My new journal article in Place Branding and Public Diplomacyis now available online! It discusses the theory and practice of exchange diplomacy and analyses the results of a survey of Fulbright Program administrators around the world that I conducted for the 70th anniversary of the program, in 2016. I presented the study at the ICA Conference in Prague last year, and wrote and re-wrote this paper a few times between now and then. I’m much happier with it now that I was with its earlier versions, and it’s great to see it finally getting published.
This has been my first properly “independent” publication–my other 3 have all been published alongside other conference papers in special issues of journals/an edited book. I’m working on a couple of other independent things, so hopefully there will be more publication announcements in the near future!
Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. We spend so much time in school learning about WWII, but very little attention is paid to China and the Pacific Theater in the years that followed–the history curriculum, at least in the US, seems to jump from WWII to the Vietnam War. Beyond knowing who Chairman Mao was, I really didn’t know much about the 1949 revolution before reading a book for my thesis research, Wilma Fairbank’s America’s Cultural Experiment in China, 1942-1949 (Washington: Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State, 1976).
Histories of US exchange diplomacy often make the Fulbright Program sound like a higher ed version of the Marshall Plan, suggesting it was a post-war effort to rebuild Europe that ultimately turned into a Cold War tool, as well. But although Europe is home to some of the largest exchange programs, the first Fulbright Program was actually with China.
It took about 7 months of negotiations between the US and China to finally reach an exchange agreement that would establish this first Fulbright Program. Part of the delay was due to disagreements over control (the US insisted on a directing board made up entirely of Americans) and the question of how the new program would differ from existing educational exchanges under the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship program. Established in 1908, the program created scholarships for Chinese students to study in the US out of funds that had been paid by China to the US (indemnity for the Boxer Rebellion). The Chinese government had control over that exchange scheme, while Fulbright would be a US-administered activity, with completely different funding arrangements, but the Foreign Minister expressed concerns “that it will be impossible to explain these distinctions to Chinese public opinion.” (p. 156). Economic instability was another challenge–inflation and exchange rates fluctuated and it was difficult for administrators to predict exactly how much a grantee would need for a year’s stay.
Even after the agreement was reached in November 1947, it wasn’t until March 1948 that the program was established enough to actually launch exchanges. The first grantee, Derk Bodde, a Professor of Chinese Studies at University of Pennsylvania, was contacted by Washington officials, who asked if he would be prepared to go to China as a Fulbright Fellow. “We would like an immediate decision, if possible, so that we can make a press release today to say that the Fulbright Program has been started.” (p. 174). It had been 18 months since the Fulbright Act had been signed, so they were keen to start it and Professor Bodde was, in his words, “tremendously happy to go.” (p. 175)
A total of 27 Americans were able to take up their Fulbright grants to China in that initial cohort, with 18 of them based in Peking by the end of October 1948. 14 other American grantees’ awards were “suspended due to conditions in China” as the conflict developed (p. 178). For those in the country, questions of safety soon arose and it wasn’t clear what should be done to address it.
On November 1, 1948, Mukden fell to the Communists, marking the final defeat of the Nationalist forces in Manchuria. The imminence of the southward advance on Peking was obvious.
This developing crisis demanded some prompt action by the Foundation. Order the Fulbright fellows out of Peking? Send a rescue plane to move them and their few dependents to safety? Perhaps even send them home in view of the increasing hopelessness of the military outlook for the Nationalists? The Fulbright program was, after all, financed by Chinese Government currency which was not only plunging rapidly to new lows but would certainly not be accepted in areas controlled by the Communists.”
Fairbank, 1976, p. 179
The Foundation decided not to terminate the program, and ultimately managed to support all of the grantees who wished to stay in China for the year. This small group of American Fulbrighters was lucky to have the experience, despite the uncertainty and challenges they faced, because China had been largely off-limits for American scholars from 1937 to 1945 (due to the Sino-Japanese war and WWII), and would be again for many years to come. The 1948-49 academic year was, therefore, a unique moment in US-Chinese relations and exchange diplomacy.
American officials maintained some hope for the continuation of the program well into the summer of 1949, despite Communist advances and funding challenges due to the devaluation of the yuan–for example, “the final telegraphic transfer of funds to grantees in Canton had involved losing the equivalent of 87 cents on the dollar” (p. 196)! Cultural Attache George Harris asked the department to “undertake to assure the availability of funds for continued educational exchange activities in China should events render a program possible.” (p. 197).
