Internationalization


Having a Bangladeshi passport (despite being born & raised in Malaysia – long story short: Malaysia is not a jus soli country and I am a Permanent Resident in Malaysia) means that I need to get a visa for about 90% of the world.

Bangladesh Passport Cover by Russell John
Bangladesh Passport Cover by Russell John

The Netherlands is one of those countries. As The Netherlands is part of the Schengen agreement, this makes my Dutch visa applicable to many other European countries, which is great – I took advantage of the Schengen benefit to visit both Sweden and Denmark on my last Euro trip. (The annoying thing about Schengen is that, despite the UK being in the European Union, it’s not a Schengen country – I’ll need a separate visa, and I can’t visit my sister in Bristol this time round. boo.)

The thing with Bangladesh passports is that many countries make it a high-risk passport, which means it normally takes longer than usual for me to get a visa. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent my whole life in Malaysia, that I’ve been travelling since I was a baby, that I have been in Australia for two years. Because my passport is green and comes from a Third-World country, I’m somehow a travel risk.

When I asked KP NL to fax over an invite letter to the Netherlands Embassy in Malaysia, the staff member asked (paraphrased): “can’t you just apply for a tourist visa? I’m sure our country isn’t that xenophobic!”. I am applying for a tourist (short-stay) visa – that’s why I need the invite letter! I don’t know if xenophobia has a part in it, but it’s more bureaucracy than anything else.

The naivety of people who’ve never had to deal with visas can be really cute sometimes. Though it does mean that KP NL will have to be prepared for dealing with student visas.

So anyway. I found out about my invite when I was in Brisbane, but I was flying to Malaysia on the 8th. I contacted both the Brisbane and Kuala Lumpur consulates asking what to do. I found out that all visa applications had to go through the Netherlands anyway, so I figured – couldn’t I just send the application in Brisbane and get the visa in Kuala Lumpur?

No go, says KL. They need to know that I’m legit.

Brisbane isn’t a go anyway; they’ll have to send it to Sydney, and by the time my passport gets there, I have to go to Malaysia.

I arrived in KL on Sunday night and on Monday morning my dad and I went to the Netherlands embassy to hand in my application. The form, two photos, Dad’s bank statements (since he bought my plane tickets), the letters from KP NL, a letter from my university stating I was a student in Brisbane, and copies of IDs and insurance and such. They’re sending it to The Netherlands (it should be there now), and hopefully I’ll get it back in time.

Dad had just come back from Amsterdam, though it did take a little while for the clerk at the embassy to recognize him. Hopefully this would be a plus in our favour.

Getting the Swedish visa last year for the KP workshop in Stockholm was an adventure all to itself. I had less than a week, and I knew that trying to get my parents’ approval would delay the process.

I went to the Swedish Embassy in Brisbane first thing in the morning, and explained my predicament. The lady took a look at the papers and told me that chances were low because even Australians needed a month for visas. She called up the Sydney office for me – then looked at me in surprise as she explained my luck.

If I could get all the papers in order within two hours, the visa is mine.

This meant that I had to buy my plane tickets on my own. I definitely wasn’t going to inform the parents yet, and looking for funds won’t work. I had money in my account set aside for uni fees, which was enough to cover my airfare.

I went to the Flight Centre office in Brisbane and went through the cheapest airfares. The main complication was that return seats were filled up, and in one case a return via Bangkok was not viable because the layover would have been 14 hours and I needed a visa for anything above 12 hours. Eventually we worked out a flight plan that went Brisbane – Singapore – Amsterdam – Stockholm – Amsterdam – Tokyo – Sydney – Brisbane. Over $2000 gone in an instant.

With my tickets, insurance, letters, and passport, I handed over my application. The chances were good but still super risky. I decided not to tell my family about it until I had the visa in my hands.

In the meantime I arranged my own accommodation. Couchsurfing and the Hospitality Club wasn’t working out for me, so I had to find a hostel. I found The Red Boat, a youth hostel that was actually a pair of moored boats on the Stockholm river. I placed a long distance call and had my room.

Three days later, my visa arrived. I was shaking; this is the first time I’d applied for a visa on my own, and I did it. My dad kept telling me that I’ll never be successful at visas with my Bangladesh passport unless I had him and his job to support me, but I did it. I didn’t need my parents’ status. I just had me.

