Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony was unexpectedly enjoyable. From the opening ring (courtesy of Bradley Wiggins) of a 27 ton bell, to the closing festivities, it conveyed a multilayered and multivalent sense of many aspects of what Britain is and isn’t (a point deftly made by the New Yorker late last night). As Boyle himself put it, ‘The Ceremony is an attempt to capture a picture of ourselves as a nation, where we have come from and where we want to be.”
I always watch the opening ceremonies of Olympics, partly because I conduct research, off and on, regarding the urban impacts of mega-events like the Olympics and World’s Fairs. This said the opening ceremony for the London Games resonated with me in a particular way because of experiences in Britain as a foreign student from 1992-1995, and then as a junior lecturer (1996-1997), both in Bristol in the South West of England.
What struck me? Well, the Olympic opening ceremony flagged the music, the landscapes (urban and rural), the family dynamics, the cultural politics, and the institutions (including the National Health Service, NHS) I encountered on a regular basis as a foreign student. Britain is relatively small so students can travel around easily and experience diverse geographies including the bustling global city of London (via a cheap shoppers’ express bus), deindustrialized parts of the Midland’s Black Country, and subtly different ‘rural idylls’ via train, car and foot. I lived in Bristol with my wife Janice, also a Canadian, and we have abundant memories of experiences in these diverse geographies, as well as with fellow students, advisors (in my case the superb duo of Nigel Thrift & Keith Bassett), quirky staff, and an astonishing range of Bristolians in the city. These positive experiences were all jolted back to life via segments of the opening ceremony last night.
Glimmers of quality British TV, cinema, literature, and radio were also abundant in the opening ceremony, though perhaps somewhat of a challenge to connect to for people with little understanding of Britain’s history and geographies. For example, a relatively small number of TV and radio stations (this is a pre-Sirius XM world), with quite a few high quality shows on them, kept us busy on many evenings after our first son was born (thank you, Saint Michael’s Hospital & the NHS). Many of these shows, or the actors and musicians evident in them (e.g., on Later with Jools Holland), were unique from a foreign students’ perspective, and I detected several of them in the multi-decade segment regarding family/music/technology in last night’s opening ceremony.
[for the life of me I can't understand why the UK inflicts the wretched BBC Canada and BBC America on North Americans when there is so much more to offer]
British cities were also served by real bookstores (thank you, Blackwell’s Bookshop) during our stay and it was in these that we sourced our newborn son’s first picture books on top of all sorts of other books. The respect for literature, and the imagination, was also evident in the opening ceremony.
I also enjoyed the sense of seriousness, mixed with irreverence, in the ceremony. More specifically, it was the intermingling of moments of tribute (e.g., regarding World War I’s soldiers, the suffragette movement, the establishment of trade unions, national healthcare), humour (e.g., Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr Bean), James Bond and a skydiving Queen), and cultural production, that dredged up ever so many memories of good/quick humour, critical debate, biting satire, and thoughtful discourse, in my Britain circa 1992-1997.
Each experience abroad for a foreign student (and other family members in cases) generates a multitude of impacts, with only two being the degree acquired and the so-called ‘export earnings’ generated. Even terms like ‘soft power,’ a concept designed to capture a utilitarian and strategic dynamic, are not effective in helping shed light on the international student dynamic. While I am only drawing upon my own experiences here as a child of the Commonwealth, key stakeholders would be wise to remember that many aspects of international student mobility cannot be quantified, nor strategized about, yet they matter in quite significant if complicated ways.