By August 31st, however, the program was suspended. Funds were exhausted and “Communist policy showed no hope for continuation of the program on the China mainland.” (p. 198). The Fulbright Program in China was resumed with the normalization of US-Chinese relations in 1979, and has continued and grown ever since (apart from a suspension in the 1989-90 academic year, in response to US criticism of China’s violent crackdown of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square)
Several interesting lessons can be taken away from America’s Cultural Experiment in China, and this first Fulbright Program highlights some key points about the nature of exchange diplomacy.
There have been attempts to politicise the program from its very beginnings.
W. Bradley Connors, Acting Director of USIS in China, suggested that Fulbright professors should “explain our democracy and way of life to their Chinese students, who will take an important interest in explaining to students the fallacies of their anti-American sentiments, making this phase of their work as important as their own courses and lectures. Only in this way can we obtain full value from such exchanges.” (p. 204)
Those attempts have been consistently resisted, and academic integrity has been prioritised from the beginning.
“Fortunately, the Board of Foreign Scholarships had been established for the express purpose of selecting grantees on their scholarly qualifications, not their usefulness for political ends.” (p. 204)
“And in Nanking the personnel of the Board and of the Foundation were wholly devoted to furthering the scholarly aims of the grantees, which could be attained in the circumstances only by their remaining aloof from political involvement.” (p. 204)
There’s a discrepancy between what Washington might think happens and what actually happens in the field.
“The U.S. Government expenditures for cultural relations programs were justified in Washington for various nationalistic and public relations ends–to make friends abroad, to enhance the American image, to counter Axis propaganda and, in the case of China, to give educational and technical assistance to a wartime ally.” (p. 205)
“But in the field, public relations was never the primary aim, and the enhancement of the American image in China occurred only as a byproduct of a job well done. What was actually taking place at the Point of Contact was a transference of ideas, skills, knowledge, understanding, and human feeling from persons of one culture to those of another, directly or through various media.” (p. 205)
Further reading on US-China exchanges:
Fu, M. and Zhao, X. 2017. “Utilizing the Effects of the Fulbright Program in Contemporary China: Motivational Elements in Chinese Scholars’ Post-Fulbright Life” Cambridge Journal of China Studies, 12(3), pp. 1-26.
Li, H. 2008. U.S.-China Educational Exchange: State, Society, and Intercultural Relations, 1905-1950. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Xu, G. 1999. The Ideological and Political Impact of U.S. Fulbrighters on Chinese Students: 1979–1989. Asian Affairs, 26 (3), pp. 139–157.
On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. As I did in last year’s post, the program’s anniversary is always an occasion to reflect on the program and what it’s achieved over the years.
Thinking back over its 73 year history, one of the things that stands out most to me is the program’s consistency and stability. The Fulbright Program has shown an amazing ability to survive. It’s outlasted political chaos and economic fluctuations, wars and diplomatic crises, and supportive and critical occupants of the White House.
Recently, I was looking through my old archive photos from University of Arkansas trip, and I came across this gem. The clipping was enclosed in a letter to J.W. Fulbright from Arkansas Gazette editor James O. Powell (Fulbright’s reply letter was dated 9 January 1978). At the time, the Fulbright Program was being shifted from the US State Department to the new, reorganised version of the US Information Agency (USIA), the US International Communication Agency (USICA). This Carter-era bureaucratic shift wasn’t an attempt to turn exchanges into propaganda, as the cartoon suggests. The Carter administration was supportive of exchanges, and it was really more of an effort to shift USIA towards two-way, mutual understanding promotion, instead of its original overseas ‘information’ (propaganda) remit. Despite the fact I disagree with this characterisation of the Carter administration’s USICA, I still like the cartoon, because it perfectly captures the tension between the two conceptualisations of exchange diplomacy–is it about education and culture, or is it about persuasion and national images? Are they mutually exclusive concepts, or is there room for both aspects in exchanges?
Note the “America First” slogan on the eagle, too–Trump didn’t invent the phrase. This attitude is nothing new, and it’s part of a bigger concept of what the US is/does/stands for. I love that it’s opposed to education and culture. That’s appropriate for the current wave of populist politics–cutting public education funding, cutting the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, rejecting climate science and vaccine research, generally anti-expertise attitudes.
