One of the best parts about living somewhere completely new is that a place that was once flat and one dimensional to you – shaped by a few narrow facts and stereotypes – all of a sudden comes to life. Living in this new place has the power to challenge your narrow understanding and single storyline. As you go about your daily business you meet the people whose complex experiences and situations make up the very fabric of your new home. It is like going from reading a two dimensional children’s book with a simple plot to a pop-up story which weaves in multiple narratives, sometimes seemingly contradictory.
If you haven’t already seen the talk by the Nigerian novelist and storyteller Chimamanda Adichie, please do! She speaks movingly about the ‘dangers of the single narrative’ – when the complex experiences and situations that make up a people get reduced to a single narrative. Adichie uses the dominant narrative in the West of Africans as the pitiful poor as one example of this single narrative in action. Yes, there is poverty on the continent; however, this is not the only, or even the dominant, narrative that shapes the lives of the people who live there. She sees the danger of the single story being that when you reduce peoples’ complex human experiences into a single narrative you inherently take away their humanity. To you, they are the faceless other.
The beauty of living abroad is that it counteracts this flattening of peoples’ experiences because you get to know your new community on a personal level – they are your neighbours, friends and colleagues. They are the people you wait in line with at the supermarket.
When I first move to a new country I carry with me my own single narrative of that place. However, almost as soon as I land these preconceived notions are challenged. As I’ve lived in these countries I’ve realized that ‘The English’, ‘The Germans’, ‘The Belgians’, or ‘The Ethiopians’ cannot be equated with a single set of experiences, desires or attitudes. When I’m asked how ‘The English’ feel about a given issue I have to say there are a number of competing viewpoints. Their reasons and answers are complex and can’t be reduced to a single word answer.
The danger of the single narrative is also playing itself out in today’s politics. The narrative of the other, whether it be ‘The Chinese’ or ‘The Americans’ is reduced in the popular imagination to the single narrative broadcast by some politicians and media. The image Donald Trump has painted of Mexicans throughout his campaign speaks to the dangers of the single story narrative. He is an obvious example of someone who leverages it to whip up emotions for his own political advantage. For good insight into the dangers of the single narrative in American politics, please read David Brook’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, where he explores how American political parties push ‘single storyism’ at the sake of truth and its dangerous consequences in the US and abroad.
Living abroad is a real privilege and it continues to challenge my own ‘single storyisms’ and allows me to develop a more complex and nuanced appreciation for my newly adopted country, city and community. With this opportunity I also feel a sense of responsibility to share the complex human stories I encounter and to avoid playing into the popular single narrative.