not because of some daft idea about integration or assimilation – but to find things that help them to get to the bottom of other things.

It can also be small doses – fleeting images and passing impressions, sounds and images – that might not make any sense until a long time later. So this is why, perhaps only occasionally, I switch to local TV channels in languages I don’t understand in hotel rooms in the places where I have the opportunity to visit. There is always something to connect.

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