Yet, despite all of that, the Fulbright Program carries on, as it has for the past 73 years, quietly bringing students and scholars, professors and researchers into contact with their international colleagues, facilitating the exchange of ideas and promoting mutual understanding. When America’s President is viewed unfavourably around the world, the American people are still regarded in a positive light–and I think it’s thanks, in part, to interpersonal contact.
When you can relate the abstract idea of America to an actual person you know, not just Hollywood, or Coca-Cola, or blue jeans, or Disney, you can get past its leader. This gives some hope for other countries, too–if you know a British person, you’ll know they’re not all like Boris Johnson. My Chinese students are not Xi Jinping, my Brazilian friends are not Bolsonaro, etc. (That said, when you have a leader that’s viewed favourably, it helps!)
May the Fulbright Program continue bringing people together, showing Americans and international participants the realities of life in other countries and cultures, and promoting genuine mutual understanding of international affairs that goes beyond the headlines.
The edited volume with my book chapter is now officially published! It’s listed on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, Google Books, Jstor, and sometimes I’m even listed as a contributing author! I’m so excited to see it in print! I love the cover, too–it has a definite 1960s, retro feel to it, and the ’60’s were the Senator’s prime years.
This book came out of a fantastic conference I took part in at the University of Arkansas, 1-2 September 2015.
My chapter is much improved after being rewritten a couple of times since then, and it’s not the only thing that’s changed:
I’m so proud of the editors and contributors for all of their hard work, and so grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in this project. It covers a great mix of biography, history, sociology and public diplomacy. All academic books try to emphasise their originality, but it really does add some new perspectives and insights on the Senator and on his namesake exchange program. My chapter and Alice Garner & Diane Kirkby’s chapter bring a discussion of gender to the collection that, until now, has been ignored in studies of the Fulbright Program. Well done everybody!
In terms of the global flow of international students, there’s no bigger actor than China–they send hundreds of thousands of students overseas each year (662,100 in 2018) and institutions in the US, UK, Australia and Canada compete for them and the economic benefits and cultural diversity they bring to campus with them. There has been an expansion of higher education opportunities for Chinese students, with more students from ordinary backgrounds pursuing degrees overseas–it’s no longer exclusively for wealthy elites. Chinese students are also increasingly likely to return home after their studies–fears of international higher education contributing to the ‘brain drain’ phenomenon are not reflected in practice.
The Diplomat recently featured an interview with former Ambassador and current VP of International Programs at Washington State University, Dr. Asif Chaudhry. When Dr. Chaudhry was asked about U.S. policymakers’ concerns about Confucius Institutes (CI), his response captured the key elements of the debate very clearly & concisely:
“This can be a very controversial topic because of the potential for conflicts among issues of protecting U.S. interests, principles of academic freedom, and concern over curricular control and Chinese state censorship. In this complex environment, it is important to not lose sight of the value of promoting shared cultural understanding. It seems more productive to ask a somewhat different set of questions: a) is the current CI model the best way to achieve the goals of providing Chinese language learning and Chinese cultural understanding and/or, b) how else can this be done without hosting a CI in an era in which it is crucial to intellectually engage with China and protect the integrity of the goals and values of higher education?”
I particularly liked his second question, the idea of alternative ways of engaging with China that go beyond the Confucius Institute. Exchanges are an obvious answer, as are overseas campuses that bring Western institutions to mainland China. Last year, the government ended many of its partnerships with foreign universities, but they remain a significant link between Chinese students and Western faculty.
I also liked Dr. Chaudhry’s emphasis on cultural understanding. He connected discussions of U.S. policy towards Asian students to larger questions of cultural exchange and understanding.
“Without exposing U.S. students and scholars to other cultures of the world and vice versa, we cannot ensure a mindful understanding and appreciation of each other in a global economy. Policy decisions that inhibit the free flow of ideas or the ability to interact with each other are ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests at large.”
Connecting U.S. interests to international education is a classic way of generating political support–Senator Fulbright did it in the 50’s when he argued for exchange funding as part of a larger Cold War strategy. Today, it might be the global economy instead–very important, especially in light of Trump’s trade war with China. American policymakers worry about the impact of Confucius Institutes, but the trade war has much more immediate, tangible effects that are worth worrying about.
