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No Going Back | Coming to Terms with an Intercultural Identity - CS EN


Analysis of the complexity of coping with many cultural influences when having a diverse cultural background and when being immersed in another culture.

The paper is an attempt to analyse the personal experience lived by my fellow student during his two-year stay in Saudi Arabia. I will attempt to analyse his experience based on psychological aspects within an intercultural context.

I will present his story through his own words in order for other readers to better understand the analysis I will provide afterwards. This is fundamental in order to completely understand and judge of this paper. Extracts would not be sufficient.


Part 1: Case study – story told by student

My case study is about the two years I spent studying in Saudi Arabia. I was 19 years old and had just finished high school. I decided to go to Saudi-Arabia to study the Arabic Language only because that was the perfect way to avoid going directly into college. Till then I had lived half my life in Mozambique and the other half in Portugal. This was the first time I spent such a long period away from home and in such a different and distant place. This was my first goal, while studying Arabic was only a complement. Although familiarized with part of the Saudi culture (I was born a Muslim), I totally lacked the experience of its practice.

I chose this situation because it represents a very relevant period in my life, in which I underwent the most important “cultural process” (in the sense that I experienced a cultural shock and also its aftermath) so far, having defined my present cultural configuration.

Introduction: The Islamic University of Medina, Saudi Arabia

It is one of the many universities sponsored by the Saudi monarchy with the aim of spreading Islam by teaching several related fields such as the Arabic language, Islamic theology, comparative theology, Arabic literature, training for missionaries, etc. I was in a campus holding (at the time) over 7000 students from all over the world. The whole compound worked as a “multicultural center” in itself, within the city of Medina.

The students were informally organized in “groups” according to many factors: same language; same country or region; those already attending university, or those still attending the language courses; those there for a long time or those freshly arrived, etc. The dynamics of the relationships (between the students and the teachers and the administrative staff) took place in several “cultural layers”. Besides the many specific cultures of the students there were also the many variations within Islam (African, Asian, American and European Islam, urban or traditional, etc). The fact that we were all living in a dictatorship context (the university's rules reflected the political rules practiced by the Saudi monarchy) generated a notion of “us and them”, the students and the country outside. This covered the whole with a sense of community that was not affected by the many dissensions within us.

My cultural background was diverse. I had been raised a Muslim, “urban” in nature but somewhat “traditional” in practice. By “urban” I mean that its philosophy was quite influenced by the Western environment in which it dwelled, but “traditional” because there was a constant attraction towards more conservative interpretations and practices. Then I lived in Portugal as an African immigrant, from an ex-colony during the main period of the civil war that meanwhile scourged Mozambique.

To sum it up, my system of values and representations had Muslim, Western colonial and Western European influences. And this was my first time deep into an Eastern culture, in a game defined by very specific cultural rules.


Identity shock

Initially my relationships with the many different groups and the refusal to stick to a specific one gave me a suspicious reputation before the others, for people didn't quite understand where I belonged to. Thus I wasn't taken seriously nor trusted by the “veterans”. This phenomenon was, I believe, common to every newcomer, since the diversity of the students always had a fascinating effect that deviated from the “group logic”. But then, the newcomers would eventually be integrated into the respective group, since such a group would help him get around, in his own language. Needles to mention the importance of language in the “fitting-in process”.

If such integration (in the sense of limitation to a group) did not go through, which happened very seldom, then those students would end up in a heterogeneous group, that communicated in the most common lingua franca (probably Arabic or English), and didn't have the typical homogeneity based in nationality or region. I started up in such a way.

As an immigrant in Portugal I never really felt integrated. At the time the people coming from the colonies weren't much esteemed. I had been told that there was a big group of Mozambicans at the university and so had nurtured getting to know them. It was sad to understand that the Mozambicans, whom I ironically held as a proud reference, didn't want to accept me due to some sort of an inferiority complex. Because I had been living in the ex-colonizing country where life standards were better, while they were enduring the civil war...