My parents didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when they heard the news.

I eventually made it to Stockholm (and a side trip to Copenhagen and Aarhus) on my own. It was very challenging, especially since I was jetlagged, a bit culture-shocked, and was recovering from massive uni assignments. I was extremely exhausted and battered on the way home – especially when I had to go through 10-hour layours in both Tokyo and Sydney, find out that I was rejected from KP Stockholm while in Tokyo with no one to console me, and had to fight for a new flight when my Sydney-Brisbane flight was cancelled and no one was helping me get onto a new one (except for the lovely Flight Centre lady – thank you!!).

Despite all that though, the trip was absolutely worth it. I proved that I could apply for a visa on my own merit. I did a solo international trip and didn’t get into trouble. I could take care of myself. I could survive massive challenges. I did feel that I didn’t want to look at planes for a while (not possible, since I flew home a week later!) but I survived.

At least this time round it’ll be easier flight-wise. Accommodation’s been taken care of, and it’s just JB-KL-Amsterdam; no crazy stopovers. Rotterdam is just 50 minutes away by train. All I have to worry about is whether someone will try to feed me hash brownies (eww pot).

Now all I have to wait for is my visa.

I’ve been following the blogs of some KaosPilots, particularly those that are on OutPosts overseas (that tends to be the main reason for their blogging). Quite honestly, I haven’t seen much in the way of cultural awareness – or even an attempt to understand and appreciate their host societies.

Most of the OutPost blogs tend to feature parties and gatherings – photos after photos of blonde blue-eyed Scandinavians drinking the night away while they party in an exotic country. There’s very little in the way of actually examining the culture, exploring their location, or even the work they’re doing. The work in their OutPosts are usually relegated to one or two posts – “this is our project, tada!”. Otherwise? Party party party.

The team in Mumbai right now are tasked with answering questions about India, sent in by the KP board members. One student is taking in questions from the Web – and, quite frankly, his response to the latest two questions shows a deep level of ignorance:

Implying that the West has made mistakes is apparently biased!
Cellphones and Internet in India is rare, people marry young, and Indians must be liberal with porn because men like to share porn on phones!

Complete headdesk-worthy. (Read my comments on the above posts for my responses.)

Two KaosPilots blogs that I find to be very thoughtful and reflective about the educational processes are Henrique‘s and Zulma‘s (Zulma’s website also rocks hardcore). Henrique is in China and his blog has plenty of thoughtful and interesting entries on China and Chinese culture, including the conflicts with Tibet. He really shows his effort at understanding his host country. Zulma’s is more personal, but she talks a lot about her projects, and the processes she goes through in completing them. She also talks about her budding life in Denmark – including a new baby! (aww).

It’s really interesting that the two blogs I featured above are both from international students – Henrique is from Brazil and I believe Zulma is from Colombia. They have had to face the challenges of being outsiders, of being foreigners, from Day One – while most of their classmates would have been right at home in similar cultures. Now these students are overseas too, sent by their outposts – and they haven’t quite picked up the skills of cultural awareness, of just being curious about where they are. They’ve instead become insular, clinging on to old patterns while dismissing their host culture’s patterns as just oddities.

I’m rather glad that the KaosPilots Netherlands have announced that they’re received expressions of interest from all over – Russia, India, Nepal, a few other places (including multi-country me). This would lead to a much richer pool of applicants, and hopefully this batch would be much more culturally aware than the others. I’ve checked out the Facebook group for the latest Aarhus school, Team 15, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication of non-Europeans in their team (and apparently Macs are MANDATORY! What?!).

It does make me wonder, though – why are the students of the “best school for the world” seemingly unaware of the world they’re in?

(I have a feeling I may have already written about this, but no matter.)

I’ve just been browsing through the Denmark community on Livejournal and there have been a few posts alluding to Denmark’s prejudice against Muslims and Middle-Easterns. Apparently the current government wanted to block them from coming into the country through their open-door policy, but because they’ve signed treaties that say “don’t discriminate”, they’ve had to apply the policy to everyone. So now all the first-worlders (i.e. US, Canada, Australia) are crying foul because they’re finding it hard to migrate.

As much as I empathise with their struggle, because immigration  is a right pain in the arse, I can’t help but be amused at how naive they are. “I’ve stayed in Denmark for a year! That should count, right?” “I have British permanent residency! Why wouldn’t they consider that?”

Dude, immigration anywhere is hard. You don’t necessarily get special privileges based on your past experience. Just because you went there on exchange, you think you should get a free pass at migrating? Ha! I was born in Malaysia, raised in Malaysia, educated from kindergarden to pre-tertiary in Malaysia, represented Malaysia everywhere…and I am still not a citizen. So what hope would a really short-term stay be? As for permanent residency – being a permanent resident myself, it’s pretty much like being in a perpetual in-between state. No one really knows what to do with you. There’s clear rules for foreigners, clear rules for citizens…but PR? You might as well be dealing with space aliens.

Immigration isn’t really the crux of my concerns, though – I’m not looking to migrate permanently to Denmark, and they’ve changed the system so that it’s the school that makes the first move anyway, so it’s a little less hassle visa-wise. What I am concerned about, though, is the Danes’ perception of “brown people” – anyone that looks vaguely Muslim.

It seems the main issue Denmark has with Middle-Easterns is that they don’t want to integrate with the local culture. They won’t learn the language, they won’t take a job, and they’d rather stay in their own communities. That is not the Danish Way, and so we must limit immigration.

Well, from my experience, it’s pretty hard to integrate when your culture is looked down upon and everyone thinks you’re up to no good. I remember being bullied by both teachers and students alike (more the teachers, really) in primary school just for being Bangladeshi. Hardly anyone wanted to be friends with me genuinely because I was this “other”; particularly an “other” that was getting press for “robbing our houses and stealing our women”. I could speak Malay better than many Malay people, but that just made me even more a target for ostracization – “how dare you be better than me in my mother tongue?”. (and yet, when you speak in your own tongue or some other language, they get upset because you’re “not embracing the national language”. Go figure.)

Learning languages is a hard skill as it is, anyway. I’m on my 4th week of learning Danish and so far I can tell you what goes in a house, who some of your family members are, what sounds animals make, and what I think about things (either “smuk” or “grim”), and maybe count to a thousand. But I still have to refer to my homework (hjammelbaejder!), and my accent (which is either Indian, British, American, or Weird depending on who you ask) will still be obvious. Try having to pick up enough to survive a week the first day you arrive in the country! I didn’t even get to practice my Swedish when I went to Stockholm because everyone just responded in English anyway. What if they just never found anyone to practice with? What if no one wants to communicate with them in the first place? I admire anyone that is able to pick up a strange second language, particularly one so different from their own, especially if they had to learn a whole new writing system together with that. It’s damn difficult.

So now you’re in a weird land, you’re experiencing massive culture shock, you can’t talk to anyone and no one wants to talk to you anyway because they think you look funny. Who would you turn to? The ones who’ve done it before you – the other people who moved from your country to here. They understand you best. They can help you through it. They can help you get used to the local culture, while keeping your roots. They’ve been there, done that, started T-shirt factories. Instant community. Instant knowledge. Massive support. It’s not surprising, then, that you’d spend more time with the people that understand you best – and who just happen to come from your same neighbourhood back home.

As it is, Danes (and oddly enough, Brisbanites) have this reputation of being insular – they hardly become close to anyone they haven’t known for ages. And they think the migrants aren’t integrating enough?

I’m all for integration; I love diversity and feel that multicultural societies are a great thing. However, there is a difference between integration and assimilation. Integration allows people to be themselves; they are accepted for who they are and yet still allowed to participate fully in the community. Assimilation, on the other hand, demands that participants conform to a certain expectation and that they leave their own cultural values behind, because it is “irrelevant” or “inferior”. Many of the people who complain about immigrants’ non-intergratedness are really calling for assimilation – “our culture is so much better than theirs anyway, why won’t they change? Oh, they just aren’t compatible”.

If you want people to integrate into your society, accept them as they are. Don’t make them give up their core selves just so they can fit in.

Hmm, I’m learning Danish, I’m learning how to cycle, and my values are pretty similar to the Danes. However, I still have some Asian values I hold on to. Do I have to get rid of them to be “integrated”? Or will I never be integrated into Danish society anyway because my skin is brown and my last name is Arabic?

Edit: The applications have been sent! Get your copy here. They’re due at the end of May.

