It’s the Little Differences

I’ve not eaten at a McDonalds in at least ten years.

Moreover, I’ve not eaten ‘fast food’ in nearly over four years.

have eaten french fries with mayonnaise in Holland, and enjoyed a beer at a movie theatre in Amsterdam.

For four years, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of experiencing a number of things that I might once have thought odd: a heavy lamb soup (kjotsupa) at a gas station in Vik, Iceland; the last seafood risotto at a fundraiser in Venice for a 500 year old church; deep-fried baby octopus during Semana Santa in Malaga, Spain; Trdelník beneath the Charles Bridge in Prague; reindeer sausages at an outdoor stall in Bergen, Norway; currywurst served to us from an old Vietnamese woman at Check Point Charlie in Berlin; a steak dinner with an Israeli Rosé and a Palestinian Red on the roof of a hotel owned by the Catholic Church in Jerusalem; a number of ales in Damme, Belgium; hands down the most delicious chicken in the world in Geneva, Switzerland; and, on an umber of occasions, the mythical Scottish delicacy, haggis.

These have each been memorable experiences, partly because they stood out as ‘different.’  In reality, though, I might argue that these differences were actually rather small.

In fact, most of the things I’ve eaten around Europe and beyond are not all that different from the experimental foods I’ve enjoyed back in the States.  Granted there are differences here, because each and every context provides a new perspective, new ingredients, language, people, culture, etc., but there are also differences between the things that are alike.

For example, bar-b-que in Texas is quite different from the grilling one does in California.  Likewise, Tex-Mex in Texas is an embarrassment to the Mexican food you can get at any of the ‘fast-food’ stops in Southern California.

So while there are differences, there are great similarities as well.

A week or so ago, word got around that the UK Home Office, via the home Secretary, Theresa May, would soon be implementing a number of changes concerning the Tier 4 student visa a ‘foreign’ individual (non-European Economic Area) needs to acquire in order to attend university here.  While this is directed more at individuals attending publicly funded further education colleges, rather than Universities such as The University of Edinburgh, these changes still affect a number of us presently ‘living abroad.’

These changes include:

  • stop new students at publicly funded colleges from working, bringing them in line with those at private colleges (from August)
  • allow university students to study a new course at the same level but only where there’s a link to their previous course or the university confirms that this supports their career aspirations. There will be credibility interviews and sanctions against universities who abuse this rule (from August)
  • ban college students from extending their Tier 4 visas in the UK unless they are studying at an ‘embedded college’, one which has a formal, direct link to a university that is recognised by the Home Office. This will require them to leave and apply for a new visa from outside the UK if they wish to study another course (from November)
  • ban college students from being able to switch visas to Tiers 2 or 5 in the UK, and require them to apply from outside the UK (from November)
  • reduce the time limit for study at further education level from 3 years to 2 years. This brings the maximum period into line with the length of time British students generally spend in further education (from November)
  • stop Tier 4 dependants from taking a low or unskilled job, but allow them to take part-time or full-time skilled work (from the autumn)

This list was copied verbatim from the UK Government’s webpage here, and more details can be found here.

Again, while this does not immediately affect each foreign student currently studying, or who might come to the UK to study in the future, and though it seems aimed at a quite particular group of individuals not studying at an ’embedded college’ with direct links to a University recognised as such by the Home Office, the adverse effects of these changes can still be felt throughout the foreign student discourse.

For example, a friend of mine (and fellow American abroad), recently shared this Guardian article wherein the author, Adam Trettel, shared these exact feelings.  As he states at the beginning:

As an American student with a degree from an Ivy League university, on a PhD course at a Russell Group university, I can say that it feels like the Home Office also wants to niggle with me just enough to remind me that I am not really (quite) welcome in this country.  

Trettel further remarks that these changes signal an imputation of sorts, an expression of antagonism or animosity on the part of the UK Government:

There are, in fact, already a number of measures in place that make it clear to students like myself that we are actually imposters. Potential parasites on the British state. Slick little devils likely to game the system. Aliens.

As he likewise states later:

“Better make sure”. “Can never be too careful”. “Be safe”. “You never know…” More and more I am beginning to think that soporific banalities like these are the real bedrock of UK immigration policy. It is either that, or it is bean-counting dressed up as an intelligent response to a real emergency.

