Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Here, There, Anywhere
I went to a lecture today at Singapore's National Institute of Education, given by B. Kumaravadivelu, a "famous" applied linguist from San Jose State University in California.
The essence of his talk was that in light of globalization, educators must adopt a new view of the educational process. Because today's learners are "digital natives" (a phrase that he didn't use) who are "internetized" (one that he did use), there should be a paradigm shift, "beyond methods." He also claimed that "multiculturalism" is passe, as outdated as the racist concept of assimilation. For this reason, educators, whether teachers, teacher trainers or scholars, need to look for new ways to interpret the contexts of their charges' lives, need to understand the complexity of their evolving identities, in order to inspire their learning. (He also leveled a well-worn charge at the sort of assessment methods considered paramount and used widely in Singapore, stating that, essentially, there is no good reason to believe that such methods measure what many folks might hope that they are measuring.) He sees the present not as multiculturalism, but as "cultural realism." (no drum roll please!)
I basically agreed with everything the speaker said, finding his ideas enlightened, but neither novel nor revolutionary. In fact, what struck me most about the talk was how self-evident most of the information was. Here was a guy (I guess) who, as an "Indian" living in the US, experiences the world much like I do as an "American" living in Asia: he identifies with what he is doing (teaching, researching, eating pasta one day and curry the next) and with many aspects of the life he has lived, but not always with the community where he lives. That community seems narrow at times, attached to hardened definitions. However, his "house" is wide open, and the winds of culture blow through it, giving a shape to an existence that is far grander (in his eyes) than that felt by those among us who still limit themselves to a highly defined and a specific ethnic/ racial/ religious/ gender-centered/job-affiliated universe.
Yes, I can relate to these ideas, because my house is also wide open, and it has been like that for a very long time. I have a US passport, can vote for the president, am required to file an annual tax form, can sing the Star-Spangled Banner, follow US college football, etc., but do I feel "only" American. Am I limited by that concept of identity?
Was I a victim of the tribalism that gripped so many Americans when 9/11 came crashing down? Did I want blood for the attacks? Did I see an inevitable "clash of civilizations"?
Not really. If anything, I see humans as organisms first, then as an individuals both unique and common. My own citizenship, or national identity, and my ethnicity, are both very far down on the list of what makes me who I am. (Which is not to say these factors wouldn't influence the way I'm viewed by others. To wit: the group of ethnic Indians killed in Mumbai recently because they carried American passports!)
Frankly though, I have a hard time seeing any of us as so different from the monkeys that collect garbage on Toh Tuck Road. Of course, there are recognizable differences. But generally, this is a case of SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT. (Read Jane Goodall's Through a Window, before you argue with me.)
In the same way that the skin I now inhabit is different from the skin I wore when I was 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, and so on, the values, beliefs, norms, habits, ways I spend my day have been altered, even from two years ago. Two years ago I was a member of a small town community in rural northern Japan, I lived in a well-worn traditional-style house facing padi fields, in a cedar forest, with a "silver-singing" river a one-minute bike ride from my doorstep. I saw mostly Japanese faces and heard and spoke some form of Japanese every day---and I felt comfortable there generally, even when I didn't fully understand the language used around me, because I felt in context, thanks to an acclimatization process that evolved over 17 years. At the same time, in Japan I always remained very "outside," mainly because I was an "eigo" (English)-centric human who had been dropped into the Land of the Rising Sun in the same way that Bowie appeared as alien on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Today, my reality is very different, and I have changed. I could hardly see a rising sun even if I tried. I live in a concrete box beside a concrete pool towered over by other boxes by other pools, in a city of tens of thousands of such boxes. There are people all around me speaking in various Englishes, speaking in myriad other tongues, through faces of every conceivable human color and shape. Part of me continues to be the organism that was living in Mukaino, Yuwa, Akita, Tohoku, Nihon. But part not. There is a spirit blowing through me now that is more trade wind than shakuhachi breath, more urban guerilla than ploughman. And though I may "communicate" in spoken sounds and nonverbal acts that make me comprehensible to a broad range of others who understand those as well as they understand the fingers on their hands, we may or may not fully comprehend each other. For the words and spaces we inhabit may seem the same but can be very different in meaning.
Case in point, I have been communicating regularly with students from the National University of Singapore. At times, we speak the same language, watch the same movies, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes, eat the same foods, hear the same songs, know many of the same things---share many tidbits of information, via face to face discussions in class and in writing on blogs, Facebook, e-mails, whatever. I really really like many of these guys. But are we on the same plain? Do we share a vibe? Are we, or could we ever be, soul brothers/sisters/mates? Homies? Are they members of what writer Kurt Vonnegut called my "kurass."
Well, of course, to different degrees with different people. But overall I'd answer "Not really." It takes me having dinner at a Peranakan place with a guy from Toledo, Ohio, who just happens to teach at NIE, who just happens to have also lived in Japan, who just happens to have also lived in Malaysia, who just happens to be married, like me, to a Malaysian, who similar to me likes particular musics and films, and who has the sort of personality that I feel comfortable with, for me to feel "home." He and I share so many variables that we give "context" to each other. The same can be said for my spouse and my youngest daughter. (Of course, even they and I are different, in many ways.)
There is a clear "cultural realism" in all of this, with an emphasis on shared values and experiences determining closeness in interpersonal relations. There is also a "gumption" that has carried me to this point, that has fed my various "dreams", allowing me to be here and there at the same time. It has been that gumption and those dreams that have propelled me on this particular journey of world exploration and self-discovery. (And in a very real sense, I can never go home. I am now beyond culture.)
As a teacher, would I recommend this path to everyone? Absolutely not. Is travel and shucking one's original cultural skin a must for everyone? Nah. In fact, it can be damn disconcerting. (ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!) There is a reason "comfort zones" are called comfort zones.
A conclusion? As a well-travelled hillbilly friend once told me: If ya can't run with the big dogs, don't get off the porch. (That may be a bit overwrought though, since it implies "bigger" is better.)
It may be better to sum it up this way: Each person's path is unique. What seems important in education (and I think Kumara would agree) is for each learner, each of us to come to reflect upon the options before us and on the consequences of those, and to make an informed choice.