Excellence and diversity in a global city

3 09 2012

Right now, I am sitting in a cafe (not a bar, but a cafe in the North American sense – I would say coffee shop, but I’m afraid that too has other connotations in these parts), doing some readings for a class called ‘Community and Society in a Globalized World’. Yes, even though I don’t have any classes until tomorrow, I’m afraid my summer has been cut short by 50 pages of reading. After an hour or so of reading and about only 10 pages in (yes, my brain is clearly still in summer mode), my mind begins to wander, not completely off topic, but wander nonetheless…

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to meet other students from around the world. It is rather interesting to discuss cultural differences and find common ground. Particularly at Amsterdam University College, where I am currently studying, I have found the students to be very diverse, just as the AUC motto suggests (see title). Not only is the student population diverse, but the individuals are quite multifaceted and diverse. For example, I have met many students who have lived in a handful of different countries, speak an equal number of languages, even dual citizenship is rather commonplace. This certainly isn’t high school. I can’t help but think that AUC’s selection of these students was intentional. And for good reason. Like Quest, the classes are small – about 20 or 25 students, and from experience I know how much richer class discussions are when you have a variety of cultural perspectives. My experiences with the wonderfully diverse students of AUC seems to be just another example of our age of globalization.

But, I can’t help but to be mildly troubled by this sense of rootlessness, or as a friend referred to a “culture of transients” when she was presenting her undergraduate thesis. How can we really know a place when we are constantly moving about? How can we observe the discrete changes in the ecosystem if we ourselves are moving across the landscape at such a fast pace? How can we form a broad web of social connections and really create community? How can we give back to our community?

So, here I am. Caught at this crossroads, searching for reconciliation.

Then, I realize, for me, I will continue to seize every travel opportunity that presents itself, especially at this point in time. I will journey forth with a nomadic spirit and explore with my eyes wide open. Yet, I still know where home is. And who home is. I know where my roots are, and what they are so I can carry them with me wherever I go. And when it’s right, I will return to them.

As for my peers, I will be grateful for their diversity. Just as we need the specialists and the generalists, we also need the rooted and the transients. It is more interesting that way.

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Welkom in Amsterdam

26 08 2012

I have now been in Amsterdam for one week and the dust beneath my feet is beginning to settle. Yet, this week has gone by very quickly because I was busy with orientation activities organized by ISN (International Student Network). The highlights include a neon party, a crash course in Dutch, a boat cruise through Amsterdam’s canals, picnicking with friends in Oosterpark, a improv comedy night at Boom Chicago, a rooftop BBQ, sport climbing and karate at the university’s beautiful sports center and the final party with over 800 people! And last night, a couple friends and I went to “Pluk de nacht” or “Seize the night”, an open air film festival where we watched a coming-of-age comedy called “Terri“. However, even more exciting than all these activities was meeting so many new friends who are also studying in Amsterdam on exchange this term!

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This past week I have also become more familiar with Dutch culture and tradition – including “de fiets” or “the bike”. It seems like a funny coincidence that it is called “fiets”, pronounced “feet” because a bike is like your second pair of feet! I was fortunate to acquire a bike very quickly because my roommate was going on a holiday in Portugal for the last two weeks of summer and let me borrow her bike. This is by far the best way to explore and orient yourself around the city! At times, it is a bit unsettling as there are so many bikes and traffic and people, but it is getting easier as I learn the proper etiquette. There are two things (at least!) that I like best about my “fiets”:

  1. Physical activity! I have always struggled to find time to “work out” nor have I particularly enjoyed exercising for the sake of exercising. Yes, I know it is necessary for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which is adequate justification, but it’s a challenge nonetheless. Further, I find it a bit nonsensical to see people going to the gym and jumping on the treadmill which is plugged into the wall and watching the television, also plugged in. Think about the energy use! In reality, gyms could be creating electricity if we converted all that kinetic energy, like they do for the Toronto Bicycle Music Festival. (I met the organizer of this at Hillside this year and went to his workshop about bike power. Pretty neat stuff!) Power plants, not gyms! While I wait for this utopian technology, I’ll just ride my bike, reduce fossil fuel use, exercise (without it feeling like exercise!) and get from point A to point B.
  2. It is basic technology that still requires use of our wonderfully complex human brains. In the age of mechanization, our actions are becoming more and more automated. Green light, go. Red light, stop. GPS says turn left, turn left and we forget to use our God-given mind. I just finished reading E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and in his chapter titled “Buddhist Economics“, he talks about how traditional Western economics focuses more on the product and less on the worker, and in a quest for greater efficiency, we turn to mechanization. However, this process of mechanization often deprives us of getting true fulfillment from our work because we are merely machines. Perhaps this is gone a bit off topic, but I’ll bring it back. A car is a relatively complex machine and if it breaks, we usually can’t fix it ourselves and need a mechanic. Also, we are bound by other traffic and traffic lights. A bike, on the other hand, is fairly simple technology, thus easier to fix. And although, we have to follow traffic lights too, there are bike paths and I feel a greater sense of freedom. I have to weave around obstructions and keep my eye out for other traffic, but my ability to do this makes me human, and I like that.

Anyway, the rain clouds have finally parted (for now) and the sun is out, so I better take advantage of this window of opportunity and hop on my fiets and do some errands.

But before I go, here are some photos of my apartment (otherwise known as “the penthouse”)

My apartment

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…and of my beautiful, brand new academic building at Amsterdam University College.

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