By Eve Bentley
We all like to think that we are worldly, that we have experiences others can not comprehend, that we are the exception to the rule of ignorance, but perhaps the best aspect of the PEAK program is that it not only illuminates the true gaps in our understanding but also ultimately builds us from our often limited foundations of knowledge and experience upwards to truly global individuals.
I always used to believe that I could describe the countries in the world. I mean: I knew where they were geographically and could probably describe them in a few words. That equates to knowledge right? It honestly was not until my move across hemispheres to this university, and to a whole new environment, that I realised just how narrow my scope of vision was. As individuals all from different countries, cultures and languages, the way we perceive each other is noticeably limited to the so-called ‘national icons’ that forms the countries, and the cultures within them.
When international students discover I am from Australia, they most often jump to ask whether kangaroos live in my backyard and why our wildlife is so dangerous. Of course, I happily answer their questions, but internally I think, “Is this really all people know of Australia?”
I am overcome by a sense of disappointment that this is all they know about the beautiful, rich country that I am so proud to call home. However, after a few weeks of constantly meeting new people and being asked the same questions, I realised that it is not just me, but everyone has these limited ideas of what a country really is, especially when they have not had the opportunity to visit.
I discovered I was exactly the same when I first met Amael and Manon, who are first-year PEAK students from France. Upon meeting them, my thoughts immediately jump to Paris, the Eiffel Tower, baguettes and berets…. But for them, France is so, so much more than this. Similarly, my understanding of my own close friends completely revolved around my meagre understanding of their most iconic foods. I began to ask myself why we initially identify them more by their country’s somewhat generic identity than by their own experiences, personality and ideas.
Each one of us perceives our own home nations differently, and that is what I think makes the most beautiful and real impression on our peers. Of course, it is easy to be idealistic, and think we can all pursue a life where we will not see people as simply countries, and we will not initially identify them by their accent or cultural background. Yet, I find it difficult actually implementing and endeavouring to think beyond the stereotypes on a day to day basis when meeting new international students.
I think that at the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that the country or countries that an individual hails from will always hold some weight in our initial impressions of them. Perhaps in life, it is instead our task to get to know the person behind the country and behind the stereotype.
Eve Bentley is a first-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo.