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Going Global

Try explaining "Cribs" to a non-fluent English speaker. Try to connect MTV's rampant glorification of celebrity mansions with its show title that literally means a baby's bed. Try doing this with someone unaccustomed to MTV's seizure-inducing camera shots and gangsta-rap lingo.

Welcome to Augusta Perrin's world. The Connecticut-bred second year lives on the Chinese floor of the Monroe Language House, and encounters these pop culture clashes every day.

Living with students who know little or no English on a hall where only Chinese should be spoken, Perrin said she has become more conscious of her own expressions and English idioms.

In return for her laborious explanations, Perrin has learned some Chinese slang herself. And she'll only say it in Chinese. It might take too long to explain, and it's a little inappropriate.

Perrin declared Asian and Middle Eastern studies as her major this semester, placing her among the ranks of students who chose to concentrate their academics in a culture other than their own. Her residence in the Monroe Language House reinforces this multicultural exploration.

With about 35 students majoring in the Asian and Middle Eastern studies departments each year, the program emphasizes language work and cultural studies of a region where almost two-thirds of the world's population lives.

Robert Hueckstedt, director of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, said he believes in the value of studying culture from a non-Western perspective.

"It's a great way to learn about one's own," Hueckstedt said. "You start to see that this is what's good and bad about the culture I grew up with, and this is what's good and bad about this culture I am infatuated with."

Many of the students in the program have immigrant parents and want to learn more about the culture that's in their blood. Others have had an interest sparked by a visit to one of the countries. Some have family friends with Asian or Middle Eastern heritage.

Some are just plain curious. And more recently, Hueckstedt said students have expressed an interest in the department because they want to serve their country by learning Arabic.

Emily Vandermade fits in the curious category. As a third-year College student from Fredericksburg, Va., Vandermade said she initially did not consider Asian studies as a possible concentration.

"Everything in high school was locally focused," Vandermade said. "You took biology and math and U.S. history, but you didn't look outside of what you studied."

Until she got hooked by a Japanese literature in translation class.

"Now, the more I study, the more passionate I get," Vandermade said. "It's like my personal mission to make people understand what Japan really is."

To graduate from the College, the Undergraduate Record states that students must pass at least one three-credit course "dealing substantially with a culture other than Western." Vandermade said she probably fulfills this non-Western perspectives requirement about four times a semester.

Fourth-year College student Emma Aller also stumbled into her South Asian concentration. When registering for classes during first-year orientation, she planned to continue the language she studied in high school, but found all the Spanish courses full. So she signed up for Hindi 101.

"I knew nothing at all," Aller said. "It was intimidating at first."

Aller will graduate in May with an Asian and Middle Eastern studies major, and has visited India twice now.

"I feel like I've been so lucky," she said. "To be in another part of the world, things you've grown up with are tested and tried. I can't really go back to where I was before I started studying this language."

Rebecca Brown, director of the International Studies Office, reiterated not only the value of studying a non-Western culture, but also the importance of a cultural immersion.

"If you're going to study Japanese and then go to Kyoto, your academic studies are going to come alive," Brown said. For her, being an Asian Studies major "is not a substitute for a cultural immersion experience. You're not going to internalize it as much, it's not going to become part of the fabric of who you are."

After Vandermade discovered her connection with Japanese through the University course, she knew she had to visit this country that intrigued her so much. Her trip transformed her.

When Vandermade came home, she wanted to rave to her family and friends about the accepting way the Japanese approached her and appreciated her attempt to learn their difficult language. She wanted to tell people how on one trip to a bookstore, she had four separate employees trying to help her translate and find the perfect book for her skill level. She wanted to tell them about the fish she caught by hand, skewered and cooked on a rented barbeque at a commercial fishing site.

Not everyone could empathize with her enthusiasm.

"People are like, 'They eat a lot of raw fish. That's gross,'" Vandermade said. "That's such a limited perspective."

Traveling overseas and studying another culture "makes you realize how sheltered you've been," she said. "You've read Aristotle, and even some European culture gets tied in. But then you go to the East and you realize you don't have to look at things this one way. You can turn the world upside down and it still works."

When Perrin, who lives in the Monroe Language House, went to Hong Kong, she was the only blonde person she saw.

"I was five inches taller than everyone," Perrin said. "It was so crowded. You have to haggle for everything. When the dinner bill comes, you haggle over that. You haggle over doctor's bills."

Although Hong Kong turned her world and her customs upside down, its culture and its alphabet captivated her.

Brown, whose daily job involves mentoring students who want to go abroad, said she remains consistently impressed by the unmediated ambition students like Perrin have to travel overseas.

"The whole concept of being a foreigner or being a minority is really life-changing," Brown said. "Students come back with an understanding that what the world thinks about us and what we think about ourselves are two different things. They'll never view world events the same."

Hueckstedt also said cross-cultural education is crucial to the survival of America, adding that his department helps analyze many of the cultural misunderstandings that could be dangerous.

"It's difficult for the American public at large to have even a basic understanding of how we are perceived in the world, and we're not always perceived in a good light," Hueckstedt said. "There's usually a reason for that."

The best solution he can offer: Study other cultures. Get to know them intimately. Learn their history, their language, their religion.

By studying other cultures, he said, people actually learn more about being an American, and how to be a better American.

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