Cross Border Cultures

The Wisdom Teeth are Out

In the past two weeks there have been a couple of articles and viral videos that have been gaining a lot of attention, one on a national level, and I feel as though one permeated more on a local level for us Californians. I want to use one as a plateau for the other, in conveying some cross cultural concerns.

I’m sure most of us have had a chance to see young Amandla Stenberg’s video “Don’t Cash Crop my Cornrows”, and if you haven’t, you probably should. This is a great video on cultural appropriation in the black community, Amandala comments on black culture and its influence with in the hip hop community and fashion world. She refers to white rappers such as Eminem and Iggy cashing in on this culture that was created around them, she goes on to say, “The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is…

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The Wanderlust Loner: Wandering in search of truths and chocolate

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I had two plans for tonight; one with a dear and life-long friend who I’ve not seen in months (and before that, years), the other whom I see almost daily. Both of them cancelled. With no one to say goodnight to and a deep hankering for chocolate, I hit the streets.

There is something about venturing out at night in your home city after returning from abroad that weighs on you a bit. It’s a nostalgia, a slight pang of sadness, small regret and a recognition that both you and it have changed, and the distance is irreparable. Beneath this, it’s the subtle acknowledgement that you will still always have your history and the marks left by it.

Roaming around the city through streets lit up by a Saturday night crowd, I found everything one would expect. I found an old friend just as she left to join a cab with her friends. I found a couple of new night clubs and bars scattered down a street that was once full of industrial warehouses. I found a mural off the main strip that was adorned with poetry about love and humanity. I did not, however, find chocolate.

At some point I lost track of what I was looking for. After a while I found myself staring inside a cafe whose floor was littered with cardboard and paper cups. I was studying the Marzocco on the counter and rummaging through memories of London and latte art when it suddenly dawned on me; I was searching for life, for movement, for authenticity.

This is what living on another continent does to you. It breeds within you a lust for authenticity, and for a deeper sort of connection to the world around you. It’s like stretching your stomach when you eat too much; it stretches an already insatiable hunger for real human experience and a veritableness that can only be found in cultures who have known the horror of revolution and the satisfaction of a falling empire. Each time you experience the kind of rich and prolific lifestyle that comes from years of cultural transmission and oral tradition, it’s hard to look at your old life the same. Standing there looking at a fake Italian espresso machine and the plastic placards on the wall, I knew I wouldn’t find my chocolate here.

All of us who have left feel that same combination of sadness, regret and nostalgia that I did in front of that cafe, albeit to varying degrees. It’s a symptom of leaving an unfamiliar you’ve grown used to for the familiar you’ve begun letting go of. The pain of leaving that unfamiliar lies in knowing that the place you’ve left and all who are encompassed by its vibrance will move on without you unaffected. Cities are but giant microcosms, constantly developing, changing, relentlessly moving forward with whatever intricate combinations of plans they’ve written. To leave the microcosm is to separate yourself from it.

You’ll find yourself constantly trying to satiate an appetite that will forever return with vengeance when you leave. You’ll Google tickets to Amsterdam at 2am, or TEFL programs in Barcelona, or teaching English in southeast Asia, or work visas in Australia. You’ll circle the drain looking for ways back out of the country until you can’t take it anymore; you’ll finally pick one and stick with it or, you’ll readjust.

If you leave, you’ll commit yourself to working like a dog until you’re packing your suitcase and on your next plane. If you stay, you’ll become part of your old microcosm again, this time with something more. You’ll (somewhat reluctantly) settle back into what you once new, but with a sense of wisdom and self-security that you didn’t have on the mantle before. You’ll share it with those who show an interest, and hope that in some small way you’ve lit the same fire for them and inspired them to do more, if only for themselves.

I left the flat in search of chocolate, and came home understanding what I’d really gone out seeking in the first place. There are no doses of cocoa powder and sugar that can fill the void left behind by a life abroad, but there are infinite wisdoms to be found in the heart of someone with wanderlust. It’s something we all share, with each other, with others, and with ourselves.

The Transition: Like a bad ex-lover, it always shows up

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Since returning to the States, I’ve had several conversations with my International loved ones about our experiences leaving London, missing London, pining for London, being angry at London for refusing to embrace us permanently, and feeling sad and lost and confused without London.

After one such conversation with a typically light-hearted, more optimistic friend of mine, it became clear to me just how universal this experience is, and how one experience seems to transcend all cultural boundaries: The Transition.

The Transition is scary. The Transition comes after a period of permanency, stability, security. The Transition comes when you think your future is certain, guaranteed, secured. The Transition can come when your arms are open and ready to embrace and ride with it, or can knock you off your high horse when you least expect it to.

