Musings from my Course at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy: Perceptions and the Importance of Cultural Relations
I’ve been pacing up and down Mirissa beach in Sri Lanka all morning trying to choose a topic for a 5-page essay I need to write. My essay plan needs to be submitted to the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) in Berlin in a few days and I still haven’t read half of the materials I’d like to inform and support the aforementioned essay. But I’m backpacking around Sri Lanka at the moment – I can hardly sit inside studying and writing essays when I have pristine tropical beaches and verdant hill country dotted with picturesque tea plantations to explore! I’m realising, to my delight, that backpacking is killing my ability to multitask and focus on the future. I am 100% living in today and all-consumed by decisions such as “Which guesthouse do I like the look of most?” and “What’s the best time of day to climb Little Adam’s Peak to see the view?” Tough decisions like that. And for someone like me, who is normally chained to my to-do list and ferociously planning, it’s bliss. I’ve even been congratulating myself on remembering to post the odd photo on Instagram – small achievements.
So back to the topic in hand: my writer’s block regarding this essay. First of all let me explain why I even have an essay to write in the first place, given that I graduated from uni three years ago.
In December I spent two weeks in Berlin attending a course in Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations at the ICD. The course itself was pretty random and quite disorganised, and for four days we actually attended their annual conference, this year entitled ‘Building Bridges of Peace and Reconciliation in Times of Greater Global Insecurity’, which was at times extremely interesting and insightful (lots of eminent speakers and debates on topics such as the Syrian refugee crisis, the situation regarding Turkey and Russia and Turkey’s desire to join the EU, the Israel-Palestine conflict) and at other times yawn-inducing (former presidents and prime ministers, including Spain’s Zapatero, endlessly babbling on in politician-speak). It was effectively a One Young World with septuagenarians behind the mic stand: still really interesting subject matter, but less engaging and attention-grabbing.
But what made the whole course worthwhile were the other young people I met and the conversations we struck up in seminars and conference breaks. I met people from countries I could scarcely place on a map beforehand, from every single continent and all of whom are passionate about the topic of cultural diplomacy and how to sort out this silly old world we live in. My fellow students came from Algeria, Australia, Azerbaijan, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Croatia, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Norway, Oman, Romania, the UK, the US and others, and it was refreshing to be outside of my predominantly British bubble in London. I found myself in debates about topics such as racial discrimination, the role of ex-colonial powers such as Britain in Africa, the neocolonialism by countries like China through foreign aid donations, and the causes of and difficulties in solving FGM and child marriage. As much as I love my circle in London, we rarely turn our conversation to such hard-hitting topics and when we do, we lack direct access to the opinions of experts and residents of those developing countries who can introduce new perspectives and nuances to the debate. My two weeks in Berlin were two of the most intellectually engaging I’ve had in years, but the sheer breadth of it makes it night impossible for me to choose a single, concise topic for this final essay I need to write.
I started to list areas of specific interest to me: identity, global mobility, migration, intercultural education, children’s rights, women’s empowerment, the role of technology, the role of the media and public/citizen diplomacy. Travelling around Sri Lanka has been particularly thought-provoking on all of these topics as I’ve learned about and observed the locals, the haphazard way Sri Lanka functions as a society, the individual traits and behaviours of other nationalities of tourists I’ve seen (very few Brits so far I’m pleased to say), the way women are treated (terrible wages for hard labour in tea plantations, while the men occupy more lucrative roles in the tourism industry) and the like.
In my guidebook there’s a hilarious sentence: “Sri Lankans take great pleasure in being given first-hand proof of the generally recognised fact that all foreigners are completely mad”. A fantastic way to sum up the intercultural relations at play in Sri Lanka. In the eyes of the locals, we tourists are lumped together as “foreigners”, regardless of our wildly different nationalities and customs, so of course we are perceived as a bunch of aliens who do strange things like hike for hours up mountains on a hot day for fun, or fall sleep outside practically naked on a beach. As often happens when I travel to developing countries, babies and toddlers (and some adults too) that I come across on public transport stare at me with big wide eyes – what is that yellow stuff she’s wearing on her head I wonder? To them I am an alien. I will never look like a local, so I have to accept that wherever I travel I will encounter preconceptions about the British (why did we really have to colonise quite so much of the world?) and that many people will view me as one big walking dollar sign. And I really do understand why I’m not charged “local prices”, as I am of course fabulously wealthy compared to the Sri Lankan in whose guesthouse I stayed last night for just £6 (1,200 rupees), mere minutes from a paradise beach. The fact that I can afford a plane ticket in the first place tells them that I have more cash to splash than they. So I’m ok with being overcharged, after all, I am an alien coming and enjoying their paradise, in a place I don’t belong.
You see cultural relations are all about perceptions. Having never been to Uganda, for example, I unconsciously piece together my perception of Ugandans from the few snippets of information that I possess in my mind, and that’s a completely natural if very uninformed thing to do. Likewise, the Sri Lankans here piece together their perceptions of us travellers and tourists from the few examples they see on their beaches, in their restaurants and on their public transport. With snippets of lots of different nationalities, they don’t have enough information to form complete perceptions of each nationality who visits, thus they consider us all the same: foreign. And this is where it gets dangerous. A British person in the UK who hasn’t travelled and who has never bothered to step out of their comfort zone and meet people from other cultures, forms perceptions of others based on insufficient information. I’m ashamed at the number of ignorant Brits who complain and make sweeping statements about Muslims, Syrians, immigrants, etc. when they have never even spoken to a single one. The UK media’s portrayal of other cultures is an embarrassment and does nothing to help the situation. I have only met a handful of Syrians in my life and I have to say they all seemed lovely people, but I accept that I don’t yet have enough information to make a judgement on them as a people. And this is where cultural relations becomes relevant. In today’s world we cannot stay in isolation, we are inevitably going to have to share this planet with other people who belong to different cultures. To live happily ever after we are going to have to make an effort to understand one another and to forge bridges. This is why cultural relations on an individual level are so important. The group I met in the ICD are all on the same page and trying to make a difference in their home countries, and I can only see this topic becoming more and more important.
You can tell I’m in a different frame of mind out here in the Indian Ocean, as this post has been a bit of ramble of random musings, and I still don’t think I’m any closer to deciding on a topic for my essay. What I think I’m trying to say is that I see cultural relations at play everywhere I turn. In the ICD, as I learned more about my classmates’ cultures. In Berlin, where I learned about the German way of life. In Sri Lanka, on my first trip to the Indian subcontinent, where I’m learning about a completely new region of the world.