Top Nav Breadcrumb

The international student and the permanent guest

Marcel Wälde joins us this year as a 2018 alumni contributor to share his experience since graduating from the Diploma Programme (DP).

Pictured above: Kuthi Bari, the country home in Bangladesh where Rabindranath Tagore crafted many of his late 19th century poems.

By Marcel Wälde

Being a traveler across cultural difference can create precious opportunities for discovery. It is, at the same time, a position of vulnerability, sometimes even precariousness, to be a permanent guest. My own journey as a humanities student between South Asia and Europe has been both a source of inspiration and challenges, one that has taught me how changing frames of reference can help you see everyday experiences and academic subjects in a new light, but also requires a heightened effort from you to communicate with others who might not share your cultural context and premises. Being international and bilingual has made me ask myself: what is my true language, and how should I think?

This is perhaps a question that causes one to stumble while daydreaming, rather like an unwelcome, sudden fold in an otherwise even carpet. But a look toward the past shows us that these nomadic irritations have at their best inspired new ideas and sparked creative energies, with the ability to alter what we perceive as rooted, unmovable: places and traditions. Born in 1861, the Bengali poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore was sent on a journey across the sea as a young man — from Calcutta to England, as was the aristocratic custom of the time. This not only led to him question societal attitudes upon his return back home, but also probably encouraged him to assume a mediating role in India’s encounter with nationhood and modernity, a story that is in itself about complexity, contradictions and the questioning of identity in the face of changing times.

“The arc of Tagore’s life was like the opening of an eye, the unspooling of an aperture that cast a searching light onto what had long been deposited by the sediments of time.”

Tagore grew up in the confined perimeter of his family’s garden and house, his earliest writing drawing its sources from his introverted personality that guarded a profound inner life. In his memoir “Boyhood Days”, he wrote: “the sculptor who created me began his handiwork with Bengali clay. The rough contours of an initial likeness took shape. That was my childhood, made of pure stuff with few admixtures.” It appears that Tagore in hindsight recognised how in his biography, this “initial likeness” was made complete by events that disrupted his earlier sense of self, such as the period of study in Europe and the confrontation with its art, literature and social mores.

Negotiating these experiences with his own origins, Tagore went on to found the Shantiniketan School in 1921, basing its education on the principles of artistic expression and international-mindedness. In his own literature and art, he spearheaded the innovation of forms, reconciling local traditions with modernism. The arc of Tagore’s life was like the opening of an eye, the unspooling of an aperture that cast a searching light onto what had long been deposited by the sediments of time. His cultural achievements contributed to Bengal seeing itself anew, and reciprocally shifted what modernism, seen beyond borders, could mean. In both ways, discovery was provoked by the acknowledgement of an Other. As Tagore aptly put it: “I have one principle to guide my thoughts in most things of vital importance — and it is this: that the figure that represents creation is not 1 but 2.”

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) – Two Figures, 1934, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

“Being conflicted by one’s nomadic upbringing and experiencing friction with one’s own community, are struggles that international students know all too well.”

In spite of his sustained visionary efforts in building bridges, not only for himself, but also for others, Tagore could not find himself fully at ease: Neither in England as a foreign student, nor within the traditional customs back at home in India. In a later period of his life, it was likely his place in-between that caused his reservations towards Gandhi’s ideas, which wanted to construct India’s independence by “going back to the roots” and rejecting the influence of Western industrial society to a significant extent.

These themes of Tagore’s life, being conflicted by one’s nomadic upbringing and experiencing friction with one’s own community, are struggles that international students know all too well. Even in today’s comparatively more globalised world, the shift from school to university can be an unsettling adjustment to make, especially if you decide to study in a different country. Surprisingly, this is no less true for those of us who have attended international schools and therefore should be accustomed to change. Why is it that international students experience additional stressors, even though universities are warmly hospitable to them?

We perhaps often forget how the experience of being different comes in subtle shadings. International students might speak the language of the classroom, but beneath that there is a whole set of shared predispositions that others had a lifetime to pick up unwittingly. Moreover, unlike international schools that cater to a nomadic community and therefore themselves identify with difference, universities are institutions that tend to be rooted in schools of thought and ideas of place. Jacques Derrida, a philosopher of Algerian origin who had felt the unease of being a “permanent guest” in France, took a close look at these experiences in his writing on hospitality. Developing the idea of conditional hospitality, Derrida emphasises that the host institution sets the terms upon which someone who is Other is granted acceptance. These terms may be both written and unwritten rules, and go as deep as the level of language itself.

It is therefore not only institutions, but also disciplines as institutionalised forms of knowledge that have the power to commit exclusions, exclusions that can stay unnoticed when practices we are accustomed to take their usual course. My field, art history, in fact has a reputation for this. The framework it was consolidated upon, 18th century continental philosophy, has in the past produced a definition of art that is at odds with other cultures’ artistic concepts and sensibilities. Is it possible, then, to develop a discipline that moves beyond its own history and accounts for art as something that all cultures have produced? In facing these questions, I am now in hindsight grateful for what the IB’s values have taught me.

Accompanying our studio work in higher level visual arts, for example, there was a requirement to study art from a number of different cultures for context. Being a “permanent guest” of sorts myself, my comparative study of indigenous arts alongside modernism evolved into a journey in which I explored how cultures differ in their ways of perceiving and organising images. This also meant searching for limits: For places where translation fails and opacity, and with it a certain kind of mystery for what cannot be known, persists.

“My IB diploma years have inspired me to question the narratives that art-historians have developed around the repository of visual artefacts … and to understand this questioning itself as a form of creative work.”

Meanwhile in history, we spent a lot of time discussing how in the search for facticity, clarity and balance, established historical narratives must be revisited time and again in the practice of revisionism, as all writers are affected by the power-structures and contingent beliefs of their time and place. The way these values filtered into the classroom was subtle and streaked our awareness in passing, but today I see what a difference it has made for me. Confronted with a dominantly European canon, I have nevertheless already been made aware of a wider world that has challenged this kind of limited claim to universality.

Beyond the protective space of dialogue fostered by the IB schools, this wider world shows us that international-mindedness is not something to be taken for granted: more often than not, we need to take the initiative to bridge the gap and perform acts of translation. We need to put into practice what we have learned – in contexts that affect not only internationals like ourselves, but ultimately to contribute to communities whose concerns are formed by their involvement in-place, and to shift local conversations, too.

As Derrida wrote, the guest, in going beyond the confines of expectation set by the host, may hold the keys to the host’s self-knowledge. International students undoubtedly face challenges that are part and parcel of their set of experiences and ambiguous sense of belonging. But as the lives of Tagore, Derrida and many others show, the challenges of a nomadic life can be understood as opportunities for shifting even those things that seem to be firmly rooted in the ground. My IB diploma years have inspired me to question the narratives that art-historians have developed around the repository of visual artefacts of the past, and to understand this questioning itself as a form of creative work.

Marcel Wälde is a graduate of the American School of Bombay, India and is now a student of art history at Heidelberg University, Germany.

To learn about the IB alumni network, visit ibo.org/alumni and read about our 50th anniversary featured graduates to see where other students have taken their studies and careers.

, ,