Is it really a small world after all?
Sometimes it feels like I’ve been living forever on a little island at the bottom of the world. Moving to Birmingham means diving headfirst into one of the most multicultural cities in the UK – the experience is confirmed in extremis by visiting the Sunday open market at the Bullring… it’s hard to believe that you are just 25 miles from Shakespeare’s birthplace when sights and smells take you straight to Baghdad, Lagos and Karachi.
Oxford was a very international city for its size, but its multiculturalism seems fairly well defined within the generally tolerant context of its educational/academic (and – let’s face it – middle class) heritage. In post-industrial Birmingham, cultures engage at all levels of city and economic life, and particularly in commerce, red in tooth and claw.
But I’m back at university. In a course that attracts students from around the world, the fascinating realities of working across cultures are making themselves apparent. In my class, there are 31 nationalities, and 95% of the students are non-native English speakers, meaning that they’re taking a masters degree taught entirely in their second/third/fourth language. (Even I’M freaked out by some of the textbook material and English is my mother tongue.)
If UN population projections are to be believed, my class is a microcosm of what the world will look like in 2050. Working bi-culturally is something I’m fairly familiar with, but it’s a privilege to have an opportunity to work in a deeply multi-cultural environment for a change.
How does a team of Nigerians, Japanese, Colombians and a New Zealander work together to solve a given problem? It’s not clear any of us know the answer yet.
With such a diverse bunch of classmates, it’s amazing how quickly you starat to question aspects of your own culture and language that you thought were “normal” become points for discussion. For example, I had to explain the British practice of “round-buying” at the pub. In other cultures, everyone buys their own drinks.
During small group discussion exercises in class, we have to first check that everyone in the group actually fully understands the question, and clarify some of the more obscure English words: among them “Quaint”, “twine” and “sans serif”.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that, for the most part, we all get along pretty well, and that the barriers that separate us are more perceived than real. Despite our obvious differences, perhaps what we’re going to learn this year is how similar we all are.