Getting international just for the sake of getting international doesn’t always work. Rather, international encounters can be organized around interests that we already share: in arts, religion, sports, science, or politics. Thus construed, becoming international is not something we necessarily need to make an extra effort to bring about; oftentimes, it can grow out of international elements already present in our everyday natural behavior.
Here are a few concrete thoughts, stemming from about 20 years of international experience, of what’s NOT such an efficient way to foster cultural exchange, on my view, and how RATHER to do it. It goes without saying that these are my opinions which ought to be seen as alternatives to the ways in which international matters are often understood as opposed to knock-down arguments! My aim is to challenge stereotypes (presented below in quotation marks). Since the topic is large, I’ve decided to prefer quick flashes of insights to anything definitive and elaborately explained.
I. STARTING POINTS 1/2
“Getting international begins with critical distance to nationalistic feelings, because you can’t be genuinely international if you love your country too much.”
NO: Healthy love of one’s country, RATHER, is a precondition for genuine internationality in the first place; in the end, nationalism & internationalism are two sides of the same coin.
II. STARTING POINTS 2/2
“Only a person with extensive experience of and living in a specific culture can make a contribution to the the culture of that country.”
NO, RATHER: Sometimes an “outsider” is better adapted to offering fresh insights into a foreign culture: think of, say, the Frenchman Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.
III. NATIONAL VS. INTERNATIONAL
“Whenever spending time abroad, it will be good to spend a lot of time with people from your own country and get to speak your native tongue.”
WELL, ONLY TO AN EXTENT: Since one communicates with friends back home anyway, you’ll be better off concentrating your energy in immersing yourself in the culture you’re in.
IV. ORGANIZING EXCHANGE
From top to bottom: “Let’s have centrally organized institutions to help folks from different countries get in touch with each other and get together.”
From bottom to top: Today’s social life is largely co-ordinated through things like social media anyway, so we should help people organize on their own at the grassroots level.
V. IMMIGRATION POLICY
“Let’s close our doors to foreigners and not take any more in, especially not those abusing our welfare system.”
NO, RATHER: If our country offers great opportunities, we can take active initiatives to make these opportunities available to everybody (e.g. the Visa Lottery in the U.S.).
VI. STEREOTYPES OF IMMIGRANTS
“A person from a foreign culture can never become fully integrated into an entirely different kind of culture.”
RATHER: Take a look at how well various immigrants cope in their new home country, and don’t deny the fact that the natives are often out of touch in their native land, too!
VII. ARTISTIC INTERACTION
“Let’s have people, e.g., knowing how to play an istrument perform music such that each plays something from their own country, adding appropriate costumes.”
NO, RATHER: Since music is an universal language to begin with, it will be wiser to just get people from different walks of life together to play great music.
VIII. CULTURAL IMMERSION
“If people are living in a foreign country, say, in the U.S., it’ll be good for them to indulge themselves in some quintessentially American traditions (e.g. barbecue and baseball).”
WELL, TO A LIMITED EXTENT: Since so many countries are increasingly global anyway, we could get to know people from different ethnic backgrounds wherever we live.
IX. CULINARY MATTERS
“Once spending time in America, let’s make sure we get fully acquainted with American food.”
WELL, ethnic food in America can be intriguingly different from ethnic food, say, in Europe. (A few concrete examples: Afghan food in America, or, say, the Assyrian Orthodox people organizing the church potluck in a Finnish Orthodox church.)
X. SO WHAT TO DO, IN THE END?
If we genuinely wish to promote things international, I suggest we distance ourselves from stereotypes and explore the world with an open mind. Getting international isn’t a special procedure or a technique: it means healthy pride of one’s own culture and insatiable hunger for the new. After all, we’re dealing with human beings interacting with human beings…!
In sum, since the world is increasingly global and multicultural, much of what we call “international” can arise from distancing ourselves from extensive reliance on ready-made structures, encouraging rather spontaneous, natural and meaningful interaction between folks from different cultures on a daily basis.
Photos by Eija Ruohomäki (in the middle),
a fellow Finn I met through WorldBoston.