So many of us who have left are still reeling from the intensity of the Transition. Not only have we been kicked out of the academic cocoon with no safety net, but we’ve been kicked out of the country, away from our temporary homes and our permanent friendships. But while I have blogged about the U.K.’s direct intention to do so in the past, this blog isn’t about the bureaucratic processes that cause this sometimes unwelcome and difficult-to-prepare-for Transition, but about the emotional process.

When I left London in December, I left so much behind me. I left a place that had begun to settle over the course of 15 months. I’d established a family of sorts, comprised of close friends, flatmates, a cat who climbed in my room at 4am each night and cuddled between me and my partners’ knees, a collection of grocery stores aisles and cafe couches who had begun to provide small comforts to me in my home away from home. In fact, my home away from home had become the home that I would soon be going away from.

Four months after adjusting to The Transition, I’ve only just found a part-time job pouring coffees and cleaning counters. Not a glorious move for someone with a Master’s, and that’s been a sobering reality for me. I’ve caught myself thinking in negative loops, wondering how I’ll ever make it to see London or my partner again, how I’ll afford to pay rent and save for tickets, at the same time. I’d sit on Skype and cry, panicked that I’d never see the life I love so much again, panicked that it had somehow ceased to exist without my consent.

But one day, while chuckling at work in San Jose with an Egyptian coworker about her British beau, I began to feel less disconnected from my life in London. Suddenly, in the brief absence of panic, it dawned on my for the umpteenth time in my life; the heavy-weighted sadness, the anxiety elephant sitting on my chest, and the unpredictable, erratic trails of thought – this is all The Transition.

As anyone who has ever lived, studied, worked, or otherwise moved abroad will tell you, it teaches us so much about who we are, what we’re capable of enduring or achieving (or both) in ways that you could never imagine or anticipate without experiencing it. And as I’ve said before, returning to the homeland is an experience that we are equally unprepared for. But the lessons we can take from it can apply to so many different parts of our life.

While I was listening to my sweet friend share her anxieties about graduating and trying to negotiate her wanderlust wither her desire to be home with the pressure of suddenly making more serious life choices, I was thinking of my return from Dublin to California. It occurred to me that my transitions now (London to San Jose) were not all that different from my transitions then (Dublin to Santa Cruz). While I had realized this a thousand times over already, suddenly I was struck with the profundity and power of realizing that sometimes the most powerful thing we can do in a transition is recognize that in the grand scheme of things, what we’re grappling with can simply be reduced to a temporary Transition.

Because The Transition comes, always. Whether we’re aware or not. Whether we’re prepared or not. Whether we want it to or not. The Transition comes with death, when we have to readjust to life with the absence of someone we love. The Transition comes with life, when we have to readjust to life with the presence of a new (and sometimes exhausting, and sometimes incredibly rewarding) being to care for. The Transition comes when an opportunity arises that we’ve always wanted but feel not ready for, the fear of regret if we don’t take it and the fear of regret if we do. The Transition comes with failure, when we land face-first on the pavement in broad daylight in the middle of Times Square and have to stand up with millions of onlookers. The Transition comes with success, when we’re standing completely alone at the top of Mt. Everest and we have no where else to climb but back down the mountain and no one their to spot us while we do.

Why does this matter? Because it’s perspective. Knowing this elevates you out of where you are. Transitions like this often mean that we can’t see what’s ahead of us, which is precisely what makes it so difficult. Whether we are goal-oriented people or not, often times our “light at the end of the tunnel” comes from fixing our gaze on something that’s ahead of us and using that as a marker, so as to propel ourselves forward from where we are. But when you’re in a transition with no security in sight, moving aimlessly into an abyss can feel overwhelming. Understanding The Transition is important because it’s that understanding that allows us to let go of our fixed gaze and just rise above the overwhelm. We learn how to trust to process, have faith that we’re moving towards something, anything better than the insecurity and instability, and most importantly, to stop our anxieties from paralyzing us so much that we feel we can’t move in any direction.

I think what’s the most powerful about understanding this is learning the ability to let go of the future, experience the now and trust that you will be somewhere amazing again eventually. Whether this means literally in a Parisian flat kiddie-corner from the Louvre, or it means riding the emotional life-highs that come with reaping the rewards of long-term commitments, or taking some new risk (i.e. starting your own business, applying for a PhD, taking a new job that’s challenging you out of your comfort zone, or learning how to windsurf, insert-your-form-of-risk-here), you will experience some form of metaphysical bliss that is comparable to the bliss you felt living abroad. It will just take time and some adjusting to where you are now, because that’s how life works.

Yes, The Transition comes when you don’t expect it to, or maybe even when you don’t want it to. But sometimes, the things that come when we least expect them end up being the most rewarding periods of our life if we just open ourselves to the experience and give it a chance.

