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What About “Local” Understanding?

A meditation on what it takes to truly feel at home abroad
By Richard Eaton
What About “Local” Understanding?

The quest for “international understanding” in international education is a noble and worthwhile pursuit, but it is not a panacea.
On a recent trip to a cozy, suburban London borough, I visited a former colleague with whom I had worked on two continents. Reflecting on our international journeys, which collectively encompassed life in 11 countries on four continents, we came to a conclusion: after years of wandering, we have both returned to work and live in more familiar cultures. This is a classic tale. Wanderers grow tired of drifting. Relishing familiarity, they eventually go home, or at least get closer to it.
We spent the warm afternoon fishing in a nearby park with his family. It was here that we began discussing a concept we believed forgotten by the ideologues of international education: “local understanding.” I will use an example to illustrate it.
An elderly passerby asked us if we were “catching anything.” The answer was “no,” yet followed by a discussion of a half-dozen or more fish that had been caught earlier that day, varieties I had never heard of, interspersed with local terminology that, as a non-British native speaker of English, was hard for me to follow. “There it is…” my former colleague said. Local understanding!
It is easy to appreciate why this scene could be refreshing for an international educator returning home after years abroad; however, there is something more salient at play.
I would characterize the two of us, both international educationalists and senior leaders in IB Schools, as “internationally minded.” It would be hard not to be after the breadth and depth of our journeys through North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, but we have ultimately chosen to return home, or closer to it, perhaps because “local understanding” is so elusive abroad.
To truly feel at home abroad, the wide-angled lens of “international understanding” may not be enough. One must achieve a deeper sense of “local understanding,” which is best attained through fluency in the language, as well as a profound appreciation of the host population—and not just its privileged elites, but also its disadvantaged, its impoverished, its alternative sub-cultures, and those who in some cases are politically and socially oppressed. TRULY achieving this is a tall order, which many of us locked into the busy worlds of our schools, in spite of very good intentions, never realize.
All the while, the longer we are abroad, the more we can grow detached, if not out-of-sync with our own cultures. Without firm underpinnings from ones’ own locale, compartmentalizing and fully appreciating those of another society without ethnocentrism can be very challenging indeed. Thus, it is not my intention to question the value of “international understanding,” but rather to express how truly elusive it may be if we only look for it abroad, and fail to return, if only from time-to- time, to better understand ourselves through immersion in something more accustomed.
I am fortunate to have returned to more familiar surroundings and to have made “local” discoveries with the help of an international friend.
Richard Eaton is Director of Berlin International School

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