“Have you seen ******* film?”
“Have you read ******* ******* ***** book by ******* ****** author?”
“Do you know the activist ******** *******’s work?
Somewhere around my seventh to ninth week in Montreal I was feeling really down and confused. Mostly I felt ignorant.
There were so many conversations going on around me that sounded all like a foreign language to me. Partially because some of them were but also because I was not familiar with the ideas and inspirations that the community I became a part of was familiar with.
The TV shows that they grew up watching, I didn’t watch. The books that they read, I did not read. The language that they spoke, I did not speak. The history that they learned, I did not learn. The jobs that they had, I did not have.
It was a really tough place to be in because I’d say that I’m a fairly knowledgeable person generally but after two months of emersion in this foreign culture I felt as if my ignorance shined through.
To make matters worse the (amazing) people I surrounded myself with weren’t exactly mainstream folks. They may relate to some of the items on Buzzfeed listicles but they weren’t really the sort to spend their time on the internet reading those anyways. They watched films directed by people whose names I could not begin to pronounce even after acing a Film History course. They read books found in Anarchist libraries and painted, sang and danced as if no one was watching.
I particularly remember walking to a Halloween party with a friend and for the entire walk, any topic that came up was foreign to me. After years of fully appreciating my education I began to wonder about its depth and worth.
Through feeling less than and questioning myself about my education I began seeing a photo in focus.
I was knowledgable, however my knowledge was from the places that I lived and travelled to, it was from the books I read, the conversations I had, and the courses that I took (among other things). My knowledge was consistently expanding in different contexts. My knowledge however, was extremely valuable and more focused on another culture. My knowledge was not developed in a Quebecois sub-culture. I was learning new topics, a new language and a new way of interacting with people.
I thought back to all of the times that I had felt knowledgeable in the last few weeks. They revolved around topics that I was passionate about and typically shared with foreign friends visiting my region. In these conversations I felt calm and comfortable, I explained carefully and the information that I shared was well received. I wasn’t that ignorant after all.
I was just a fresh water fish that was rehabilitated in another river. It was wondrous at first, then shocking, then quite disillusioning. Then I began to accept that I was in a completely different culture, a culture that I didn’t have a lot of experience in, and soon enough I’d feel comfortable here. In the interim, it was my task to listen to these conversations, do my research and increase my knowledge.
Dear exchange students,
This is something that’s real. It was only after experiencing it that I remembered that my other friends that I met on exchange while living in Barbados and Trinidad went through very similar experiences.
You’re not silly nor foolish but you are ignorant. No matter how much reading you do about a place there is nothing quite like being in that place. You’re ignorant simply because you don’t know. Soon enough you’ll realise that you’re following more conversations, understanding more references and figuring out the contexts of relationships more easily.
Hang in there,
You’ll get better with time, research and interaction.