November 2, 2013, by Stephen Mumford

Cultural Exchange

In the last week I have travelled far. Doing so, I have eaten food I couldn’t identify, got lost on the outskirts of a city I didn’t know, listened with growing fondness to the local pop music, stood out as the only white European in a crowd, unable to speak the same language as everyone around me, and had my body clock thrown into disarray. I have learnt a lot and had the privilege of meeting many new people who greeted a stranger warmly. I didn’t leave the UK until I was 20, at which point I had a very limited experience of different nationalities. The first other country I visited was the Netherlands, which seemed so different from everything I knew. It sounds funny now. I feel so lucky that my career has taken me far and wide and exposed me to many different cultures, some conspicuously non-European.

At least once a year I try to get to Nottingham’s other campuses in Ningbo, China, and Semenyih, Malaysia, to meet with my counterpart Deans, other staff, and to do a few bits of teaching. Philosophy isn’t otherwise taught at either of those campuses so I realise I am exposing the students to ideas and approaches that might seem very alien. How strange I must look and sound to them. Business and engineering degrees are strongly encouraged by families thinking of direct paths into careers. But I could tell from the faces of those Chinese and Malaysian students how instinctively curious and engrossed they were by something so new in their experience. Making contact across a crowded lecture theatre, when I can read on a face that a spark of interested has been ignited, is a moment I find so deeply rewarding.

It is nice to think that I can give back something of my own culture – a training in analytic Western philosophy – in return for the cultural lessons I received on my trip. I have come to love Asia in particular, after my decades of Euro-centrism. The sights, smells and sounds, the whole approach to living, tell me that I am not at my own home. I love talking with students but also with local people off campus. It makes me think that I learn more than any student gets from my lectures.

I have good friends in many different countries around the world. I certainly think it has helped my personal development and enabled me to take a global perspective on humanity and the problems we face. I hope eventually that national borders will be seen as a historical aberration that created unnecessary divisions and prevented a fair sharing of the world’s resources.  Even if that comes to pass, I am sure the rich cultural diversity on our planet will be maintained and celebrated.

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