A colleague who studies social media passed this book onto me–I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t realise how surprisingly relevant to exchange diplomacy it would be, too. Zuckerman points to the example of his friend Johan Ugander, who co-authored a paper on international ties on Facebook. As a Swedish-American, he has more international ties than a typical social media user. This has knock-on effects, in terms of exposing those in their social networks to news and other shared content from different places. In exchange diplomacy, this is really part of the ‘multiplier effect’, where exchange participants pass on their knowledge gains post-sojourn to those in their social circles.
“People like Ugander who’ve lived their lives in different corners of the world are likely the key if we want social media to give us a broad view of the world and help us care about people we don’t otherwise know. With a Swedish citizen in my network of friends, I’m likely to be exposed to news and perspective I otherwise would have missed. Whether that exposure turns into interest and attention is a function of my receptivity and Johan’s ability to provide context around the news he’s sharing.”
Ethan Zuckerman, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), p. 116
Exchange diplomacy is all about connection and cosmopolitanism. The underlying logic of exchange diplomacy is that connections between people of different nations/groups/ways of thinking will lead to a sense of shared humanity and a cosmopolitan mindset.
Has the ease with which we can connect digitally with others around the world made the face-to-face connections of exchange diplomacy obsolete?
I would argue that it hasn’t at all, because there is a gap between the potential to connect digitally and the actual ways we use these digital tools. We may be able to access platforms that enable discussion with foreign publics, but we don’t necessarily use them. Our online social networks mirror our offline friendship circles, and we develop filter bubbles just as we spend time with like-minded people in real life.
Furthermore, exchange diplomacy processes might be enhanced with the development of social media, not rendered irrelevant by them. As Zuckerman suggests, world travellers might play an important role in broadening online networks and making them more cosmopolitan–if we have a personal connection, a friend-of-a-friend, then news about a distant country we’ve never visited can feel more relevant and meaningful.
Before reading this, I already suspected that South Africa would be an interesting case study in the Fulbright Program–their history, politics and culture make their international relationships both challenging and vital, especially during the four decades covered by this book. I also already knew the story of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbrighter who was tragically killed in South Africa, and I included her in my book chapter on Fulbright women. I could see why South Africa merited its own volume of Fulbright stories, and now that I’ve read it, I suspect there are even more out there just as fascinating.
My favorite interview was with Klaas Skosana, a Cultural Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria during the late 1990’s. He has a great perspective and picked up on so many themes that other interviewees (and other studies of exchange diplomacy) touch on, too. In addition to his work at the Embassy, he also went on a short-term exchange to the U.S., a month-long ‘study tour’. I’ve always been a little skeptical about these brief visits, and wondered how much participants can really get out of them. His reflections on that short visit, though, are not in isolation–they are a part of a larger body of experiences and knowledge about international relations and intercultural communication. That brief trip may not mean a great deal in and of itself, but it needs to be understood in that bigger context.
“Personally, I benefited from the study tour, and it was only thirty-one days. But it is like I spent years in the U.S., because I was exposed to various parts of the U.S. I knew that when I was walking down the street of Washington, DC, the chances of meeting somebody who had a PhD were great…I saw a list of people that I sent to the United States and what positions they are occupying today, and I think they all have positive things to say about what they have seen in the U.S. You take what you can from a country. You cannot focus on everything about a country, but fix your brain on a few aspects, and you will remember them forever…I think that the U.S. intervention was commendable, and it did, in many ways, ‘outsmart’ aparthaied because it exposed people to various perspectives.”
Whitman D (ed) (2014) Outsmarting Apartheid, Albany: SUNY Press, p. 296
This book was a long-neglected read–according to my Amazon account history, I bought it in February 2015! It’s been sitting in my bookshelf’s section for “This will be useful for revising and publishing my dissertation” books, and I hadn’t read it because I’ve made little progress on that project over the past four years. But it’s never too late–as my finally reading this book shows, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s always hope for neglected projects.
Today in the Guardian, there was a story about the uncertainty that UK students are facing as they prepare to participate in ERASMUS exchange programmes in the EU. It gives a great, concise summary of the situation that universities on both sides of the English Channel are facing.
Last Wednesday the European parliament voted to guarantee funding for UK students already studying abroad on the Erasmus+ student exchange programme, in the event of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. It also promised to continue supporting European students already in the UK on the scheme.
But uncertainty hangs over the 17,000 British students who had planned to study in Europe under Erasmus+ from this September. A technical note, published by the government at the end of January, failed to guarantee any funding for the scheme if Britain leaves the EU with no deal.
