LiBeL Column

The End of Innocence

Columns from The Nation newspaper

Comparing and contrasting cultural diversity

Over the last couple of weeks some of my students have been telling me about the fun and frolics that occur during, the first week of a student’s university life, the week that is going to set the tone for the rest of your time at college. I teach a second year student at Thammasat, therefore, instead of being on the receiving end of ritual humiliation or bonding with classmates – whichever you prefer to call it, she was dishing it out.

Last year, when she entered Thammasat activities during her ‘Freshy’ induction week included such fun pastimes as seeing how many hours you could stand on one leg in the midday sun, testing your tolerance to shrimp paste, by having it thrust up your nose; and numerous other activities that would be more at home on a Japanese game show.

I pointed out to her that if a second year student tried to convince your average British ‘freshy’ that it standing in the sun until you fainted would be a jolly good jape and also the ideal way to make new friends, you would probably receive one of two replies. The first being “Is there any free beer?”, and a second, far more probable response, would be ” F&$# off ! ”

Needless to say it was hard for her to comprehend. I then had to explain about the cultural differences between the first week’s proceedings in a Thai and UK university. The aim of both is similar, to make new friends, but the methods employed in achieving this goal differ rather a lot.

In the UK, you are encouraged to forget those you have left behind and mingle freely with people from places as far flung and diverse as Hull and Harrow. The preferred method of doing this is to ensure that live music and free flowing budget beer and spirits are on hand pretty much 24/7. Anyone who entered a UK university from 1985 to the present day will have seen the Bootleg Beatles during their Freshers’ week and will tell you that testing your tolerance to ‘buy 1, get 7 free’ shots of Smirnoff is an entirely different, and I’d guess far more enjoyable, proposition to testing your tolerance to shrimp paste.

Of course it’s not all one big party. You must register for your course and complete various pieces of paperwork. This is made as easy as possible, seeing as it’s an activity that is often completed with a severe hangover. All it requires of the student is a tolerance for queuing. Therefore well-prepared freshers will take glucose, rations and a sleeping bag when completing this tiresome process. It’s a bit it like queuing at Disneyland only without the adrenaline. Just nod and sign when asked. Your reward at the end of the day will be a student ID card – your passport to a world of 50p discounts on everything from cinema tickets to round the world airfares.

Another way to kill time until the pubs open again is to join a few societies. These range from the well-meaning and semi-serious – Greenpeace, Young Conservatives, The Vegans etc. to such offerings as the Salvador Dali Pub Experience and Guinness Appreciation for Amateurs.

Another aim of Freshers’ week is to do your best to establish yourself in the social pecking order. Unlike Thailand, where you simply look at the cars people arrive in and treat them accordingly, the British system is far more cerebral. It revolves around the traditional art of acquainting others with witty yarns. Failure to be one of the lads and crack a joke will result in ostracism on a grand scale and years later, long after you have graduated with honours and become manager of a multinational, you will still be ‘Billy no mates’ to those who remember your undergraduate days.

Even joining in can have it’s pitfalls if you don’t have a ripsnorter of a pun ready prepared, as one guy from Wigan found to his peril during my first week at Manchester Uni. He decided to tell a joke : “What’s the difference between a duck?”, he proudly uttered in a thick Wiganese accent. Cue blank stares amongst the assembled members of corridor 5E in Grosvenor Hall of Residence. And the punchline (?) “One of its legs is both the same.” The silence that followed was to last for 3 years.

Oddly enough this extremely pathetic attempt at a pun made an appearance on a respected EFL mailing list a few months ago.

” Pat McGahon asked for reactions to a homework assignment in which the learner was asked the following question: What is the difference between a duck?

Perhaps it’s some kind of riddle, similar to those in Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games, which is meant to generate a lot of language in the process of solving the puzzle. But I’m not too sure. ”

This just illustrates another of the benefits of the internet, crap jokes are no longer confined to a specific area of a country – in this case the Borough of Wigan, they can now be used by the socially inept worldwide.