To Grow a Tree – Everyday life and Ordinariness: Getting by in the UK

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As my documentary looked to explore ways in which international students settle in, I decided to focus on extracurricular activities of students, as opposed to their academic lives. This was in attempt to capture ‘everyday life’, as it is one which most often gets overlooked, because it is perceived as banal and ordinary (Johnstone 2008). Nonetheless, this life moulds the international experience; shaping what we come to understand as ‘normal’ and ‘pleasurable’.

For Burke, beauty must be: small, smooth, well rounded and appear weak (1998 [1759] :10). I imagine ‘everydayness’ as befitting to Burke’s characterisation in some sense, because it is often thought of as a ‘minor’ part of our lives, but it is truly well-rounded, as it encompasses all aspects of our existence, and it definitely does not appear to have much strength in form of importance or significance. Everydayness for myself entails all our mundane experiences that end up unnoticed. It is its ‘taken-for-grantedness’ (Bennett 2005: 8), and ordinariness that renders it essential for exploration.

Everyday life in the United Kingdom for myself would be: waking up to an alarm to prepare for the library, having my backpack ready with all the stationery that I shall need for lectures, meeting up with classmates to catch up on their lives and what they have been up to, and visiting friends to find out how they are faring.

Two participants of mine from Portugal and Nigeria respectively – Carla and Patrick, live with people from their home country. This established a sense of community amongst them. Both of their households appeared to me like a family setting.

Heller describes everyday life as a process of recreation for individuals (1970: 47).

The experience of a group of people from the same background coexisting in a mutual space reflected meaning in ordinariness and everyday life because, although they might practise similar rituals because they share the same nationality – and consume similar cultural dishes; the routineness of that experience shapes their perception of the outside world, and the meaning derived via interaction with it.

Patrick mentioned that, because he lives with Nigerians, he does not feel far away from home and is able to speak freely and share jokes that his housemates would relate to and derive humour. Because identity structures conversation (Tracy and Robles 2014: 7), he struggles to replicate this experience outside, as a result of cultural differences elsewhere. This seemingly banal experience of a group of Nigerian guys, engaging in everyday practises together has helped to create meaning for Patrick and his friends, while away from their home country.

The study of everyday life entails the critical subjectification of one’s own routines, practises and activities to applicable knowledge (Featherstone 1995).

The obvious things that I took for granted being in my own country, proved to be meaningful after arriving into the United Kingdom. My everyday realities, including interaction with family members, difference in food prices and weather, and societal etiquettes. These ‘ordinary’ experiences constructed my identity into what it currently is.

This is similar for home students who, although might live outside of their cities of origin, still reside within a culture that is not completely foreign to them. It is therefore easier to overlook, because it is readily available to them. Based on life experiences, identities differ for individuals with some centred around local contexts, and others international (Lull 1995). Life is much more different for international students because, our families and friends do not live in the nation, so it is much more difficult to meet and interact with them physically. So, we often have to worry about how we are going to make friends with people in such a different culture, whether or not we will be understood by them, and who we can trust to start with. The importance of everyday life is attached to the meaning attributed to it by people (Gardiner 2000).  For a person who is not used to diversity of the environment that, they are now in, it would be more challenging and often scary.

Because spaces, like people, have individual identities (Massey in Bird et al. 1993: 65), what is considered mundane for people who live in the United Kingdom might be fresh and exciting for others from different backgrounds. The contrast of experiences is representative of encounters lacking in both parties. This difference allows for international students to explore the unknown and construct our international experience for ourselves. The ‘ordinary’ is born when this experience is lived overtime and perceived as routine.

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Goffman defines the self as ‘a collection of performances that take place across specific locations’ (2002: 50). Upon arrival into the United Kingdom, and being alone and independent, I discovered that I needed to develop a social life and make friends with people, in order to settle in. I was only seventeen-years old at the time and lived a reserved and cyclical life beforehand – interacting with a few number of people at home, in school, and church only. So, it was important that, I learnt how to speak to communicate, express myself and approach the girl I fancied, and say the right things to say to her too. Learning to socialise with people was crucial, because people had different understandings of what it meant to have a ‘nice time’. This was the birth of my social life.

These practises of mine were non-existent before I arrived into the country. They appeared like scenes that I would watch in a film, but over time, this social life became ordinary to me, as I have practised it over the years until the point of mundanity. My identity has become multifaceted and complex as a result of exposure to diverse ways of life. This has affected my understanding of everyday life and expanded upon it (Williams 1958).

Memory helps us make sense of our everyday experiences (Schacter 1996: 308). The way we have been brought up within our countries, shape the way we make sense of our current reality in the United Kingdom.

For Mabel, one of my Nigerian interviewees, faith is essential in her everyday life. This is because of the nature of her country; Nigeria – a nation deeply rooted in moral and religious beliefs. Whilst experiencing different challenges in her new-found environment, Mabel turns to her spiritual belief for support and encouragement to help her get by daily.