In recent weeks both Spain and Norway have advised their students planning to study in the UK to go elsewhere.
We’re 10 days away from the 29 March 2019 leaving date, and it’s all feeling quite chaotic. Every day there seems to be more non-story news coming out of Westminster, with the House of Commons soundly rejecting both Theresa May’s deal and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile, as the Guardian piece points out, UK and EU students and universities are left with no idea of what’s going to happen next. The EU’s ERASMUS+ website has a page on potential post-Brexit changes that may or may not happen…
For many students, particularly foreign language and area studies majors, the ERASMUS exchange programme is an affordable and practical way of fulfilling study abroad requirements, as well as gaining valuable professional and personal skills.
Since its establishment in 1987, the ERASMUS programme has had over 9 million participants. Its original aim was to create a sense of European identity and cooperation amongst the youth of European Union member states. Given the massive age gap in remain-leave Brexit voting patterns, it seems that young people in the UK really have adopted this supranational European identity.
If the UK really does leave the European Union, whenever and under what circumstances that may be, I hope it can continue to participate in ERASMUS+ in some form…
Christopher J. Grinbergs & Hilary Jones (2013) Erasmus Mundus SEN: the inclusive scholarship programme?, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17:4, 349-363, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2011.651824
Mitchell, K. 2012. Student mobility and European Identity: Erasmus Study as a civic experience? Journal of Contemporary European Research, 8(4), pp. 490-518.
Papatsiba, V. 2005. Political and Individual Rationales of Student Mobility: a case-study of ERASMUS and a French regional scheme for studies abroad. European Journal of Education, 40(2), pp. 173-188.
This morning I read an article from the BBC about an incident at Duke University, where a professor emailed students about her concerns over Chinese students speaking Chinese, rather than English, while on campus. Apparently, two colleagues had overheard students speaking Chinese (“loudly”) in a lounge/study area and asked this professor for their names. They wanted to know so that, allegedly,
they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a masters project. They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.
The professor e-mailed her students and asked them to speak English “100% of the time” in the building or “any other professional setting”. The professor has been removed as director of the programme, as a result of the backlash against this e-mail.
First off, let me say that I’m not surprised by this incident, for several reasons. When I was in high school checking out universities, I visited Duke and decided not to apply–despite being considered a “prestigious” school, campus life felt very Greek-oriented and sports-oriented. Also, I’ve seen the way some people (lecturers, students, locals) react to international students speaking their native languages–I’ve heard the same things as these staff members in the e-mail have said.
It’s racist and ridiculous for a number of reasons, but my main issue is that the students in question were not in a “professional setting”. They were in a “student lounge/study area”. Why shouldn’t they speak their native language there? Why does “everyone on the floor” need to understand what they’re saying? What if a couple of native English speakers decided to whisper?
And even if they were in a “professional setting”, lighten up. My seminars are often 90-100% Chinese students, and I’m absolutely fine with them speaking Chinese with each other when they discuss the readings. I put the discussion questions up on the screen and they break up into small groups, discuss them in Chinese (and/or English, depending on the group’s preferences), then share their thoughts with me and the rest of the class in English after a few minutes. I would much rather ensure that they understand the content than use my seminars as an “opportunity to improve their English.” It will improve–but in the meantime, we need to talk about Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory (which has already been translated from the original German). If speaking English with me and Chinese with their peers helps us get through these difficult readings, then by all means, feel free to speak Chinese!
It’s taken me a few years to come to this position, though–back when I started working with international students, I thought they should engage in “immersion”. If they committed to speaking English all the time, they would become fluent quickly and everything would be easier for them. But now I realise that this is a very privileged, unrealistic position. Immersion works, yes, but it’s incredibly mentally exhausting. It’s such a relief to speak your native language when you’re abroad.
Last September, I experienced this sense on a smaller scale–I was in Paris with my family, responsible for doing most of the ordering and translating and navigating with my limited French. We stopped at a deli to get sandwiches for lunch, and I struggled to understand and make myself understood. The woman behind the counter was very sweet, asking us about our son and where we were from, and it turned out that she was from Ecuador. I was so relieved–I switched to Spanish and we both grinned. Suddenly it was so much easier to communicate! And that wasn’t even my native language, so I can imagine how relieved my students must feel to speak in Chinese after hours in the library struggling to get through Adorno and Horkheimer. It’s not just about language acquisition–we need to take a holistic approach to understanding the international student experience.
