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Are We There Yet? ... A Personal and Professional Path Toward Global Citizenship

Posted by Leigh Martin on January 7, 2014 at 11:47 am

I lived in one house until I was 14 years old.  Since then, I have lived in five countries on four continents, and have received mail in 19 different locations that I affectionately called home.  Now, from my window seat en-route to DeIhi where I am going to visit UNI’s first cohort of Master’s in India, I look out the airplane window and see the lights of Hong Kong below.  The passengers two rows behind me are having a vibrant conversation in Chinese, the lady unknowingly asleep on my right shoulder appears to be Korean and the elderly couple in the row ahead of me are speaking English with an Indian accent.  I know there are a few other Americans on the flight by the way we exchanged familiar smiles and greetings in the immigration line, but they are not seated near me.  I survey my surroundings and I think to myself, I am comfortable here, but are we there yet?

I don’t mean to say that my seat is comfortable, nor do I wonder how long until we touch down in Delhi. I’m actually parched and my hips are beginning to ache, and I am well aware that we have six hours remaining in flight.  What I do mean is; although I feel quite at ease among such a diverse group of people, at what point can a person be truly considered a global citizen?  This over-used and under-defined phrase routinely finds its way into the mission statements of schools, businesses, and non-profit organizations with the hopes of creating such individuals.  Although some may consider that I have had sufficient experiences to qualify as a global citizen, there are times I certainly doubt my proficiency in any culture, including my own.  Yet, I have to wonder, how do we measure the depth of a person’s global citizenship, and are we really ever there?  What does it mean to be there?

A Personal Journey Toward Global Competence

I have been considering these questions a great deal since my family announced nearly a year ago that we would be moving to Seoul, South Korea at the start of the upcoming school year.  Our children would attend an international school and my husband would sell his business and return to his teaching career.  Needless to say, the reaction from friends, family and acquaintances varied greatly.  There were a few in awe of our choice expressing their desire to do the same, if only their circumstances allowed. There were those who were happy for us but don’t relate to our fascination with living overseas. Finally, there there were those so utterly baffled as to why a person would leave a comfortable life in the US for apartment living in an overcrowded, foreign city, they assumed that the only rational explanation was that we must be evading the IRS due to some tax fraud.  Regardless of the responses and reactions, we made our decision and set off prepared to embrace life in South Korea.   

We knew that this move would not be easy, and certainly not comfortable, but ease and comfort were not my goals. In the five months that I have now lived here, language barriers, cultural norms, traditions, and food choices are just a few of the areas I have wrestled with.  While some may consider a global citizen to be a person who upholds overarching ideals and beliefs that represent all cultures, those too, were not my intent.  Rather than hoping for an idealistic view of the world where all races unify for peace and happiness, it is my hope that our daughters can gain a realistic view of the people they will interact with throughout their lifetime and that they will possess the confidence and competence to do so, on a global scale.  

At the impressionable ages of 10 and 12, I have witnessed the dramatic impact that this move has had on them already, as their world view has magnified. They now know what it is to be confused by the language around them and are forced to rely on contextual clues to determine meaning, which usually results in being a step behind, or one laugh too late in  a comical situation.  They are learning to expand their palates to appreciate foods that they may otherwise snicker about or refuse to eat.  

Just yesterday my daughter informed me that she enjoyed the sample of fish paste that she was given at the market. I’ve seen both girls stumble with Korean language and display amazing determination as they utilize Google translate and a variety of charades when trying to make a purchase.  They have taught me the proper way to bow, how to use chopsticks, and even the correct foods to use them with.  I have also wiped their tears and seen the look of defeat after being harassed on the basis of nothing other than their ethnicity.  Finally, I have seen incredible pride in being an Iowan or an American as they recognize and appreciate our own customs.  

These experiences have shaped all of us, and will continue to do so.  It is my hope, that in this journey to becoming a global citizen, we will learn more about how people around the world uphold their own values, live by their own customs, and celebrate in their own ways.  My daughters are quickly learning to recognize that differences in people are often dictated by the culture in which they are raised, and that these differences don’t make them weird, or wrong; they simply make them unique and certainly deserving of respect.  Our family may take a piece from each culture that we encounter and make it our own, but at our core, we celebrate and respect each other for being unique, rather than trying to all be the same. It is this authentic understanding, gained through our lived experiences abroad that inches us closer toward global citizenship.  

A Professional Journey Toward Global Competence

Aside from being a mother, I also coordinate student teaching placements in international schools through the University of Northern Iowa’s International Student Teaching program.  I am blessed to work for a university that not only encourages pre-service teachers to experience a diverse culture during their student teaching semester, but also allows me to do my work from abroad.  For a decade now, I have been placing anywhere from 30-80 student teachers in international settings each semester, and have had the joys of watching them grow not only as teachers, but within their cultural awareness.  

All of the dynamic experiences that my own daughters have had, are also witnessed in my student teachers as they enter new cultures and their experiences meld into their beliefs as educators.  Like my daughters, the student teachers find themselves immersed in an American curriculum at school, yet living in a foreign environment full of students from a variety of backgrounds. These otherwise capable college students are just months away from entering the workforce, yet for many of them, it is the first time in most of their adult lives they find themselves struggling to read labels at the markets, challenged to get from point A to point B on public transportation, and awkwardly bowing, shaking hands or kissing cheeks, or a combination of all three as they navigate customs that are not their own.  While this discomfort is not what most people seek out, this discomfort is the agent that guides these pre-service teachers from culturally uncomfortable to confident and capable.

As they begin to notice what does and does not work in their own activities outside school, they can transfer that knowledge to the students in their classes.  These student teachers recognize quickly  that what many had previously considered to be “universal concepts” such as personal space, eye contact and communication strategies are actually rich in cultural norms.

They learn first hand that repeating the the same words, only louder is not an effective strategy to facilitate understanding. This translates into their teaching as they empathise and relate to the English language learners in the classroom, and they learn to build upon successful strategies based on their own lived experiences. They recognize that in order to help some students to understand a concept they will need to add pictures to their lessons or dramatic actions when speaking.  They learn that some students will look them in the eye, while others will not, and begin to understand that this is not a lack of respect, but likely culturally sensitive.  They learn which cultures have little sense of personal space while others prefer to keep a distance, and they discover where their own comfort lies on this sliding scale.  They learn that each time they overcome what was previously a challenge, the sense of gratification is greater than having avoided a challenge in the first place.  The rich immersion in a new culture propels them toward the inescapable realization that their own cultural lense is just one of many that exists in the world. And most of all, as they finish student teaching and look at the array of students in their classes, they can be proud to know that their initial concerns and discomfort have been replaced with confidence and competence as they enter the teaching field.   

When I think back to my original question:  Are we there yet?  My answer is:  I sure hope not.   There is a vast world out there just waiting to be explored.   Whether it be a personal or professional journey, or a combination of both, every new experience brings us one step closer toward becoming global citizens, and closer to understanding where there actually is.