Culture in the Air

Culture is like air, you are not aware of it until you smell the difference. Studying at the University of Oxford is one of the essential moments in my 20s. The students there are elites from around the globe, and will probably be political figures and leading scholars in their respective fields. Like a cradle, Oxford embraces different political views, core values and religious beliefs, and more importantly, most of these may originate from cultural difference.

A friend of mine, Yi, a graduate from Columbia University, is now studying Master in political theory at Oxford. I am so lucky to be assigned to the same college as him. Like a rising star, Yi is a righteous, energetic and ambitious young gentleman. I really love to talk with him about current affairs during the dining time. From every single word he said, I could totally feel his passion to make a change to the society. Interestingly sometimes we put ourselves in an embarrassing situation.

One time we were having lunch in our hall. Yi found no bottle of water on the table and walked out in search for it. I was utterly gobsmacked when he approached the “staff” table with a bottle of water on it. He asked whether the “staff” needed the bottle of water or he could take it away. One of the “staff” responded, “you can but you’re not suppose to do so”. Eventually Yi did not ask for it, and I reminded him that it was not appropriate to request anything from a seniors’ table. This was at least what I had taken for granted until he explained the core value in the US. Yi pointed out that everyone should be treated equal regardless of status. He further elaborated that every US citizen was entitled to own a gun because it has a symbolic meaning: the government has to listen to the people, or it can be overthrown. That sounded dodgy to me but I kept my mind open.

From my impression, the UK (and especially Oxbridge) is a highly structured community with hierarchies. Fortunately, I am quite used to this hierarchical culture. Maybe it is because I received education in the University of Hong Kong, once an origin of meritocracy in British Hong Kong. High table, as a typical example, is exclusively used by fellows (i.e. the members of senior common room) and their guests. Being served on the “high” table, the honored guests delivered talks to students who are expecting guidance with respect. These kinds of “traditions” sound reasonable possibly because I am an “insider” of the “culture”.

When I returned to Hong Kong for holidays, there was a frequently asked question: “Do you understand more about British culture?” I am not sure if I do but instead reflect more on my own culture. I have never looked into what I believe or follow until I encounter something different. For the students who are planning to study overseas, please be sensitive, keep the mind open and then you will uncover the unrevealed mystery of your culture.

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