The International Cultural Evening: A Night of International Good Will

Matthew Lillehaugen

The stated objectives of the International Summer School are to promote high levels of academic achievement and to foster international good will. People from all over the world come to this place; some are drawn by the allure of Norwegian culture and society, others to connect with their ancestral heritage, while others still are drawn by their passion for peace and human rights. Many are come for a combination of those reasons, or for other reasons that I have left unmentioned. The fact that the summer school has 598 participants from 89 countries speaks for itself. Here, one cannot help but study International Relations, even if that is not one’s officially declared field of study. At the International Summer School, you truly can “Come to Norway and Experience the World,” a mindset which culminates with one event that intentionally embodies and showcases it all: the International Cultural Evening.

With finals fast approaching, scores of students still chose to dedicate their time and energy to share the food and traditions of their homeland with the other members of the summer school. The evening consisted of two parts. The first was a bazaar of sorts, with booths dedicated to countries from around the world. In this setting, students dressed up in traditional clothing from their homeland and served samples of food with deep cultural roots.

The real excitement, however, began when the doors to the auditorium opened and we all gathered to watch what turned out to be an interesting combination: half talent-show, half cultural showcase. Each act was fascinating and unique in its own way. We had a choir from Russia, dancers from Brazil, an opera singer from Ethiopia, and so much more. Two acts, however, stood out to me as embodying what the International Summer School is all about.

The first was a combined act by the students from the Balkans. Watching them perform was special for a variety of reasons. First of all, most of the participants were part of the Rotary Young Friends program. For me, they were individuals that I had come to know, trust, and care for deeply since we first met in Lillehammer six weeks ago. I felt that the performance helped me to get a glimpse into the homelands of my friends. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the performance, however, was just the fact that they did it together. One of my friends from Serbia admitted that back home this sort of cooperation would never happen. Back home there is still tension, animosity, and hatred, but here at the summer school the students are able to get away from that. Quite telling, I think, is the fact that these students have gotten in the habit of referring to their homeland as Balkan. Not the Balkans, or the former Yugoslavia. Just Balkan. One entity with a sense of unity. Here in Norway they have seen how much they have in common and have come to appreciate the differences that remain rather than allowing them to be a source of animosity.

In order to understand the impact that the other performance had on me, a little bit of background information is probably required. For the Peace Scholars Seminar, each of us is expected to engage in independent research. This is an opportunity for us to individualize the course and attempt to develop some expertise in a field that closely aligns with our interests and ultimate career objectives. I have chosen to research the conflict surrounding the region of Jammu and Kashmir. This issue has poisoned relations between India and Pakistan since the partition of Britain’s Indian colony in 1947, and has ultimately affected the relations and dynamics throughout the rest of South Asia.

In researching the topic, I have learned a lot about the history and underlying tensions in the region. If there is anywhere in the world where a collection of countries shares even more mutual animosity than in the Balkans, it is quite possibly in South Asia. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal; those countries exist in an incredibly hostile political climate with religious, ethnic, cultural, and historical identities that have been seen to divide the region – perhaps irreconcilably. Yet here at the International Summer School, students from those five countries decided to team up for a joint South Asian act during the student showcase. It was truly beautiful. Like the students from the Balkans, when they return home it may be a challenge to explain how they developed such meaningful friendships with the other, the enemy. But here at the International Summer School, they opened up to dialogue and embraced their shared South Asian identity. This was powerful enough for any observer to just appreciate it on a human level. But as someone who has been researching the tensions in the region and who would someday like to help facilitate more peaceful interstate relations throughout South Asia, I think I was particularly touched. It gave me a lot of hope to see that the students were not limited by their ethnic, religious, or political identities as their states often are. Those identities are important, and I am not trying to suggest that they should be completely disregarded. Being able to recognize similarities and shared experiences, however, and appreciate the differences that remain, seems to me to be a key to peaceful relations.

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