Wednesday, June 13, 2007

In the Foreign Languages Building at UIUC, there is a display about travel abroad, outlining all the stages a person goes through before adapting to life in a foreign country. You'd think I'd know all the stages because I've read that display a minimum of 100 times, but no, I can't remember. Anyway, it is directed toward individual adaptation, not group behavior. I'm thinking of outlining my own stages of adaptation for group study programs, particularly for groups in India. So far, I've seen the group go through two distinct,but overlapping,stages. I'm trying to predict stage three, but having no luck.

Stage One: Culture of Knowledge Possession.
This stage starts for all American travelers the moment they leave U.S. soil, often as early as the plane trip to India, or in the customs line in the port of arrival. This stage involves an elaborate display on one's personal and deep knowledge of all things South Asian: food, people, religion, history. In a group, this behavior quickly develops into a type of Indian-one-upmanship, with everyone aggressively performing their "Indian Expert" identity. Anyone who makes a statement about India is immediately contradicted. This could be a large statement (for instance, a proclamation about Islam in India), which will spark a fiercely competitive debate on the issue, with everyone involved invoking previous in-country life experience as evidence. Similarly, this could be a small statement (for instance, a claim that there is a mall near the hotel), which will also become a much-debated matter. Who has more local knowledge? This period of individual identity formation within the group is at its most intense in the first week of in-country time, but will continue to ebb and flow throughout the duration of the program.

Stage Two: Evidence of Economic Competitiveness.
This stage grows out of, but does not completely supercede, Stage One. In this stage, each member of the group continues to position themselves as a container of authoritative knowledge by behaving in a certain manner with money. Americans seem particularly prone to this stage. In this stage, shopping and acquisitive behavior alone is not enough to solidify one's position in the group of knowers--we also have to demonstrate the we arrived at the moment of purchase only after a particularly challenging bout of bargaining with shop owners. Few of the compliments made about clothes are sincere--rather, they are an excuse to open the discussion to matters of bargaining. Who spent the least amount of money on the most amount of cloth? This behavior might be considered a subset of the Culture of Knowledge Behavior, but it requires active participation in the local economy to provide an opportunity to display one's position of greater knowledge. This participation must be followed up by a discussion, otherwise the purchase is socially invalid.

Stage Three: I'll let you know.

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