Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui
It was September 2014 and I was on my way to my first semester at NYU Abu Dhabi. Brimming with excitement and with my ears still buzzing with ideas of cosmopolitanism, I was still vaguely aware of the fact that the place I was to call home for the next four years happens to be in a country with a culture very different from what I had known previously. One might think that life on campus would offer a place sheltered enough from our host culture, but this is not only factually untrue, it is also completely contrary to the idea behind its construction, as well as NYU’s mission in general. It was clear that despite my unfaltering dedication to the common values of humanity, I would have to adjust to my host culture.
I was fortunate enough to experience life in many places during my undergraduate career. The two semesters I spent in Buenos Aires and New York, as well as the two January terms and regional trips that took me to places I formerly considered far-flung, such as Sydney or Kathmandu, each presented me with the same tension: How does my university reconcile its global and inclusive mission with the rest of the world, constrained by the legal systems and norms of countries where it sets up campuses and study away sites? To paraphrase Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s maxim, it seemed as though NYU is cosmopolitan and everywhere it is in chains. More importantly, how do I as an individual position myself in relation to this apparent dilemma?
From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, common sense would suggest that adjusting to any society relies not only on adhering to its laws but also on learning and following certain norms. That is, certain modes and patterns of behavior deemed acceptable, appropriate and indeed required in day-to-day life in that society. To borrow from the legal scholar Ronald Dworkin’s terminology, norms seem to be a kind of associative obligation – a special, non-voluntary obligation that comes from mere membership in a community.
Norms, despite not always coinciding with a given country’s legal code, permeate social life and have real and tangible consequences. For example, as I have experienced, one would rather perish in utter shame rather than block a New Yorker’s path on the sidewalk during a busy morning in Manhattan. The consequences for overstepping a community’s boundaries can be as innocuous as being nagged at in the street, but sometimes they can be as serious as putting oneself in immediate physical danger. What complicates matters even further, in my case at least, is the sheer number of countries an NYUAD student resides in.
The bittersweet reality of an international student entails, among other things, a nonpermanent residence and culture shocks of differing durations and intensities. These things implicitly require accepting things for granted at any given site a student might find themselves, for better or for worse. As much as I hated the fact that in Buenos Aires I had to clutch my backpack on the metro and my female friends were catcalled on the streets, I had to come to terms that certain behaviors that I found annoying, unnecessary or repugnant were considered either necessary as in the former case, or tolerated as in the latter. Moreover, each society I would become a temporary resident of seemed to stress different behaviors as important and the task of readjusting to a place can be as taxing as learning the ropes for the first time. My existence as neither a citizen, virtually almost without a say in the daily matters, nor a permanent resident, likely seen as an outsider or without a sufficient stake in the matter, was sometimes a source of frustration and feelings of alienation.
On the flipside, once the effects of culture shock subsided, or once my skin got thicker, the fact that I got to spend time in societies different to my own gave me ample opportunity to reflect on the norms of my own society, my own values and behavior. I firmly believe that there is no cosmopolitanism without understanding, and genuine understanding comes through engaging with people and communities, not through isolation and professing moral superiority. In retrospect, my experience was a great humbling exercise that helped me appreciate the complexity of the world, and not an excuse to entrench myself in my own parochialism.
Stjepan Klinar is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]