Being Provincial in an International Community

By Neva Newcombe

One of the things that has struck me most about my peers at the Graduate Institute is how international they are. I don’t mean international in the sense that multiple nationalities are represented in the same friend group or classroom, but rather that multiple nationalities are present within the same person. More often than not, “Where are you from?” is a complicated question at the Institute. The high levels of cultural exchange and international travel within the European Union are to be expected, but I’ve met more than a handful of students that grew up on multiple continents, traveling around with their families or independently, planting roots in many different soils. I have friends here who identify as French-Algerian, Swiss-Pakistani, Indian-Italian, Russian-Dutch, and generally those labels only reflect their parents’ passports, rather than the full range of their own habitation.  

As far as I can tell, people with such rich identities do not see their lives with the same awe that I do. Often they’ve attended international schools, where the majority of their peers have similar experiences, so it seems normal to them. This sense of normalcy, too, came as a shock to me.

Until I flew to Switzerland in 2018, I lived in the same farmhouse my entire life. I didn’t even leave very much. My parents run an auto repair shop together out of the large garage on our property; they are the only two employees, and the business is not exceptionally lucrative, which makes it difficult for my family to travel. As far as I can remember, the only time we left the country together was to attend my aunt’s wedding in Jamaica in 1999. I was one.

So, I spent a lot of time at home with my family. I read a lot, tormented my siblings a lot, and passed most afternoons inspecting minute details of the forest that surrounded our house: taking stock of which tomatoes had turned orange, which snow piles were shrinking, whether beavers had made any more progress on the tree by the big rock. If it was too cold for that, as it often is in Massachusetts, I would listen to records, sit by the woodstove, or spend time with my four siblings. For 21 years, that 1.5 acre plot was my whole world. Home doesn’t even begin to describe it.

I know that not everyone has such a singular relationship with their home, but I did not expect to feel so provincial when I came to the Graduate Institute. I am educated afterall, and I believe that I have a rich internal life. But I would not consider myself a “global citizen.” Whatever that means, I know that I’m not it, and at times I’ve felt boring or inexperienced compared to my peers. Given the nature of our studies, sometimes I even feel unqualified to be at the Institute, as if my lived experience disqualifies me from studying international issues. The world of international affairs is populated by a certain class of people – and their children – that do have global lives. Sometimes provincial types break in, but as far as I can tell, those stories are exceptions. 

In spite of the estrangement I feel in this community, after 3 years in Geneva, I have now surpassed all of my family members in travel experience and education. When you come from a poor family, the expectation is that you will make every effort to be more successful than your parents, to “break the cycle.” Yet the more successful you become, the more alienated you become from your upbringing— your parents, your community, your home. At this point, I’ve tasted so many foods that my father hasn’t, seen so much art that my mother will never get to, and heard stories that I could never, in good faith, retell. These experiences accumulate on you, like rubber bands on a rubber band ball, and eventually you find there are some places you just don’t fit anymore. I don’t fit at home anymore, but I’m still not cosmopolitan enough to really belong in Geneva or international society either. I envy the people who grow closer to their parents as they become more successful and well-traveled, and I envy my classmates that encounter people with similar experiences as they enter the job market. 

Of course, we all feel a little out of place in new countries, new jobs, and new social circles; 89% of us are international students, so we are alike in our out-of-placeness. This institution and the network of international organizations it feeds into are built for a certain class of people. Well-traveled people with cosmopolitan backgrounds, to be sure, but also white people, Westerners, and those with tempered political leanings. My whiteness and westerness is what allowed me to come here, and my provinciality is what’s forcing me to leave.

At the end of May, I’ll leave Switzerland for good. I can’t stay here, but I also can’t go back to the farmhouse. So I’ll try to find third place, maybe one with other people who’ve grown too much but not enough, and see if I can make that feel like home.

Royalty Free image from rawpixel.com

2 comments on “Being Provincial in an International Community

  1. Marcia Cook

    This essay is exquisitely written with honesty and truth – It is ironic perhaps – but it is because of your “provincial” lived experience, that your voice is particularly needed in the international community. You speak for many millions of people across the globe, people whose voices are seldom heard. Your home is your rich internal life which will be with you always – and the words that you so generously share with audiences near and far.


  2. Pingback: Être Provinciale dans une Communauté Internationale – The Graduate Press

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