When I got back from a trip to China ages ago, people used to ask me how it was. I usually couldn’t think of anything snappy to say. Most often I just started by saying “It was weird” and went on from there. Right now, it feels like that’s what I’ll do talking about the United States too. That particular weirdness is something a few years of English Philology in Finland or twenty years worth of experience on American pop culture will not prepare you for.
First of all, USA IS BIG. There, the biggest cliche, right up front. With “big” I mean “vast” and with “vast” I mean “in the broadest sense”. The spectrums of different educational backgrounds, of the way English is spoken and of the way the world around Americans is approached are immense – even in a liberal, children-of-hippies state like Vermont. This, I think, cannot be fathomed without seeing it for oneself (and I’m not sure if two coasts and twentyish cities gave me the complete view either).
Second, there is no other way to study a culture than to see it in live action. If we, as students, are to understand a phenomenon like “being American”, we need first hand experience of it. The last time I checked we’re graduating as Masters-of-All-kinds-of-aspects-of-English-language-&-culture.
Without a doubt, being in a foreign environment with people that are not your run-of-the-mill Helsinki hipsters (no offense, all my friends) leads one to take another look both around and at oneself. The potential for growth as a cosmopolitan person with an open mind is baffling in a place where one’s own conservatisms have to be renegotiated.
Academically, the American college offers courses that we can only dream of in Finland. How about doing a senior seminar in creative writing? Or studying the latest artworks in the field of graphic novels (no, not Watchmen, although that might be a good start)? Or checking out last years Pulitzer Prize winner, or the one from year before, on a course on contemporary fiction? Chances like these do not materialize in Finland (at least not yet) and have to be grabbed somewhere else.
Did I have a point floating somewhere around there? Oh yes, I think I did. It follows.
Dear Universities. Please make an exchange semester in an English-speaking country mandatory for us philologists and guarantee funding for such a program. → Get immensely qualified and broadminded Masters of Arts. → ??? → Profit (if that’s what you’re into).
Better Than Sliced Bread