The Daily Telegraph has been having fun linking the Occupy London protest to this infamous Gap Yah video (nearly 4 million hits):
For the DT, there seem to be only three sorts of lefties: pork-scratching-munching union throwbacks who undeservedly dodged the Maggie bullet to survive the eighties; flaky, granola-stuffed Guardianistas; and over-privileged young trustafarians for whom ‘social justice’ is just another Facebook boast – or a fleeting gap year concern.
No wonder students who’ve been on gap years are more shy than ever about bringing the fact up in class – wincing as they mention it, as if expecting someone to burst out laughing or throw a shoe at them.
I’d like to defend the idea of a gap year. I didn’t have one myself (parental pressure: Mum worried she wouldn’t be able to boast about her son being at university if instead he ended up handcuffed to a radiator in Columbia). But spending a couple of years in Japan a little while later it struck me that nothing cuts you and your own culture down to size like truly struggling abroad.
As all students of Japanese learn at some point, usually in painfully embarrassing ways, communication and relationship are not mainly about words, but about the particular ways of thinking, feeling and intuiting that underlie the use of those words. It’s fine to appreciate all that in theory, but to really feel it you need to crack a joke and have people look at you as though you’re mad; or to find out, day by day, that all the little signals that usually communicate ‘you’ to the world around – manner, clothes, tone of voice, choice of words – are now ineffective, or they keep getting scrambled.
Finding that so much of yourself can’t be communicated accurately any longer makes you wonder just how little of ‘you’ there might really be underneath all those now-useless cultural signs and signals.
It’s not always an intellectual ‘a-ha’ moment, so much as a get-me-on-the-next-flight-out one. I’m told the UN arranges leave for people on overseas postings at about the ten-month mark, since this is when potentially debilitating ‘culture shock’ most often sets in.
So although the self-indulgence and faux maturity that the DT likes to laugh at has its basis in reality, and lying on a beach in Thailand rarely throws up existential challenges, there’s still the possibility for a gap year – at any time of life, surely – to let us start taking this ‘self’ a little bit less seriously. We may not be able to strip away our culture, but can we begin to see it for what it is?
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