May 29, 2024

Your Narrow Slice: Musings Of A Student Formerly Abroad 

The former Editor in Chief ('22-'23) in Ediburgh, Photo Courtesy of Michel Bayarjargal

Last fall I spent my semester across the pond at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I won’t bore you with the obligatory evangelism for studying abroad; the GEO already does an excellent job of this, and you should listen to them because they are right. Edinburgh was a transformative experience, yet I am writing this piece not because I learnt more about myself per se, but about the tiny piece of the human experience I occupy. I’d like to call this piece “the narrowest slice”.  

As Gordon students, we have been trained, reluctantly, to be able to tell when people are pretending to know the name of a school they don’t recognise. But we have also been trained to recognise, upon explaining that Gordon is a “Christian liberal arts college on the North Shore of Boston,” some glimmers of understanding from our audience. Experience, or even awareness of, Gordon College is a highly uncommon trait, but it is a trait that bears some resemblance to other traits within the constellation of meanings and associations in American culture. Most of your friends from home don’t know what it’s like to attend a Christian liberal arts college, but they at least know that they don’t know – it is a known unknown.  

By contrast, the chain of descriptors, “Christian liberal arts college on the North Shore of Boston,” does not mean much to the British mind. Through some ignorance of American geography, its pedagogical heritage, or how an institute of higher learning could even be religious, the equivalent network of meanings and associations of British culture can produce a dim, convoluted picture of what Gordon College is like. Throughout my semester abroad I tried reformulating my description of Gordon several times without explicitly saying the name “Gordon”, but the odds were always 50-50 that someone would blurt out “let me guess, Harvard?” with cautious envy. It’s possible that some of the people I met would only ever become aware of these concepts, and, crucially, aware of their inter-connections, because they met me. For these friends I made, to have met a Gordon student on a semester abroad was to encounter an unknown unknown – the discovery of things that you didn’t know that you didn’t know.  

Realising that you didn’t know that you didn’t know something is an experience common to anyone who has set foot in a culture different to one’s own. I didn’t know that I didn’t know that Adidas Sambas are to the Brits what Air Force 1s are to us, and I didn’t know that I didn’t know that £8 (about $10) is considered quite pricey for a pint on draught. This part of studying abroad is usually marketed in terms of “discovering new cultures,” “understanding new perspectives,” etc. and is at times fascinating, and at others, uncomfortable and eliciting homesickness. To be a bit flowery, entering a different culture expands your horizons of meaning, placing significance to things you had never even thought to think about before. It’s a recontextualization process which unearths novel dimensions of the human experience. But that’s just one half of the picture. 

The other more exciting piece to this puzzle requires a bit more patience and reflection to articulate. You may have foreseen the next category of knowing I haven’t yet mentioned the unknown knowns, that which you didn’t know that you knew. This is the realm of “unconscious biases”, reflexive intuitions, and unspoken rules. If I asked you whether two hours is considered a “long drive” to visit a friend for an overnight visit, most of you wouldn’t blink an eye at the prospect – that’s just standard issue. But to the people of a country whose length barely compares to the height of California, a two-hour drive is nothing to scoff at. As an American, you did not know that you knew that two hours is not that long a drive, yet this assumption quietly influences, even engineers, certain decision-making processes, such as how you spend your weekend, how far you choose to settle from your parents, or whether getting an electric vehicle is worth it. The things you don’t know that you know weave together social reality, distinguishing the “reasonable” from the “unreasonable”, and even the “possible” from the “impossible”.  

As a recontextualization process, studying abroad shakes up one’s web of meanings and associations, revealing not only the wide extent of a previously unknown world, but also the particular vantage point from which one once measured one’s experiences. Despite the common notion that the point of travelling and studying is to learn “more stuff,” paradoxically, such recontextualization does not increase the content of one’s knowledge so much as reveal a vast wilderness of unknowns, opening regions of the map that you did not previously know existed. The more the map of meanings expands, the smaller your starting region, your prior unknown knowns, appear. This region of the map belongs exclusively to you, but shrinks every time you visit a foreign country or meet a new person. This is your narrow slice, and it grows narrower still.  

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