While I have indeed shared some of his frustration, such as the repeated in-person confirmations of my existence here, I’ve sadly (or fortuitously, depending on one’s opinion) not experienced most of the others.  This does not mean, of course, that I can’t empathise with him.  Nor that his feelings are somehow invalid.

Rather, what strikes me most about Trettel’s perspective on this is his sense of ‘not feeling welcome’ here, a feeling one derives not only from the title of his piece, but from his conclusive statement:

Such meddling undermines the mental wellbeing of young persons and mocks the vocation of people who came to this country to use its libraries and laboratories, and to learn.

Underscoring his own discourse is a missing sense of community, of feeling ‘alien’ or ‘different.’

In 1983, and in reference to a loss of cultural identity resulting from what he called ‘print capitalism,’ Benedict Anderson coined the useful theory of Imagined Communities.  To briefly summarise this idea, Anderson posited the notion that when books began to circulate in a ‘common language,’ and thus inaugurating a ‘common discourse,’ unique and geographically specific language usage soon lost its supremacy.  As such, the sense one had of his or her ‘community’ soon became based on an ‘imagined’ notion, the idea that we are bound to a group of like-minded individuals that we will, in actuality, never see.  That is, while we might believe that we exist within a community based on particular political boundaries (what Said calls ‘Imagined Geographies‘), we are, in fact, merely imagining ourselves within that community.  This does not, it should be mentioned, mean that these communities are ‘false.’

As Anderson himself states:

[…] communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

(Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 6).

Rather, they become something like the product of a pragmatic fiction, the creation of an ideology designed to establish a sense of ‘we’ or ‘us.’

Here is where I think Trettel’s sense of ‘unwelcomeness’ arises.  Likewise, this also inspires a self-reflective notion of my own communal self.

As a ‘foreign’ student here, I’ve found myself within an odd sort of imagined community.  I have my ‘equals,’ those with whom I might empathise more than others, such as Trettel and my fellow PhD candidates from the United States.  Yet, I also have an imagined community of fellow PhD candidates who might not be from the US, but with whom I can relate on a number of similarities.

Also, having been here for four years, there are ways in which I might more closely find myself relating to a person from Scotland, now that I have adopted certain traits and cultural identifiers.  Does this mean I have become, in imagined ways, ‘Scottish?’

This also brings to mind the notion of identity construction and ‘identity types’ established by Burger and Luckmann in 1966:

[…] one may assert that an American has a different identity than a Frenchman, a New Yorker than a Midwesterner, an executive than a hobo, and so forth. As we have seen, orientation and conduct in everyday life depend upon such typifications.  This means that identity types can be observed in everyday life and that assertions like the ones above can be verified – or refuted – by ordinary men endowed with common sense.  The American who doubts that the French are different can go to France and find out for himself.

(Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, 194).

Based on this, then, I might further conclude that my identity status over the last four years has been one of a ‘flying dutchman,’ a ship adrift without an established port-of-call, a liminal stage further crystallised by my being a ‘candidate’ throughout that time.

It isn’t difficult, then, to perceive of this poly-identity as engendering a crisis of sorts, a sense of ‘not-belonging,’ made all the more obvious by discursive influences, such as the Home Office’s recent visa changes.

These sorts of things definitely infect the discourse of a number of imagined communities, in a number of ways, evinced by the fact that ‘foreign students’ now feel unwelcome, even when these changes do not affect them.

Said otherwise, it’s little differences like these that make big waves.

The title and cover photo of this post are inspired by the scene below, which might require viewing for some.

For the most accurate references, skip ahead to the 0:40 mark.

2 thoughts on “It’s the Little Differences

  1. Thought-provoking post as usual, dude. Of course, I personally find the kind of views put forward by Theresa May and others in government, particularly ‘foreign’ and ‘not welcome’…. and, likewise, feel increasingly ‘alien’ and ‘different’ in the dominant discourse of the nation state within which I have resided my entire life. But then, I am just ‘imagining’ an alternative community within which I might hypothetically feel more at home.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review | everything is fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s