The KaosPilots in Rotterdam (The Netherlands) are also recruiting for this year! Their application workshop will be in June, which means that their classes would start in November or December. That would be an interesting alternative for me – if I don’t make Aarhus but make Rotterdam (or decide for Rotterdam) I could actually finish off my degree and get to the KaosPilots.

Of course, this means I have to rethink my entire fundraising strategy because then I have to take two countries into consideration. Also, the “first Asian student” sthick I’ve been peddling may not work here – they have someone from Korea interested. Maybe I can still be the first Malaysian 😉

To get a form, you need to email them and ask for a copy. I’ve asked them, and I’ll upload it here once I get one.

Interesting! Lots more KaosPilots chances!

After a few different emails to different departments of CIRIUS (Youth Program, Bilateral Agreements, the Year of Cultural Diversity, etc etc), I finally get what seems to be a “enough already” email:

Dear Tiara Shafiq

Thank you for mailing us again.

There are no possibilities for establishing a bilateral agreement between Denmark and Bangledesh or Malaysia and we do not have the possibility to give you a scholarship in return for working with CIRIUS.

Citizens from non-EU countries do already have a possibility to apply for a shcolarship to study in Denmark see http://www.studyindenmark.dk. However this scholarship is not for the KaosPilot education.

Kind regards
Marie Haulund Otto

OK OK I get the point. Odd thing is, even though I have been emailing different people about it, it’s Marie that usually ends up answering.

Oh well, at least I tried.

Apparently the EU has declared 2008 the Year of Intercultural Dialogue.

This should really work in my favour; I’m as intercultural as they come!! I’ve registered for a Partner account and I’m looking up interesting people right now.

Mark and I went through the Danish-only Ud i Verden site recommended by CIRIUS. It’s meant for Danes going overseas, so I don’t know why they recommended it to me since I’m an overseas person coming to Denmark. We did find some interesting links, such as cultural arrangements and this mystery scholarship program that won’t open till end of January, so who knows! Maybe I’ll get lucky!!

As far as my app goes: I’ve gotten the video part mixed up. Only the “burning question” needs to be non-verbal; my answers can be verbal. I’m thinking of answering the first question of the application (map of your life) in scrapbook form; they said “write a short storyline” but when I did that for Stockholm it took PAGES. Scrapbooking would be more interesting IMHO. let’s see if I can pull it off.

I just received a Facebook message from Maria, a current KaosPilot – but not for long. She is leaving partway through her education because she just cannot afford it any longer. Earlier today I received an email from Zulma, who has told me how difficult it was for her – no sponsors, no scholarships, nothing.

The stories I hear from the non-Scandinavian KaosPilots are mostly similar. Denied access to Government scholarship funds, they have to rely on all sorts of means to afford being a KaosPilot. Some, like Sky, luck out by having a family member sponsor them. (My dad said that he’d pay for me if I finish my degree. Even if that happens, I highly doubt he’d agree when he sees the price tage. And he’s paid for big things in the past.) Most, though, jump through all sorts of hoops just to survive. Corporate sponsorships and other typical fundraising activity is rare, basically non-existent; most of them end up working multitudes of jobs and living on next to nothing.

Maria hasn’t told me her entire story yet, but already it’s gotten me anxious and a little upset. Because it’s highly indicative of a big issue that plagues about 3/4 of the world, particularly those in those areas who want to make a difference.

I had a semi-argument with an acquaintance on LiveJournal (hello predream, sorry I don’t quite know your name) over the GK3 conference and the BrainStore ideas presented at the end. He thought the ideas were half-baked and that no one in GK3 knew anything about entrepreneurship; when I pointed out that most of the ideas came from 100 young social entrepreneurs, he argued that they weren’t “real entrepreneurs”. I don’t know what sort of nonsense definition of “real entrepreneur” he’s using – you couldn’t avoid entrepreneurs of every shade at GK3 even if you hid under a table. He thought everyone there was of some privileged background, able to spend US$500 on some random conference ticket. Actually it cost less then that, and for the young delegates (at least), it was all expenses paid, so not everyone came from a position of wealth and privilege.

But in the larger scheme of things, he’s not off the mark.

