What is the value of cultural exchange?

Yesterday I met about half of my graduate program on a fun-filled day trip to Rabat. The purpose was to meet with a group of American exchange students on a week trip to Morocco from Spain to discuss a documentary called Crossing Borders. In the movie, four American twenty-somethings and four Moroccan twenty-somethings live and travel together for a week, in Morocco.

The lessons of the documentary “Crossing Borders”— and the film is not subtle about them — are so self-evident, you might think there’s no need to convey them. But that would be a mistake.

-New York Times, August 2008

Crossing Borders is a full-length film, meant to be used as a teaching tool in cross-cultural education. American students were chosen from among the large number of study-abroaders in Spain, and Moroccan students were recommended to the production team by their professors in Morocco. In the film the students discuss their apprehensions about living with complete strangers and about connecting with people from a different culture. Of course, through intense discussions and emotional moments the group gels and national boundaries are transcended…

But not quite. The film ends as the Americans leave their Moroccan friends to cross the border into Ceuta, a Spanish-controlled area in the north of Morocco. Spanish as in European, European as in, easily accessible to those who hold that magic blue passport and off-limits to Moroccans without a visa.

The purpose of the film, and of cross-cultural education, is not to solve complex political issues, not even through debate among the people in the movie. The film does a nice job of acknowledging political realities while focusing on the importance of personal connection in spite of those realities.

Significantly, all conversations among the students are in English.

American undergrads and Moroccan grad students after a day of mingling and visiting Rabat

After watching the movie, our group launched, tentatively at first, into a discussion that ended up focusing on perceptions of Moroccans and Americans. Each side, at least among those who spoke, worried that the other might come away from the movie, and the discussion, with misconceptions about their country. For awhile Americans and Moroccans spoke, not exactly in response to each other, but to put in their two cents on parallel themes: are Americans ignorant and arrogant? Yes, but no; Is there extreme poverty in Morocco? No, but yes.

A conversation like that can run in circles for hours, but our discussion was guided by a master facilitator, the managing director of Crossing Borders, the organization that produced the movie of the same name. Having run exchange programs for several years, he knew when to pause the conversation to shed light on some subtle cultural disconnect that might cause a failure to communicate.

The best example for this is how he handled one particular behavior among Americans—especially women, I cringe to add though I think I must: crying in front of a group. I won’t give the whole back story on that, except to say, you just had to be there. The point is that crying during the course of an intense discussion is not a sign of distress or discomfort, and isn’t meant to cause either of those things. Instead, as the facilitator explained without a trace of condescension, crying in front of the group shows trust, and showing such vulnerability is a way to ask for the trust of the group.

I should specify here that the facilitator is neither American nor Moroccan. He’s actually from formally Communist East Berlin.

Back to the graduate program I’m joining this year.

Our trip to Rabat was a terrific icebreaker for me personally, especially since I’m joining a small class that has already had a year to gel. By the end of the day, I felt honored and accepted as a new addition to this smart, thoughtful, and fun group. I fell asleep last night, exhausted from our long day but bathing in warm fuzzies.

On a different level, yesterday was a perfect illustration of the purpose of the graduate program. Typically, in Morocco, it can be a challenge to justify investing your time and energy in a degree that doesn’t have a clear practical application. You might say that the practical purpose of the program is continued improvement of language skills and cultural competence.

More broadly, however, I find in the program an important element of my own liberal arts education: You can memorize important information and develop a specialized skill, but true learning involves challenging your understanding of reality. Cross-cultural learning is not just exploring different cultural contexts, it’s dissecting your own worldview in the process. Which is why the program is not called American Studies, but “Moroccan and Moroccan-American studies.”

MAMAS for short, hehe.



Filed under cultural diplomacy, cultural understanding, Moroccan-American Studies

7 responses to “What is the value of cultural exchange?

  1. annemarie

    love it! i definitely have to see the film:)

  2. theglobalsouth

    Looks like Real World cross-cultural edition. Don’t mean that in a bad way either, only that it looks like things get heated and really interesting; 8 strangers picked to live in a house…I also wonder why they chose to translate the word “haiwan” in reference to dude’s speech about American mis-association of “terrorists” with all Arabs as “illiterate”; to me using a more literal translation–calling them “animals”–would have been more powerful. I’d love to see this movie though.

    Cross-cultural conversation always gets so raw, when people get to true comfort to one another and feel that they’re speaking among equals, without judgement –when people “stop being polite and start being real,” to continue the awful metaphor I began. At at any rate, reading your posts from Morocco is always so great for me. These are the kinds of intensely interesting questions it’s hard to find sparring partners for outside the home or the internet, in these mean US streets.

    • Kathleen

      I’m so glad you read and appreciate the blog, Chantal! I love it when you leave comments, too.

      The Real World comparison is apt, despite the fact that reality shows generally have become clichéd.

      I so didn’t catch the ‘haiwan’ thing until you pointed it out. You know during our discussion one Moroccan classmate of mine suggested that Americans ought to learn Arabic. Which we are, more and more, I told him. But I think the point is that most contact between Americans and, what, Muslims? Arabs? Specifically Moroccans? will still tend to be in English… Just as Americans will still be able to visit Morocco easily, while the reverse is trickier.

  3. Hi 😉

    This sounds a great posting. I really like the idea of using blogs to document every step one makes when s/he is discovering and exploring a new culture that has its own specificities. This can turn to be a full book later on 😉

    Welcome one more time Kathleen 🙂 and don’t hesitate if ya have any questions or ya need any help.

    Zak ^^

    • Kathleen

      Thanks for your comment, Zakaria! (who FYI everyone is a classmate of mine in MAMAS)

      I remember you commenting that blogging and writing can be ‘a drop’ towards cross-cultural understanding. Do you write yourself?

      P.S. Is your nickname really ‘the journalist?’

  4. I’m going to read this post soon before i like the topic and the way you entice us to read with the question
    Blackberry is nice but not the best to read the post.
    My first reaction to your question…and reading your other posts: what is the value of cultural exchange? Cooking tagine, going with friends to buy ingredients, sharing the meal, new friends, enjoying the spontaneous nature of a new culture- la musique dans le quartier,
    Experiencing as a local vs being a tourist only, going deeper in the appreciation of the hosted culture. To me, it is all about warmth, friendliness and generosity. Developing empathy.

  5. Wardane samia

    It is a^pleasure reading about Moroccan American Cultural Studies. Thank you, Sir!

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