You have spent most of your life in a country with people from your culture. You speak the same language, you love and eat the same food, celebrate the same happy moments, go to the same school, go to the same work, go to the same supermarkets. One day you decide to study in the land of the rising sun. Different culture, different customs, different language. What an exciting time! You meet people from all around the globe at APU. You will even meet people from countries you never heard before….., but you decided to hang out with the people from your country, speak the same language, and eat the same food. Nani?!
I remember well the first month I arrived in Japan, and my mom asked me if I had met some Moroccans or Dutchies. I replied to my mom: “Mom, if I wanted to meet Moroccans or Dutchies, I would have stayed home.” Of course, this is merely my opinion, but I do believe that the purpose of going abroad is to broaden your horizon. For this, you will meet people from other cultures from all over the globe. Only then one can say you have been abroad.
Unfortunately, I have observed an interesting behaviour at my university. It is not an uncommon behaviour per se, and I can understand why it happens, but it goes against my so-called ‘international beliefs.’ Why would one go abroad only to meet the same people one left in the first place?
The things I have observed at the university is, especially a common behaviour I see among undergraduates, students stick with people from their own culture. The most prominent cultural groups are Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indonesian. There are many more cultures, but these are the largest ones. What I see is that they tend to stay together during breaks, walk together going from classroom to classroom, have lunch together. I can safely assume they are also staying together inside the classroom. And this kind of saddens me.
There is a big opportunity to learn from other cultures. I have spent much time with people from many cultures, and I learned much about their countries, their customs, their cuisine, and their history. I spent most of my time with people from Vietnam, Tajikistan, Indonesia, and Japan. They are all great people, and I will miss them all when I return to Holland.
Because I was open to their culture, they taught me a lot. I tasted their food, learned about their customs, about their history, about their country. When I was still in Europe I would learn a lot about Western countries, but not so much about Asia. I am very grateful that I have been given an opportunity to study in Japan, and meet all these fascinating people.
Truth to be told, there are not many Westerners or North-Africans at APU. There are a few Dutchies, and there were some Moroccans. I did hang out with them once in a long time, but not on a regular basis. They are not bad people, but I prefer to hang out with other cultures. I did not travel 10000KM to meet my people again. It might sound pessimistic, but I see problems of hanging with people from the same culture for too long.
Dutch and Moroccan-Arabic are my mother tongue. I do not put this attest as these are the first languages I grew up with. If I keep speaking these two languages, which are burned in my mind, so to speak, I will be neglecting my other languages. I want to improve my Japanese and keep my English up-to-date. English because it is the most critical language in the world for intercultural communication, and Japanese because I want to be able to communicate with the locals.
In my observation, I noticed that some students have barely improved their English because they kept hanging out with people from their culture. I sometimes have difficulties understanding some students even though they have been here for three to four years. Verbal communication is somewhat okay, but their writing skills are a mess. This caused a lot of miss-communication. It doesn’t need to be top-notch, but at least to a level to have ‘oke’ communications.
Learning about other cultures increases your better understanding of their life. Humanity fears what we do not understand. If one is not open to different cultures, one will remain fearful of the other. I sincerely believe that xenophobia can be fought by education and tolerance. The challenge is to take the first step and open your arms for their culture. It all starts with you. You are not required to be an expert in intercultural communication, but with you will get a long way with tolerance. Accept to be accepted.
In our contemporary world, everything will be globalised. Your fellow students from other cultures will be your colleagues one day. Learning about their culture now will make your life much more comfortable in the future. As you are still young and still a student you will make many mistakes with people from other cultures, and so will they with your cultural background. Learning from these mistakes will prepare you for your future job. Your supervisors will see you as an asset as you have the experience on how to work with people from many cultures.
In my opinion, there are only benefits from intercultural understanding. Of course, I am aware of my generalisation. You will be dealing with an individual from a specific culture, this does not mean they will act exactly like all the others from that particular culture. Even though the individual is unique, the person still carries some cultural aspects of his/her home country. And you can prepare yourself by hanging out with as many people from other cultures as you can.
APU has an excellent event which I believe is trying to bridge the cultural threshold. At APU we have something that is called ‘Culture Week.’ It is a week full events by a specific country which is prepared by the students (mostly undergraduates). In this week, there will be dances every day at the fountain, there will dishes from that culture at the cafeteria, there will be a stand where you can dress their cultural clothes and make pictures, and on Friday evening there is a grand show at the Millennium Hall (everything is held on campus). We have Indonesian Week, Korean Week, Thai Week, Chinese Week, Japanese Week, Vietnamese Week, Philippine Week, Taiwan Week, Sri Lankan Week, Nepali Week, African Week, and lastly Oceania Week. Unfortunately, Western countries are not represented this due to the lack of people from the West at APU.
All these weeks are mostly represented by the students from that culture, and their friends from other cultures also participate and help them. In that regard, APU did a great thing to introduce these events and let students become creative and share their culture with others. However, I noticed that its purpose has been lost throughout the years. These weeks have become a competition. Some healthy competition is always good, of course, one wants to do his best to show off about one’s culture. However, this has gone overdrive. The students have found ways to contact big companies in their home country to sponsor these events.
Indonesian Week is by far the biggest week at APU. Indonesian students practice every day, three months prior to this single week. In 2017, the students were sponsored by Indonesia Air (!), with the sponsored money they were able to make a grand show out of proportions. In all other weeks you are not required to get a ticket to get into the Millennium hall, but for Indonesia Week tickets are sold and the line to get in is long. Sharing the culture with people from other cultures is no longer the objective. It has become more than a competition; it leans towards nationalistic behaviour.
And let’s not forget about their study performances. Many professors complain a lot about these weeks because they can see that the student’s performance drop as all their focus goes on the culture weeks. The students do not get any study points from the culture weeks. It is all voluntarily, but as it is one’s culture that is on the line, the APU students try their utmost best to try to outperform the others. I hope APU doesn’t kill off the Culture Weeks, but it needs to return back to its roots namely: Sharing and experiencing cultural differences and similarities with others.
As I said at the start of this blog, I do understand the behaviour of hanging out with people from the same culture. It is comfortable, it is easy to communicate, you understand each other, you do not need to explain about the inside jokes and etc. But I believe this comfort zone does not have a place on an international level. When you learn more about other cultures, you are not only learning about their customs, but you are also increasing your knowledge and awareness about the world around you. Broaden your horizon, because one day you will Shape Your World.