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Cambridge University Science Magazine

On my bookshelf, among folders filled with course notes, rough paper, and supervision reports for undergraduate students, there is an old wallet. Inside the wallet, there is no money, but only flight tickets. Some of them remind me of relaxing holidays and interesting trips. There are, however, three tickets that I believe to be the most meaningful to me: the ones that took me from Chile, my home country, to Europe, where I have spent the past few years of my life doing my postgraduate degrees.

Interacting with new cultures has been an important part of my life for the past couple of years. Over the past four years I have lived in four different countries with four different cultures and, in particular, four different languages. I have always loved travelling, and I used to be thrilled by the idea of travelling as a scientist, attending conferences and giving lectures. In any case, my journey in fact began with a rather trivial event: a short conversation in the aisle of the physics department when I was about to complete my bachelor’s degree. An acquaintance mentioned that one of his friends was studying “high energy” physics in Europe, and this sparked my interest in an overseas master’s degree program. The technical aspect of the degree was interesting beyond question but I didn’t even know how to count to three in either French or German and was considering a program involving one year of study in France and another in Switzerland! Still, my curiosity spurred me to take on the journey and I left for Europe. I decided to follow the path of many people before me, as scientific research is fundamentally a global endeavour.

Scientists who choose to participate in international projects, like myself, inevitably come to interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds. The intercultural interaction, an active process of participants experiencing change in their nature, is actively studied in sociology and psychology. When a majority and a minority culture come into contact, two major types of process can happen: assimilation and acculturation. There are important differences between them. Assimilation is the process in which a person (or a group) of a minority culture acquires the habits, history and sentiments of the majority culture. It is fundamentally a unidirectional process whereby the minority totally merges with the majority, and loses its original features, while the majority culture is left unchanged. Many times, this process takes place when the minority culture looks for acceptance in an unfriendly foreign environment. On the other hand, acculturation is the process whereby the minority culture adopts traits and pieces of the majority culture, while also keeping its original identity. Acculturation is usually understood as a bidirectional process, as the minority culture survives, coexists, and interacts with the majority.

            Throughout my career, as I grew up scientifically, my interaction with different cultural environments matured as well. At the start of my journey, in France, I was in an assimilation phase. I was in a foreign environment and did not know how friendly it would be to outsiders. It became easier for me to absorb the culture by being more like them. However, after a few months, when I felt more comfortable with the things I was learning and my new group of friends, I could be more open with my original way of being. This created a whole new dynamic, where in our interactions the majority culture also got to learn about our way of being in Latin America and, in particular, Chile. A process of acculturation had started. This continued the following year, when our group of friends moved to Switzerland to continue our studies. Now, having lived in Cambridge for a year, I have definitely acquired some British customs. I have given up the Chilean ‘once’, which is a tea break that we have at around 6pm, and replaced it with dinner (which would have been at 9pm in Chile). After 3pm, I do not drink coffee anymore, but a nice ‘cuppa’. Things are not ‘extremely good’ or ‘extremely bad’ anymore, but ‘quite good’ or ‘quite bad’. My friends and colleagues have also picked up very interesting Chilean expressions, learned about our country and history, and even explored the taste of Chilean food and spices. We have established a bidirectional interaction, where I learn about their culture, and they learn about mine.

These days, it is almost necessary to get in contact with a foreign culture to develop a career as a scientist and researcher. No single country on its own can fund big experiments like the Large Hadron Collider or the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, so we have to travel and interact with people that come from very different places. Moving to another country and interacting with locals can be a bit scary, but there are definitely a couple of things I like to remember when this happens. First, we have to hold back our assumptions about the majority culture, leave space for people to express themselves, and listen. In this regard, I found it quite useful to go through a short assimilation phase to grasp as much of the environment as possible. Second, we must strive to learn the language of the majority culture, as this is the only way in which genuine acculturation can take place. Finally, it is important to be open minded and understand that conflict many times comes from misunderstanding and misinterpretation, and not from genuine incompatibilities. 

Throughout my time abroad, I have learned several life lessons as well. My first ‘new-home-country’ was France, and the cultural differences here were important. It was particularly challenging since I had signed up for a master’s degree taught fundamentally in French, without speaking any French. At first, I felt quite powerless as I could not participate even in the most trivial interactions, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quote, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’, resonated with me very deeply. Then, I understood that to truly interact with the majority culture I had to learn their language, the sine qua non of acculturation. 

Another lesson was learned from the United Kingdom. After a couple of months in total lockdown, I properly came into contact with British culture; I started going to the office and having in-person meetings; I became aware of the personal traits here, particularly in the academic and professional context. It has taken a while, but after many interactions I now understand much better what my fellow researchers mean. If a British colleague disagrees with you, they might phrase it in a more conciliatory manner: ‘I am not entirely sure I agree with you’. This is quite different from the more crisp ‘I disagree with you’ that a Swiss or a French colleague might use. These two different ways of conveying the same idea, whilst seemingly being a mere difference in intensity, is really due to a more innate difference in culture.

I find genuine happiness in sharing what my country and my people are like. To discuss your origins with other cultures puts your identity in perspective, it makes you look in the mirror and understand the way you are. We can only understand ourselves when we look at ourselves from a certain distance. You understand your and your cultures’ traits, and you learn what things you like about them, and what you would like to change. It is a process. It takes time, but we must not forget to enjoy the journey and cherish that privilege that we, as scientists, often have. That is why, in the middle of all the chaos of my bookshelf, the plane tickets still hold their place.

Manuel Morales Alvarado is a second-year PhD student in the High Energy Physics Group at DAMTP. Artwork by Biliana Tchavdarova Todorova.