I had learnt some French and Spanish at school in Portugal, which allowed me to communicate to students native to such languages. This would only increase the resentfulness from the Mozambicans towards me, that somehow saw it as a type of treason...Although I was disappointed not to be welcome into some groups (because of the Mozambicans, many Zimbabweans or South Africans, wouldn't also be “available” for a “get to know”, I was used to the experience of being an outsider in Portugal, and so it was more or less easy to approach other individuals.

At the end of my stay, then completely fluent in Arabic, and having passed by different levels of activities in the university, the initial logic of relationships had mutated, and the once very harsh frontiers were now much lighter. Learning the Arabic language was the best way to overcome such frontiers, for it allowed entrance to the higher cultural layer, that of the Arabic speaking students.


The aftermath

The second shock of this cultural experience was when returning to Portugal. After two years of intense intercultural immersion, returning to a “one culture context” in Portugal made me depressive. I desperately reoriented my whole life according to the new impulses developed in Saudi Arabia. The studies I followed, the friends I did, the jobs I searched for, were always bearing in mind the possibility to escape from this Portuguese one culture context. This new reality of much lower social interaction made me realize the depth of the previous experience. It showed me (frighteningly in the beginning) that I could by no means let myself dilute in such “monoculturality”. I came to peace with my Cultural origins, and I discovered that I would never be at peace again if not in such multiple contexts. I had severely changed and there was no going back.


Part two: Analysis of case study

The story of my fellow student (from now on called „the student‟) is an interesting story on how an intercultural experience sets its marks on the people involved. It shows how the experience brings out new perspectives and leaves others behind. But it also tells of a struggle to fit in.


Student’s perspective: Values, representations, norms and conceptions

There are several key aspects to this story that renders the student‟s reference points complex. It is about a multilingual, African immigrant with a Muslim value system living in western oriented Portugal. In an attempt to distance himself from what is considered to be a rather safe and well known home environment to a culturally and linguistically different environment.

However, his own background does not represent that of a monocultural individual. Being an African immigrant living in Portugal he is already living, at least potentially, in an intercultural context. However, he is living in a one-culture-context with the western value system being the dominant system. The decision to move to Saudi Arabia comes across as a way of confronting himself about his own values, norms and conceptions: There is a need for a change, a need to challenge himself in order to complete himself. This need comes across as something that has been build up over a period of time. It reflects a need based on the feeling that what he had was not enough, that he felt incomplete. He finally chooses to leave Portugal and endeavours the experience of moving to a country with the same religious reference points as himself but which is nevertheless set in a completely unknown cultural context. He is forced to adapt to a new context and its reference points.

It seems clear that the most influential identity shock did not happen until coming back to Portugal when the experiences from the intense intercultural experience is confronted with his own monocultural background. However he is faced with an intercultural struggle while staying in Saudi Arabia. His initial meeting with his fellow students is all but easy and he endeavours problems when choosing not to stick to one group of students. His own complex cultural and linguistic background causes difficulties as it not only provides him with the imminent opportunity to fit in with almost any group but also makes his cultural codings difficult for the surroundings to crack. Thus, fellow students find it difficult to „categorise‟ him. His complexity does not immediately fit in with what at first presents itself as a culturally rigid role play between different student groups.


Surrounding environment’s perspective: representations, values, norms, conceptions and prejudices

It is also important to notice the many cultural layers and accompanying learning processes that are being presented here. The student is having to face a completely new and different place and is forced to negotiate his own cultural background in order to properly fit in. The student is faced with a range of challenges, not only in adapting, but also defining himself. He is entering a „multicultural centre‟ in the middle of an Arab and Islamic world. However, the groups making up this multicultural centre strike me as rather monocultural. The students are grouped according to many factors, based on sharing a belonging to the same language, country or religion. Thus, within the overall multicultural atmosphere there are strong elements of monocultural tendencies.