One of the hardest parts of being in the States has been accepting the distance between my partner and I. I’m not only missing the comforts of the life I’d built, but I’m missing the familiarity and the happiness I felt in the life I’d built with him. This was impossibly difficult for me to let go of. I’ve had a hard time even willing myself to look for ways to settle here, out of the pure fear that it will mean I will settle so much I never see him again. But after yet another conversation with another dear friend in a similar situation, I began to understand that this fear in itself was creating a pain so intense, it might have been the very destruction of everything we had built. So I let go.

Letting go is key to moving forward. When we tether ourselves to the past, we restrict ourselves to something that no longer exists and holding ourselves back from experience new things. When I let go of our past, our relationship reached another level of honesty, clarity, and effortlessness- and so did my life here. Jobs started falling into place, opportunities started popping up left and right; suddenly, life began forming its own direction around me that made sense only after I’d tread 1/4 mile of it.

I’m sharing this because no matter how many times I think I’ve mastered The Transition, it always comes back to teach me something new. But I only learn what it has to teach me when I’m open to it; when I don’t, I end up exhausting myself and earning wounds in the fight against it. What I’ve learned this time ’round is that actively changing your mindset almost entirely determines the outcome of that process.

So for now, I’ve moved towards taking the positive road and have made The Transition my friend. But how did I manage this? A few tangible changes I’ve made:

  • Journaling – Each night, I write a little about my day. I include it all; the hard things, the painful thoughts, and at least one positive gratitude to keep it balanced. Writing seems to always release my inner tensions, and help reorient me to the present by somehow letting it go on that paper.
  • Thinking and talking positive – Whilst in my worst phases coming home, I realized that I was turning lemons into stale, rotten ones by emphasizing the negative in my mind and poisoning my friendships with it. One day I got so tired of listening to myself b*tch that I finally just forced myself to turn around and keep it more positive. I don’t regret or feel guilty for the conversations spent in negativity, because trudging through the thick of the pain was part of the process that would have been seriously interrupted had I not shared it, but I am grateful that I managed to turn it around and get back on a good track, and that I did that through my relationships.
  • Allowing nostalgia – At some point, like an old relationship, I started letting myself be nostalgic about London and all it entailed without feeling bad about it. I let myself just remember it for the sake of re-experiencing it in some small way, and without the guilt of feeling like I was inappropriately dwelling on something, I started to enjoy my little day-dream trips without them taking me too far away from where I was in the now. This was my less cliché version of “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
  • Reading – I think one of the best hobbies I’ve picked up has been getting back into non-fiction. I randomly picked up “A Clock Without Hands” by Guy Burt at the library one day, on no basis other than that it was in the non-fiction section and that it was set in both London and Florence, two places I’d been during my U.K. stay. Reading this book, although it’s completely unrelated to anything I’ve read or done in the past few years, has been a sort of cathartic vacation-of-the-mind for me that reconnects me to my past in a way that kind of expands on it with new stories and adventures in the present.
  • Volunteering – This is by far my favorite one. After months of struggling to find jobs anywhere doing anything, I basically said “Hey, f*&% you job market” and started giving my skills free to organizations I deemed worthy; refugee committees, community gardens, local non-profit art galleries, and of course, the Bacon and Beer festival. While this has provided me with some pretty cool opportunities (potential blogging jobs and job opportunities), the best part has really just been networking and creating a full life of activity and productivity that I have more jurisdiction and control over. And it just feels good. No one bosses around a volunteer because shit, you’re working for free!

So there’s my twopence. The Transition is a relentless son of a bitch who always comes round, but if you just don’t allow that to hinder your life experience, there are sage wisdoms to be taken from each The Transition’s many visits. The key is all in how you approach that.

So – what’s your key to dealing with The Transition?

7 Things you should know before applying to Brunel University

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My year and a half(ish) abroad was full of unbeatable experiences, intellectual opportunities, and exposure to different values and lifestyles. The collection of loved ones I took away from it all is, in itself, enough to say that the jump is worth it.

With that said, I can say with absolute certainty that by the time we International students leave Brunel, we leave with the promise that we will never let another International make the same mistake again. London is a city robust with opportunity and high-class education. With options like Imperial, Queen Mary’s, UCL and LSE, there’s no need to fall into the same trap that the rest of us did.