Michael Haugh picked up on some of these ideas in his article on international students in Australia. The so-called “English problem” amongst international students has been blamed for a perceived decline in standards in Australian higher education. His interviewees shared some very interesting anecdotes, and I think many of my students would find them relatable. Haugh’s conclusion suggests that
…it would be useful to draw greater attention to policy-makers in higher education to the moral complexity of the ongoing discourse of complaint about the English language skills of international students. In this way, we can move beyond the view that the so-called English problem is simply a matter of an objective, measurable deficiency on the part of international students.
from: Haugh, M. 2016. Complaints and troubles talk about the English language skills of international students in Australian universities. Higher Education Research & Development,35(4), pp. 727-740.
Immersion vs. bilingual education will continue to be an area of debate in exchange diplomacy, particularly in terms of language acquisition and culture learning effectiveness. In terms of the way international students are treated on campus, however, there’s no question that we must respect students’ right to communicate amongst themselves in whatever way they choose.
It’s two weeks until Christmas–the lights are on all over town, Christmas music is playing in all of the (very crowded) shopping centres and Leeds’ Christkindlmarkt is packed. My international students are loving it! Whenever I run into them in the city centre, they’ve got their phones out–they take loads of pictures of Christmas lights and decorations, market stalls and food. I love the way Christmas is celebrated in Britain, and it’s made me think about how holiday traditions can communicate culture.
Being overseas makes you reflect on your own practices, including the way you celebrate holidays. When I came to the UK, I realised that my family’s traditions were not necessarily “American”–there is no single “American” way of celebrating anything, because we’re a melting pot (or salad bowl) of different cultures and we don’t even all celebrate the same things.
My idea of Christmas is heavily influenced by Swedish traditions, through my Swedish grandma–opening presents on Christmas Eve after a smörgåsbord (julbord) buffet dinner that includes pickled herring, cold cuts, cheese & crackers. The “American” elements of my Christmas are probably the eggnog, the Starbucks Christmas menu, and seeing Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (marking the official start to the holiday season!).
For me, the most surprising thing about the holiday season in Britain is that it is 100% Christmas. There’s no Fox News-dubbed “War on Christmas” here. It’s all advent calendars, Christmas trees and baubles, Christmas jumpers and Christmas pudding. Christmas markets are brought over on trucks from Frankfurt–which is another interesting point about British Christmas: it’s very German. King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte (and later Prince Albert) brought the concept of a Christmas tree to the UK from Germany, among other traditions.
When I was a kid, we did an annual “Holiday Concert” in December. We sang a mix of Hannukah, Christmas (mostly Santa, not Jesus) and secular songs (Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, etc.). Not so for British kids–even state schools (public schools) put on a nativity and hold Christmas fairs. My son’s school is not affiliated with any church, but they’re doing a nativity next week. Since September he’s been coming home from preschool singing “Away in a Manger” and “Little Donkey”, so it’s definitely about Jesus rather than Santa or snowmen. It’s because Christianity is the official state religion here–Church of England, which the monarch is technically the head of–but it’s so crazy to me. A higher proportion of the US population identifies as Christian than the UK population (71% vs 59%, according to a quick, unscientific Wikipedia check), yet we called it “Winter Break” and I still know the words to “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” twenty-plus years later…
Holiday celebrations are an excellent opportunity for learning about a foreign culture–they reveal values and beliefs, and ultimately, they show how much we all have in common. They’re about family and friends and food–pretty much every celebration around the world shares those elements. Anything that demonstrates this should be considered a valuable tool in exchange diplomacy practice.
To exchange participants, I would suggest they embrace local traditions, join in and ask questions–take an interest in the celebrations, try the food, compare your own traditions with those of the host country.
To exchange diplomacy program administrators, I would suggest they incorporate holiday events into their schedules. The Fulbright Program in the UK, for instance, has a Thanksgiving celebration for American grantees in the UK each year, which is lovely. The holidays can be a lonely, difficult time to be a foreigner, especially if nobody else is celebrating the same things you do. Maybe encourage participants to host their own celebrations and invite host country nationals, or other international students. I’ve hosted Thanksgiving and 4th of July parties for friends from all over the world in the UK, and I’ve been a guest at Lunar New Year celebrations–it’s a great excuse for a party, and you learn something about other cultures, too!