This leads me to wonder how much intercultural communication actually took place within the groups. There are dissensions within the groups and the difficulty the student is facing fitting in is caused by his refusal to adhere to only one group not only makes it difficult for him to be embraced by the social network he is part of, it also causes suspicion. This is the result of his own personal trait as a multicultural person who feels home in more than one group. There is an inconsistency between his own character and the environment he is trying to be part of. This inconsistency is finally resolved with him being accepted to groups of Arabic students. This is the direct result of his linguistic capacities and the fruits of his background and character – that of being an open person determined to broaden his own horizon. His initial difficulty being accepted and getting access to certain groups does not stop him from continuing to attempt to adapt to what is eventually considered a wishful entrance to the higher cultural layer of Arabic speaking students.

His lengthy but in the end highly successful efforts in finding his place leads to something of an anticlimax when returning to Portugal. After his two years of intense intercultural immersion, returning to a “one culture” context in Portugal makes him depressive and he refuses to live in any other way than that of his multicultural experience. Every move and every decision is coloured by his two years in Saudi Arabia. Consequently he is determined to follow the road he starting building when living in Saudi Arabia.


Codol: Dimensions of identity

In the student‟s story, there is a clear reference to the feeling of „otherness‟ between himself and his surroundings. This is evident throughout the entire time span he is describing. Originally an immigrant, he chooses to leave his new home country Portugal in order to face a challenging and different cultural, religious and social environment as that of Saudi Arabia. Although there are strong traces of monocultural layers within the broader multicultural setting, the two-year long experience nevertheless is a door-opener to a multicultural lifestyle he does not find in Portugal. Consequently, when returning to Portugal he finds himself in opposition to his surroundings leading to a strong sense of distinctiveness and forced to face constant comparative challenges.

In his Saudi Arabic stay there is also a strong sense of both adapting but also determining to not adhere to one group identity. His intention is not that of reinforcing any Portuguese or western values while staying there but rather stay open to the impulses that are presenting themselves to him. As mentioned previously, this approach creates difficulties for him because he is difficult to put in place by the others. He finally overcomes these difficulties but when returning to Portugal he finds it difficult to re-adapt. There are strong traces of a reverse culture shock here with his struggle to fit into his original cultural context in Portugal. Thus he finds it difficult to both open up for the constitutions of his pre-Saudi Arabic background as well as mastering the cultural challenge of returning to Portugal. He refuses to re-adapt which leads him in opposition to his own surroundings. The stay in Saudi Arabia leads him culturally to a point of no return.


Lessons learned - introspective

There is a strong sense of a personal development towards what is considered a more serene and honest „me‟. He is in a process of constant comparisons between his inner emotions and the environment around him. He is critically questioning himself and the life he is living. Consequently he is taking steps to change the aspects he is not happy with. His stay in Saudi Arabia challenges him and forces him to approach things in a completely new way. The mental process he goes through results in a new thinking pattern. The Saudi Arabic experience brings him to a point of no return, a “no going back” which means that he is also leaving previous perspectives behind. When returning to Portugal he is not returning on the same conditions that he left with. Saudi Arabia was not only a door opener to a new world, but also transcendence between his old and new approach to various aspects of life.

There are several similarities between my fellow student‟s story and my own experiences. My own experience of an intercultural identity shock was for me a true moment of identity conflict in which I was forced to confront myself with who I was and who I wanted to be. My experience is indeed similar to the story above. After a long-time experience abroad, I was forced to confront myself and realising on my return to my home country that I didn‟t feel at home. After having studied in London and lived and worked in Rome for some total of seven years, I moved back to Norway and worked in Oslo for about one year. This return to my home country provoked something of a reverse culture shock for me and I realised that living in a cultural context different than my own was a fundamental part of how I needed to live. My experience created a strong sensation of being torn between two directions of life – going back to my „roots‟ or rather continue to live in cultural settings different to my own. It was a conflict between my own adult personal development and the cultural contexts in which I had grown up in. Eventually I decided to accept a job offer in Stockholm and at the same time doing an executive Master in Intercultural Communication (MIC) in Switzerland. Coming to the conclusion that moving abroad again was the right thing to do, was a great relief. It lifted a great burden off my shoulders. I felt back on track and I was confident that the decision taken was the right decision to take. I no longer had to live in a state of personal and cultural conflict with myself.



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