The Space Between

” The experience of the learner encountering another culture either through the direct experience of travelling abroad, or simply through the language and the literature is, by definition, one of estrangement. The first thing to be registered is strangeness and difference.

Beppe Severgnini, in his book Inglesi, is amazed by what he calls the ‘harmless ceremonies’ of British daily life. He describes a discovery made by an incredulous Italian friend of his that “in Britain you need four ‘thank yous’ to buy a bus ticket”. Severgnini comments:

       Italians are amused by this ritual; when they have to pay for their tickets at home they normally do it with a grunt. Americans who normally carry out such transactions in dead silence are flabbergasted.

Of course this kind of ‘politeness shock’ works in reverse as well. And sometimes, the visitor returns home with a kind of linguistic infection: an Argentinian colleague who had spent several weeks on a course in Britain, returned to Buenos Aires, got into a taxi at the airport and told the driver – in Spanish – where she wanted to go – so far, so good – but after giving him her destination, she added por favor – whereupon the man swivelled round, smiling broadly, and said “Señora, if you ask me like that, I’ll take you to the ends of the earth!””

from “Making it Strange: literature and culture shock” (Pulverness, 2000)

The above excerpt comes from an article which struck a chord with me when I first read it over ten years ago. Rereading it today it perfectly sums up the sense of dislocation I got when I first came here, which is now gradually evaporating. Two words that people use frequently at my college are ‘ overwhelming’ or ‘overwhelmed’. This is usually regarding the workload, as in ‘I’m overwhelmed’ or ‘ that class overwhelmed me ‘.  But they are also used to describe the the period of adjustment to the new cultures, both foreign and academic. I heard it a lot in queries when I first arrived: ” do you feel overwhelmed?’ and yes , I did. Now everything is coming into focus. The international officer asked me how things were going the other day. I said I was much more settled,  to which she replied: ‘ and you can’t hurry that “. It made me think of my favourite Supremes song.

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