So I sit in the Campus Center Café every day – it’s my favorite space on campus, and I go there and buy a coffee after class and stay until closing. It’s been the site of many of my meltdowns – I’ve written emails to the registrar, cried about my Russian visa, and had Skype phone calls with friends in Sydney at 9am on the first day of finals.
Today, I was sitting there and trying to read through 200 pages of David Hume – and eavesdropping on a first-year having a conversation with a girl of about eleven or twelve. I don’t know how I expected the conversation to go, but it’s safe to say that I never expected to learn as much as I did from that girl.
I’ve never learned what to say at the pickup counter at CVS, and I’ve said something different and equally awkward every time I’ve gone to pick up my medication in the last year – until I went with a friend who’d been brought up in the United States. She just strolled up to the counter, said “Hi, pickup for O’Keefe”.
Maybe I’m just generally awkward as a person, but I never learned to say these things, never got this cultural education. I know all the middle-school classics by the Black Eyed Peas, have read all the Princess Diaries books, and have a gaggle of American friends who frequently keep me updated on the latest in Tumblrverse – but I still don’t know how to draft an email to the Registrar, or what to say to the bank on the phone.
It is in these moments that I feel the most foreign – that no matter how well I learn to talk about Bernie and Hillary, or realise that I understand all the ’90s cultural references at my house’s middle-school-themed Spring party – my inability to formulate strings of adultese at the times I most need it reflects that I have the cultural competency of an American seven-year-old.
Ocean Vuong, in an interview with The New Yorker, said it best when he said “for an American who was born here, the mundane might be boring, but for me colloquial English was a destination”. I can only imagine what it feels like for someone for whom English is not a native language – but culturally, I feel as if I am always playing catch-up. I am always running after the years of high school homeroom systems I never had, as if it somehow makes up for the fact that my passport will never be navy blue.
The last time I got some neurological tests done, there was a General Knowledge section – I remember being asked what the president of the United States during the Civil War was. I later Googled and found out who it was (it’s Abe Lincoln), but in that moment I became more conscious of my accent, of the way my flat tongue wouldn’t hit ‘th’s the same way the doctor’s could. As small and (relatively) insignificant in the world as Singapore is, could you imagine a German or Japanese child being able to answer that question? Could I imagine an American knowing who Singapore was colonized by, just for General Knowledge?
Is it possible, then, to have any kind of ‘general knowledge’ that is not culturally skewed in some way? Whether Russia’s possession of Crimea is an ‘invasion’ or not depends on who you ask, as is whether Kosovo is still a part of Serbia – it really all depends on who’s telling the story, whose political and cultural lens you inherit.
Maybe, then, it is less that I am getting a cultural education here, as my presence, and the existence of many others, serves to highlight how culturally biased much of what we know to be ‘fact’ really is. Maybe my inability to decide what to say at CVS, or know my American presidents, can somehow show that every day, when we get out of bed with all our assumptions, we are also getting out of bed with our years of cultural education.