In this first meeting with students from the American University of Sharjah, we were asked to “reflect on the differences between where you grew up or where you live now and where your exchange partners live. Some factors to consider here are the universal and the particular, environment, and culture.”
My group contained students from Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey; Easthampton, Massachusetts; Bogotá, Colombia; Kashmir, Pakistan; and myself, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. We discussed the differences between where we grew up, where we went to school, and where our partners grew up and went to school.
Particularly for those of us who grew up on the East Coast of the United States, we noted many similarities. My groupmate from a small town in Massachusetts described the environment and culture of her hometown as extremely close to how I would describe downtown Bethlehem. She spoke of many local businesses and artisans, regular farmer’s markets, and music festivals–all of which are large focal points of the culture in Bethlehem. I found it interesting how our two towns, roughly two hundred fifty miles apart, could be so similar. Our other group member from New Jersey described similar facets of the culture and environment in her hometown.
I spoke with another Dickinson student from Bogotá, Colombia. His experiences were very different from those of us from the United States. He spoke about the climate and environment in Bogotá. Those of us from the United States found it interesting how he isn’t used to experiencing four distinct seasons, the way we are. He told us that in Colombia, they experience wet and dry seasons as opposed to the fall, winter, spring, and summer cycle that those of us in the group from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts experience. There, they primarily experience colder temperatures at higher elevations whereas we are used to going through extremely cold temperatures on a regular basis during the winter months (regardless of the elevation of our hometowns). In terms of the culture, he described Bogotá as having a much friendlier and warmer culture; he noted that people in the U.S. are generally much colder and more individualistic. He also explained that people in Colombia generally look up to the United States in terms of development, increased knowledge, and education.
The last member of my group was the only student not from Dickinson College, though she was not the only student from outside of the United States. She currently lives in the United Arab Emirates and attends the American University of Sharjah, though she and her family are originally from Kashmir, Pakistan. She described that the culture in the UAE is very different from Pakistan, but explained that her family tries to keep their Pakistani culture close to them through holiday celebrations and things of that nature. She explained many different aspects of Pakistani culture, from the impacts of the conflict in Kashmir to the prevalence of family members all living together. She also spoke of the culture in Sharjah. It is an extremely diverse, international place, so much so that the number of foreigners living in the UAE is actually larger than the number of those originally from the Emirates.
Speaking to my peers and getting to learn more about their hometowns and cultures was an incredible experience. We found many points of similarity among the vast differences in where we are all from. Connecting to people is a wonderful thing, and this exchange helped us all connect to people from different places with many different backgrounds.