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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Seeing things from different corners: a story of learning and culture Harper, Lynette Alice Anne


This is very important, Lynette, believe me. Because half of the problems, or tension, or suffering, that the immigrant or refugee has, when they come not only to Canada, anywhere in the world, is this big question, “How can I become a European, or a Canadian?” And they feel, “ I am not. . . . I am Middle Eastern. This is terrible, I want to go back. I can’t fit here.” They need somebody to tell them, you don’t have to be Canadian. You have to understand Canada. These words were spoken to me by Mira, a Lebanese refugee whose life history is the focus of this study. Like most newcomers, Mira encountered many challenges in Canadian society. Some international migrants respond by integrating, while others assimilate, separate, or marginalize themselves. The profusion of literature on migration says little about learning and its relationship to these individual responses and social interactions. This study investigates migrant transition through anthropological life history, an interpretive methodology which links the personal perspective with abstract theories and large social processes. I worked in collaboration with Mira to construct a rich contextualized description and interpretation of her life. This life history challenges current linear models of culture learning and adaptation. It describes an evolving transition process of interdependent changes, which take place on many levels. Mira experienced culture shock when she confronted something that didn’t make any sense to her, something that contradicted her own expectations and meanings. This triggered a process of transformative learning, in which Mira’s ethnocentrism and dualism shifted towards cultural pluralism and a relativist epistemology. She built upon her own subjective insights and acceptance of different opinions to develop what she called “flexibility”, a repertoire of understandings and an awareness of possibilities which she assessed through critical reflection to create her own choices and commitments. At the same time, Mira developed “practicality,” a sense of agency associated with her growing autonomy and competence in Canadian society. The contradictions posed by her migration from Lebanon to Canada forced issues of identity to Mira’s consciousness. Even as she began to articulate and reflect upon herself in relation to a pluralistic society and culture, her need for intimacy and belonging led her to a deep emotional affiliation with her homeland and with other Lebanese. Mira constructed a “harmony”, a coherent sense of identity based on stable values and a strong ethnic identity. While outwardly she appeared to conform to mainstream Canadian ways and values, she chose to locate herself on the margins of Canadian society, and to actively resist aspects of both Canadian and Lebanese society through teaching and storytelling. Mira’s peripheral position and strategies are like those of an ethnographer studying a foreign culture. Her life in Canada was a personal research project, motivated by the search for a safer place to live and a commitment to personal growth. Her story reveals extraordinary courage and strength, and testifies to the resilience of the human spirit despite the traumas of civil war and migration. My interpretation of Mira’s story overlays her narrative, drawing upon scholarly literature to reveal intersections between theories from various disciplines. This life history suggests ways to further develop and integrate theories of learning and culture, and directions for educational policy and practice. As Mira said at our last meeting: When you talk about cultures, and people, and adult education, it’s nothing like when you say I want to write a story, and at the end you put a full stop and that’s the end. No. It’s like art. There is no final stop. You always find something. you always learn about something, every time you learn about something you discover that there are so many things you still need to learn about.

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