As memories are linked with place and time (Magnussen and Helstrup 2007: 6), it plays an important role in our day-to-day decision making process. When faced with obstacles at particular points in time, the lenses of understanding that I would use in overcoming them would be constructed by the teachings of my parents and mentors, who have shaped my understanding of the world and everything in it. This affects everyday encounters with people, because my interpretation of the behaviour and attitude of others towards myself is shaped out of my lived experience. This makes memory an ever-present affective agent within international experience (Ferguson 2009: 109).

A Croatian interviewee of mine, Lukša, stressed to me, he now perceives the world differently, as a result of a change in his environment. He has learnt to incorporate the feelings of others into his rituals, as he now socialises with people from diverse backgrounds. A change of location brings about development (Bynam 2005). International students most often adopt new ways of life after settling into the United Kingdom. This is due to cultural differences we experience within our everyday environments.

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An example of this would be, the personality change that I have experienced whilst engaging with people within Coventry. I used to think of myself as very introverted, but I am starting to have second thoughts, as I now find myself enjoying the act of communication with other people, and looking forward to their company likewise.

Our experience is not separate of the culture we live in (Pollio et al. 2010: 8). The way of life that I have been exposed to has connoted that, it is polite to speak to other people and find out how they feel, because it signifies that I care about their wellbeing. This has affected the manner in which I approach everyday interaction with people, as I am now conscious of presenting myself in a positive light.

Living in a foreign environment can be a daunting experience, as a result, our longing for belonging within this space grows intense. Savage et al. (2004: 13) depicts identity as ‘diasporic, mobile and transient’.

A different environment demands a different type of person. In other words, to settle into the United Kingdom, international students often have to adopt new routines and approaches to life; in accordance with their beliefs, and sometimes discordance.

Belonging pertains to emotional attachment and sense of home (Yuval-Davis et al. 2008: 2). For the international student, the process of settling in often involves a process of identity readjustment. In order to create a ‘home away from home’ experience, inconveniences have to be tackled and tolerance built. Channing, a Chinese participant of mine stated that: after meeting people from different backgrounds, and being faced with difference he previously had not experienced before, he learnt to think differently about other cultures and be more receptive towards them.

Universality of meaning is made possible through acceptance of individual perspectives (Weiss 2006: 16). This leads to the formation of community, which offers belonging to people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Meaning is propagated within it via everyday practises. Our sense of community manifests in multiple mediums. For students like Lukša, it is present in university societies. For others like Mabel, it is evident within fellowship at church.

Our interaction with people from other backgrounds often uncovers aspects of ourselves that were previously unfamiliar to us (Butler in Davies 2008: 29). This exalts ordinary interaction as a phenomenon in the sense that, we are able to explore unknown facets of ourselves and question our unarticulated presuppositions, via ordinary everyday interaction.

Ordinary experience is characterised by the things we do individually and collectively, meaningful in their relevance to us (Olson 2009: 4). Conversing with my documentary participants helped me realise that, experiences differ and matter to people. Our interactions with fellow students and other people within our space constitute our day-to-day formulation of meaning, and spark required essence needed to persevere through trials.

Everyday life is tied to the never-ending pursuit of happiness by individuals. Ahmed (2010: 9) typifies happiness as: developing some type of disposition. So, we often hear people say, ‘I’ll do more of what makes me happy’ – refining the normalcy of everyday life into an arsenal of purpose and fulfilment for the individual.

In Amato’s account, the everyday is ‘a mix of things and people, thought and actions, memory and imagination, work and habits’ (2016: 10).

For the student, the everyday reconfigures into a cloud of hope, dreams and expectation, during university deadline periods; that perhaps, ‘if I am able to endure this challenging process, maybe I would achieve my dream of a university degree’. The everyday acts as a means of getting by in the present, and giving us a future of purpose to look forward to.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Ahmed, S (2010) The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

Amato, J (2016) Everyday Life: How the Ordinary Became Extraordinary. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Bennett, A (2005) Culture and Everyday Life. London: SAGE Publications.

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Burke, Edmund (1998 [1759]) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bynum, C (2005) Metamorphosis and Identity. New York: Zone.

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Featherstone, M (1995) Undoing Culture: Globalization, Postmodernism and Identity. London: Sage.

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Johnstone, S (2008) The Everyday. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Lull, J (1987) Popular Music and Communication. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

Magnussen, S., Helstrup, T (2007) Everyday Memory. New York: Psychology Press.

Olson, L (2009) Modernism and the Ordinary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pollio, H., Henley, T., Thompson, C (2010) The Phenomenology of Everyday Life: Empirical Investigations of Human Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Savage, M., Bagnall, G., Longhurst, B (2004) Globalization and Belonging. London: SAGE Publications.

Schacter, D (1996) Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. New York: Basic Books.

Tracy, K., Robles, J (2014) Everyday Talk: Building and Reflecting Identities. 2nd edition. New York: The Guilford Press.

Weiss, G (2006) Refiguring the Ordinary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Williams, R (1958) Culture and Society 1780 – 1950. London: Chatto & Windus: SAGE Publications.

Yuval-Davis, N., Kannabiran, K., Vieten, U (2008) The Situated Politics of Belonging. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

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