1. Brunel University is not in London. While yes, technically the university (which is located in Uxbridge) does land in Zone 6 of what is deemed to be “Greater London”, you may as well be in the shire with the hobbits. With only two lines (Metropolitan and Piccadilly) running to one stop at the very end of both lines, and at a station where there’s closures half the time, you might as well be taking in the train (which we often do – taking the train fro West Drayton to Paddington is twice the price but half the time). The rent is cheap, but have no illusions that you’ll be going to Central; unless you want to wait in Central til 5am or take the night bus back that will get you home in the same time, your days off campus into Central will feel like a field trip and your parties in Central will be limited (until you start schmoozin’ your friend’s boyfriends’ roommates’ secondary school friend who goes to Imperial).

2. The International Finance administration is a hot mess. Before leaving to Brunel I was awarded the Brunel International Scholarship- which ended up causing me more financial harm than good. Despite coordinating with the International Finances Office months in advance, they did not account for the scholarship funds and thus misappropriated my student loan from the U.S. government. This led to stacks of financial amendments, and a fraction of of the funds deemed appropriate for liveable expenses. Above all, in the end it came out in a meeting they had miscalculated administration fees and conversation rates, so hundreds (possibly even thousands) of dollars were lost to the International Finance Office in the process. But was I reimbursed for this? Nope.

3. In fact, the administration in general is a bit of a mess. During the Visa process, I was sent the wrong document and told it was my CAS (possibly the most important document in the application). So when I turned that in with the application, The UKBA emailed me and told me I had 48 hours to turn in the correct document- at which point, Brunel told me they had not administered it because they were waiting on documents from me. Documents they had never, ever asked for. Lucky for me, the situation ended amicably and I made it to the UK with a legal passport, but International students quickly discovered that we all had a similar story so BE WARNED and BE ORGANIZED.

4. The amenities leave something to be desired. If I had a dime for every time someone complained about the faulty printers and wondered where the hell our tuition was going, I could buy the school enough new printers to stop the complaints altogether! Though the school boasts of being equipped with technology and cutting edge equipment, most of this is reserved for the Engineering schools and/or Sports Science departments. Outside of this, anything that they do offer breaks down on the regular and racks up lines like Primark during a clearance sale.

5. There is no accountability on postgraduate course supervisors. I could get into some horror stories about Master’s and PhD level supervisors throwing students under the bus and putting them between an academic rock and hard place during their most vulnerable points in their career. I was fortunate to have one of the most insightful, supportive, and above all available supervisors among my group of friends and coursemates; however, many others were not so lucky. I’d heard stories of supervisors using students’ papers to secure a bi-line, threatening to fail students for minor infractions, escaping any and all office hours (and even the country) and then docking students’ grades based on their “poor performance and communication”; the list goes on. So take heed and find a good supervisor, because this can make or break the experience – ESPECIALLY at Brunel.

6. If you live on campus, get ready to move out with no support THE WEEK OF YOUR DEADLINE. In our programme, the dissertation – which was a 15,000 word APA style independent research assignment that determined the outcome of our MSc – was due 19 September. Our move-out date? 7 September. The university offered no extensions, no support finding housing, no low-cost on-site or off-site accommodation and no extensions or mitigating circumstances for our dissertation. Now, while “planning ahead” might seem like the only way around this, keep in mind that as students, very few of us were working enough (if at all) to afford deposits and rent, and even fewer had the security to sign 6-12 month contracts (which was expected of almost every renter). Also, a potentially graduating student with an expiring visa doesn’t look attractive when compared to the other 150 applicants fighting for the same affordable room/studio/flat, so keep that in mind.

7. Congratulations, it’s over! But don’t expect Placement & Careers Centre to help you find a job. In the final weeks of our Master’s whirlwind, several students (myself included) marched to the PCC in hopes of getting the support and resources we needed to find work. Instead, what we found were a bunch of desk-bound suits showing us Indeed, Glassdoor, Reeds, and other sites we’d all heard of, and lending us unspecific CV/Resume tips we could have Googled in the 10 minutes it took to walk there. All information we had, no networks to help us in the door. Though we merely constitute a small statistic of students, not one colleague of mine found work through PCC – and in fact, 6 months later, the majority of my and my partners’ classmates (including British folk without visa or nationality restrictions) STILL have not found work, and the PCC has STILL not been a resource to any of us.

Now keep in mind, this blog is not reflective of the programme I was in; while the larger administration of Brunel seems to run with the bureaucratic logic of Henry VIII, my particular programme (Cross-Cultural Psychology) was an outstanding (and unfortunately under-funded) exception to the rule.

While there are upsides to attending to Brunel as a postgraduate student, I was shocked by the overwhelming negative feedback I heard from students and even more surprised to hear it among veteran students whilst the internet (so far as I had scoured it prior to attending Brunel) seemed to be devoid of the criticism. So I’ve added my (and a few others’) twopence to the digital conversation.

So fellow Brunel graduates and postgraduates – what are your experiences as a student Brunel? What do you think should future students know before applying or attending?