Deputy Editor, Anne Chafer, talks to Giselle Garcia about the international experience in academia.
Giselle Garcia is an academic, dramaturg and writer working on her PhD at the Centre for Performance Histories and Cultures here at the University of Exeter. She grew up in the Philippines and currently lives in Totnes, where she moved with her partner to be able to focus on her thesis while having the emotional support to get her through the project. Her interests relate to the politics of power, adaptation and space in performance amongst others. She is going to be teaching on the Drama module Performance and Interpretation next term, and she is “looking forward to having lovely conversations with students again”.
My questions for her were mostly related to university environments in different countries, and to her own experience in various institutions across the world. She has worked and studied in Manila, New York and now Exeter, and I wonder whether there are significant contrasts between countries. Garcia finds it difficult to answer, saying that “[the contrasts] might have more to do with my life stages and the communities, than about the countries themselves. I grew up in Manila so the environment was fairly familiar even before I set foot in the university.”
The MA she did in New York was mostly attended by students with day jobs as artists. “I had a varied cohort, which was a great way to get to know the diversity of the city itself. Most PhDs in Exeter however, are expected to work-full time and tend to be more occupied with academic career progression than theatre as an artistic form.”
New York was challenging but also liberating, as “it welcomed anyone and was tolerant of anything. Filipinos are not as uncommon in the US as they are in the UK, so people weren’t looking at us and wondering about our ‘culture’ like we were on exhibit. Everyone was always from somewhere else. What we had to struggle with there was more about stereotypes than unfamiliarity.”
Having an international perspective allows for the privilege and burden of recognising differences and inequalities that don’t only apply to ourselves.
The switch to the environment of Exeter and the UK was harder for her. She says: “I found myself needing to be hyper aware of my racial position and align my identity to that, learning to recognize the subtleties of certain words/tones, the unspoken rules… It’s something that can’t be taught, especially in a culture that isn’t very self-reflexive or vocal about its own legacies of colonialism –which is why there are all these decolonizing initiatives these days–, so I just had to be extra aware and sensitive to that. I ended up resenting it because I tended to censor myself more and more.” It’s not so much how fluent in the language you are, she argues; instead, it’s how fluent in the culture you are.
In relation to the specific perspective that an international academic has, as opposed to a native one, Garcia finds it to be full of questions rather than answers. “Shifting places is also about shifting ourselves”, and the international perspective comes with recognising how we operate the concepts of strangeness and familiarity, both in the place we are and with the people we interact with. She asks herself, “do I have more power? Less power? How am I perceived and how does that affect who I am, how I behave? What is my social position? How do I negotiate that in a new context? How can I live and work with these people in an ethical way? How can I be and let them be a complex human being? Having an international perspective allows for the privilege and burden of recognizing differences and inequalities that don’t only apply to ourselves.”
Garcia is interested in investigating politics of power, so I want to ask her whether she thinks there are power dynamics in place between the national and international collectives in a university, to which she categorically answers an “Oh, absolutely.” It transcends whether it’s specific to a university, she says. “Social (immigration) status indicates levels of power that affect how you operate within your field. I think people tend to forget how difficult this is.” She gives the example of syllabi and reading lists containing mostly works from the global north, as a consequence of the visas needed by those who travel from other areas: “It’s a matter of ease of access and influence. This is also why people from developing countries like myself tend to flock to the US or UK for school and work. Their images are used to market these institutions as ‘international’, which is basically monetizing neocolonial effects.” And the best way of fighting these power imbalances, she suggests, is not to “simply sing kumbaya diversity and inclusion”, but to put structural initiatives for equal access to resources in place.
How and where do we find stability and a support system when we’re different, sometimes conflicting, people all at once?
As an international student myself, I have often struggled to come to terms with concepts such as a “home country”, or a place “that I am from”. I believe they are complicated to negotiate, and when I ask Garcia about it, she agrees. She says: “These words are so confusing because they’re all different. And the forms we fill out don’t take the nuances of these terms into consideration, especially when people have been roaming the world since time immemorial.”
She mentions the body language of impatience, boredom, feigned interest and/or understanding when one tries to explain. This hits home; it’s a well-known reaction for those who can’t confidently say “Yes, I’m from here”, and Garcia thinks that “we learn to use these words according to how people who ask for them use them, not for their actual meanings, or what they mean to us.” I am eager to go further down that line and reflect on how we can find that personal meaning of the terms, but that’s a whole other discussion.
I wonder, what changes the most when moving to a different place? “Me”, Garcia says. What is constant, then? “Feeling homesick but not for a place, for my relationships with people, family and friends. Looking for that sense of connection/community in the world, because we exist in multiple places and timezones [and] it’s exhausting. How and where do we find stability and a support system when we’re different, sometimes conflicting, people all at once?”
And finally, when I ask her what advice she’d give to someone living and studying in a foreign country, she says that she’s “still stumbling through”, as we all are. But she does have a last thing to share: “What I can tell you is what my high school best friend from home told me when I broke down the other week: It doesn’t matter that you are a woman from a developing country, and are therefore “less” (fill in the blank). Don’t focus on that. People who blame things on what they can’t change are looking for an excuse to fail. Nasa tao yan. ‘Your mettle is in the kind of person you are.’”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.