Friday, October 22, 2010

An International Faculty Member in the Midwest

My university has had some problems with soliciting donations and getting external funding because it hasn't shown a deep enough commitment to promoting diversity among students and faculty members. So now the administration is doing its best to show how much we, the international faculty members, are appreciated. Today, for example, we had yet another reception with our Dean where every international faculty member was given a really cool (and expensive) gift.

It isn't easy being an international faculty member on the border between Illinois and Missouri. The food options are non-existent, ethnic foodstores and restaurants can only be encountered if your drag yourself over all the way to St. Louis. People have trouble understanding even those of us whose English is really fantastic. I've lived in many different places on this continent, but this is the first area where people have trouble understanding my English, which, believe me, is not heavily accented at all. Life in this area is really boring, which is very difficult for international academics to get used to. Everybody looks the same, dresses the same, speak the same way, and has had the same (very limited) life experiences. Foreigners stick out like sore thumbs in the midst of this uniformity.

This is why it's so rewarding to feel that one's foreignness is at least appreciated by the university administration. I think it's very useful for the students to see some variety in the kind of faculty members who teach them. Our presence in the classroom is enough to show the students that different ways of being, thinking and relating to the world exist.


Anonymous said...

I grew up in a very rural, very small town in North Florida.

After joining the Army, traveling the world, then living in two other countries, when I came back to visit that same small town, I felt more like a foreigner there than in the countries which I'd been living.

That was an odd experience.


Pagan Topologist said...

That is why I often feel I would not want to live anywhere else besides Newark Delaware. I grew up in a small Appalachian town with, as you say, limited life experiences. I did manage to study ballet for several years, and my reading kept me from being as narrow as many of my contemporaries. Nevertheless, until I spent a significant amount of time in Poland and visited other places, I often did not grasp how limited my experiences had been.

However, I still instinctively prefer small town life on a day to day basis. I love being able to visit Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore, and Washington D. C. (as well as Mexico City, Warszawa, and several other cities further from the East Coast of North America) but I would not want to live in such a large place. But the very limited experiences which living in a small town isolated from different cultural experiences afford are indeed a problem.

eric said...

America is so spread out, too. In Europe, you could travel 20 miles and people could be speaking an entirely different language (or at least a dialect that is not exactly mutually intelligible). Right here in the Rocky Mountain region (stretching from Arizona to Montana), we have the largest bloc by area where people speak the same dialect (as distinct from Southern, Yooper, New England, etc.). Despite this, there is a lot of cultural diversity, with Native Americans, Hispanics (Mexicans, Hispanos, and Basques in some rural areas), real cowboys, Italians, Finns, Germans, and Irish in certain former mining communities, and even more diversity in larger cities. I've never been through the Midwest proper, so I'm not sure how that would compare.

eric said...

I forgot to mention that my personal experience echoes that of "Anonymous" above. After serving overseas in Japan, my view of the world and my place in it really changed. The same can be said for most of the guys I knew who were over there with me. This was the Marine Corps, mind you, which is considered the most "doctrinaire" of the services (not true: the Air Force is!), but most of the people I knew in there were pretty interesting, came from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, and actively embraced the culture of the host country where we served. When I started college at the ripe old age of 24, I felt like I had a life experience that most of my fellow students (who were 20 at the oldest) did not.

Richard said...

I read somewhere that the average U.S. citizen never travels beyond a100 mile radius from where they were born. Given how apparently mobile U.S. Society is I find this hard to believe.
On the other hand anyone who has lived abroad, other than on a military base, is looked upon with some suspicion, “what the good ol’ USA wasn’t good enough for you?” or at best incomprehension. Indeed having spent a number of years living in Flanders, Belgium it is amazing to me the number of people who have either never heard of Belgium or have no idea of where it is located.

Clarissa said...

I realized that even in the context of a course on the literature of Spain I need to specify that I'm referring to Toledo, Spain, not Toledo, Ohio. :-) Which makes me feel very weird. Still, I have no choice because otherwise some students get hopelessly confused.

Also, last week a student took offense when I mentioned that the US couldn't have fought a war with Spain in the early XVIth century because the US didn't exist.

Anonymous said...

"the US couldn't have fought a war with Spain in the early XVIth century because the US didn't exist."

It was fought by US time travelers from the year 2300.