by Julia Franz
Malin Stegmaier is one of those people who seem to truly thrive on change. Originally from the southern part of Germany, she left the people and places that she inherently understood to spend her undergraduate years in the northern cities of Lübeck and Hamburg, and now again for this year in America. A music student back in Germany, she is now debating writing her graduate thesis on Afro-American women writers and their search for identity. When asked for the reasoning behind these relatively heavy decisions, she only laughs and says, “I always do the opposite of what I’m used to.”
A study abroad in America or Canada has always been a dream of Malin’s. “I wanted to get in contact with a different culture. And yes, to see maybe how I am shaped in Germany, which parts of me are German and which are really me.”As an American Studies Diploma student with a strenuous year of classes ahead of her, Malin is quickly learning the differences between America and Germany, and how she functions in between.
We spoke mainly of education, and cultural variations in terms of academic expectations, learning styles, and student life. Malin finds the pace of things faster here, explaining, “In Germany we sometimes have to read one book in three weeks, but here I have to read two books in one week .” For as quickly as American professors expect students to ingest material here, however, she appreciates the relative safety of the classroom setting. “People in the class here are more tolerant to what people say. When I make a mistake or I have trouble pronouncing something correctly, people here don’t start to laugh or criticize.” She finds the same sort of comfort in student-professor relationships here. “I feel like I can go to [office hours] and ask anything,” whereas in Germany,”teachers are more of the authority. There’s distance.”
After this year in America is finished, AMS thesis and all, Malin still has papers to write and exams to take in Germany. As for what comes next, however, she knows vaguely what she’s looking for. “Maybe [I’ll] go abroad a second time, maybe as an assistant teacher somewhere. I like this, finding similarities to people who are on the other side of the world. “
by Julia Franz
Before the end of her twenties, Yvonne Liu has already accomplished things that most people don’t get around to in a lifetime. She’s completed her master’s degree, worked as a bilingual secretary and translator in a law firm in Taipei 101, and later taught as a part-time lecturer of English at a university in Taipei. These days, Yvonne is enrolled in the AMS program here at Smith and working on her thesis project on popular music studies as a transition into the cultural studies doctorate she is hoping to begin next fall.
Originally from the Taiwanese countryside, Yvonne discovered the underground post-rock scene in Taipei and, in short words, fell in love. Post-rock, a genre that uses the instruments of rock music for mainly instrumental purposes, is avant-garde and as a rule, difficult to pin down, which is precisely why Yvonne seems to like it. “This kind of music is taking place concurrently in a lot of places in the world,” she says. “Why? My short answer right now is MySpace, which creates a forum for a musical transnational village, to see what musicians in different parts of the world are doing. [With post-rock] you don’t get the idea of [the musicians’] nationality at all, you are perplexed and disoriented. National boundaries seem to disappear. It’s a denationalized realm. There’s a notion from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze of deterritorialization; you see musicians from everywhere come together for something that transcends physical and invisible boundaries. There’s no language barrier anymore.
Yvonne explored similar ideas at Smith when she enrolled as part of the AMS program six years ago, but the feeling of being half a world away from home was “just overwhelming at that time, beyond my imagination,” as she puts it. “It was the first time I had been on a plane, been in a foreign country. Before then I had never left the island at all.” She returned to Taiwan, but found that she “missed ‘the sisterhood thing,’ and the conversations [she’d] had with the people here.”
Back for this transitional year, and having already experienced both sides of the teacher-student binary, Yvonne has solid opinions about education in America and Taiwan. She finds the reading requirements to be far greater than what used to come along in Taiwan, but knows that instead of being responsible for knowing every phrase and idea, “it’s the gist of the entire articles that we need to be familiar with.” She appreciates the freedom of opinion in discussion here, but when asked about the American habit of sometimes referring to teachers by their first names, she says, “It’s so awkward to me. I’m trying to get used to it.” There are simple differences even in the academic campus: the American campuses that integrate themselves into the communities they’re part of, versus the walled-in campuses of Taiwan, separating scholarship from the everyday world.
Although she’s preparing for her doctorate years ahead, Yvonne is settling back into the Smith sisterhood and the finer points of a liberal arts education. She’s missed it, and it’s time.
by Jeneva Parks
Before coming to Smith for the Diploma in American Studies program, Celine explains, “I was fascinated to know more about America because in Europe we have so many prejudices and I wanted to see for myself what was wrong with the ‘most powerful country in the world.’” But she tried not to let that affect how she formed her own opinion of America. In fact, so far she is very impressed by all that she has gotten to experience here, particularly the educational system. In Geneva “you don’t have contact with the teacher and you don’t have papers that are due every week. Maybe two days before the exam at the end of the year, if [students] don’t sleep, they could still pass it, so that is kind of unfair.” At Smith, things are certainly very different. Celine says, “I would say the American system is more intense, but it helps you to be more prepared. Smith has given me such an opportunity that I don’t think I would have in Europe. [The professors] are more concerned for your well-being so I am very happy for it.”
The “more intense” curriculum is definitely a challenge, (“Second semester we have to write a thesis, so it will be an amazing amount of work that I’m not used to!”) but it’s not the only one Celine has encountered since arriving here. When asked what has been the hardest part about moving to America she exclaims “I thought that I would be more fluent in my English!” However, other than obtaining a visa and a few administrative issues, the transition has been smooth. “The culture shock hasn’t been a problem, because here there are some changes from European culture, but not many.” Then she laughs and says, “Maybe if I had been in Texas or something, but New England is very similar.”
Before we concluded our interview, I had to ask: What were the terrible prejudices you heard about America? The election of our new president helped a little: “I think when President Obama went into power it was really a big thing for Europe and it changed the vision that they had for American people.” But apparently we need to study our maps a little more effectively. “American people, their geography is terrible! When you tell them about a country they will just put it in the middle of nowhere!” I have to admit, after remembering a conversation I had recently with my twenty year-old brother in which neither of us could recall the states that border our home state of Arizona, she is absolutely right. Also, maybe we ought to think twice about what we spend our time doing on the internet. “On youtube you see so many stupid videos!” Another good insight into our culture. Then, of course, there is the food. Actually, this time it’s good news. “I was really afraid to put on a lot of weight. People told me ‘Oh you will see the portions, they are so amazing, they’re so huge!’ But here you can choose yourself, you can choose the hamburger or the hotdog if you want, but you don’t have to.” At least we’re doing something right.