There are a lot of resources available to deal with making a difference through ideas, through business, through social avenues. There is NO END to the conferences that happen every year around this theme – TED, Pop!Tech, LIFT, Reboot (incidentally in Denmark), IdeaFestival, IdeaCity, anything with the word “Idea” or “Tech” or something related in it. Besides the KaosPilots, there are other schools and organizations with a similar educational model – HyperIsland in Sweden, EdgeWare in Australia. Blogs can’t stop talking about it. People are making money as consultants. Magazines like Ode, Fast Company, and GOOD devote pages and whole editions on these topics.

They all proclaim to bring the “best minds in the world” together to make a difference, to create change, to inspire and get inspired. People clamour to even get a ticket or a pass or something. Waiting lists are long. Yet look at the attendee photos at these conferences. Look at the countries publishing those magazines. Look at the bulk of the students that are gaining such an education. 90% of them are Western, of a first-world country. 90% of that are white.

Where are all the other countries? Where are the Asians, Africans, South Americans, indigenous folk? Why don’t you have a TED in Thailand, or a special feature about Africa that’s more than just “oh look at the poor starving people”? (Vanity Fair’s special issue was quite good, but tended to go on the “oh poor brown people” angle.) Where are all the international students? Hell, why are most of the conference-goers older people?

Simple. They’re being held back by one thing:

Money.

It’s not that they don’t want to get involved. From what I saw of the young social entrepreneurs at GK3, the ones from downtrodden countries were extremely passionate and dedicated and did everything they could to make their communities better and more sustainable. They had enough fire to get them through any setback. You don’t even have to spend any effort motivating them – they’re already motivated to action!

But how much does a ticket to such a conference cost? Close to predream’s estimate of US$500. If you want a full course, expect at least US$5000 in tuition a year – JUST tuition. Yes, that’s pretty cheap as far as universities go, but factor in living costs and you’ve got a big burden, especially if you come from a place where your money doesn’t go very far elsewhere. Then you have to fly out there, find your accommodation, figure out your visa (if you’re lucky to even get one, what with all the limitations they put on you)…sheesh! The thought is enough to make you go crazy. I was just at NOTCOT‘s blog and they’ve got a full schedule of conferences planned for 2008, and they’re still soliciting suggestions for more. These are about 5 conferences a MONTH – 60 in the YEAR. We’d be lucky to afford just one. As for magazines? US$50 for a year to GOOD – and my subscription hasn’t even showed up yet. That’s if they allow non-US subscriptions, of course.

“Oh, you could just fundraise!” they all say. “Write a letter!” Easy to say. If you’re not the right citizenship or the right stock or whatever, your chances are slim to none. Note that none of the international students in the KaosPilots (that I’ve spoken to anyway) are sponsored by a corporation. If my plans succeed I’d set a precedent. But my chances are pretty slim too, mainly because no one in Malaysia and hardly anyone in Australia has heard of the KaosPilots and (as far as Malaysia goes) are pretty recitent to fund anything that’s not Harvard. Arguing that it’s on the same list as Harvard possibly won’t make a difference. It reminds me of the fundraising panel I attended in GK3 – one panelist suggested fundraising from the community, and one African delegate argued that his own community didn’t have enough money for themselves – how are they going to spare money for him?

Even if you could pay for it, by the time you actually hear about it, all the spaces are full. TED’s 2008 conference was fully booked before the New Year. How are the people in non-Western countries, who don’t get to hear about such things in the news and who may not necessarily have regular Internet access, ever going to know that such an opportunity exists?

Heck, it’s not just a “third-world” thing too. One of the young social entrepreneurs I met was Liam, who runds Avoid.Net, a website that keeps corporates accountable for their actions. He told me that if it wasn’t for the full scholarship provided by GKP, he’d never make it out of the country. And he’s from Canada – hardly an impoverished nation. Notice how there are hardly any young people in those big idea conferences, and how very little are youth-oriented.

If you’re going to claim to bring the best of the world together, if you want to make a major difference in the world, if you want the world to care about sustainability, if you want to bring social change to the world, then involve the whole world! Don’t put artificial barriers of money up and restrict most of the planet from even taking part.

It’s these people who would bring the most benefit to your conferences, your schools, your ventures. They’re the ones with the actual grassroots experience. They know what the real situation is. They know what the world needs, what their community needs. They have plenty of power and determination and energy to make a difference. They want to make a difference. They’ll do anything to even dream of such opportunities.

Don’t use money to shut them out.

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