The Bloomsbury Bubble

by Bidushi Dhungel

Like every other minority student with good A level results and pushy parents, when I applied to university, I applied with a strong determination to do my family and “people” proud. After being rejected by Oxford, where I underwent the most daunting of interviews in which, during one, my phone went off with the “Who let the dogs out” ringtone on full volume, I was pretty sure I’d never actually make it to any university. Eventually I ended up choosing SOAS, The School of Oriental and African Studies mainly because I didn’t get into Oxford, it had an interesting name and it seemed like a place where I would fit right in.

Boy, was I right.

Bidushi Dhungel
Bidushi Dhungel

I fitted in so well that the three years zoomed by without my even realising it. I became very interested in the Left as a Politics student and SOAS’ non-Eurocentric curriculum was a perfect fit for my interests. The content of some classes — the Politics of Development and Nationalism, Ethnicity and State in Asia and Africa — were not only academically engaging, but built the foundations of my political being. To be honest, however, I skipped many such wonderful classes to partake in the non-academic side of student life: pro-immigration rallies, anti-fee protests, union workers’ rallies, naked cycling rallies, anti-deportation sit-ins and we even “occupied” the SOAS Director’s office demanding our cleaners be given proper visas to live in the country.

Wandering into the Junior Common Room on any day opened up a wealth of options for debate: you could join the group debating Hugo Chavez’s anti-US policy, the group talking about India’s modernity and its effects on the poor, China’s role in Africa, education cuts in Britain or about travels and how people “found themselves” in far-flung corners of the globe. In all these debates, the conservatives took a backseat or shut up and it was swell. Immigration debates were not about what we thought of current policies, but on whether or not we needed national boundaries at all; it was unanimously accepted that current national policies on most issues were unjust. Contrast that to the reality of the world outside where, even today, I find myself having to defend my own right to live in this country as a non-Brit.

There were, of course times when I felt patronised by the white majority from their over-Orientalising of the “other”; ooh-ing and aaah-ing over every little thing. My country, language and culture were considered exotic and people showed interest in me purely for these reasons. Nonetheless, the minority presided over the majority in every way except in terms of numbers and I assumed it was a beautiful reality of what the ‘educated’ world was like. But by the end of my time at university, I was so comfortable in my own skin and identity that I simply wasn’t prepared for, and couldn’t come to terms with, the not-so-welcoming world outside of the Bloomsbury bubble.

I only realised much later, when we all went into the real world of who’s who, networking and contacts that many of the white students (and even some international minority students) put on a “poor” front to be accepted into the SOAS ethos — not because they actually were. It was a place where the sons and daughters of this country’s elite paraded the university halls in torn-up ethnic fabrics, squatted in the East End, skipped, ate fair-trade berries and talked a lot about inequality and their travels to India, Nepal, Uganda and Tanzania. Many of them went on to get great jobs in the financial sector, could afford to be students for another decade or work in well-paying charities and the development sector to “help the needy”.

When I came out of university, however, I was just another brown person with a degree during an economically-challenging time. I slowly realised that people didn’t care about the union workers in South America whom I had lobbied for, the cleaners across Britain or how the entire African continent was being thrown to the wolves. In fact, no one cared about much of anything except themselves. Further, it was no longer cool that I spoke a different language on the phone to my mum and that I celebrated other holidays apart from Christmas and Easter. People with different accents were no longer seen as exotic, but instead as intruders. It was very difficult to come to terms with this reality.

In retrospect, those three precious years at SOAS allowed me to pursue my interests unfettered, without any self-doubt or longing to fit in. I had the pleasure of having people from 133 nationalities on campus and every nationality and sub-nationality was celebrated to no end. I wouldn’t exchange that for the world.

Listening to the speakers at a rally outside SOAS  © Peter Marshall 2009
Listening to the speakers at a rally outside SOAS
© Peter Marshall 2009

What I would say about a rich and diverse experience like SOAS is that it is a great platform through which one can develop expertise on any part of the world away from the West. Perhaps that is a reason for why there are as many postgraduate students at SOAS as there are undergrads, with many students coming in with undergraduate degrees from the finest universities around the world, looking to develop country and development-specific expertise. My one-shot bit of advice for most: SOAS is the go-to destination for a post-graduate degree in any of the subjects it actually offers. Aside from being able to draw on the expertise of academic staff on a regional, country and linguistic basis, many of the graduates from various postgraduate programmes including the Development Studies; Conflict, Rights and Justice; Media in Development programmes go on to get the coolest jobs at NGOs, INGOs, thinktanks, international media and governments across the world specializing on context-specific issues. The institute undoubtedly directs the focus back to the neglected and marginalized peoples and nations of the world. What’s there not to like about that?

Bidushi Dhungel is a Nepali feminist who grew up between Kathmandu, London and NYC. She has a degree in Politics from SOAS, London and has worked as a Kathmandu-based journalist and editor covering issues related to foreign aid, neo-colonialism and imperialism, politics, gender, identity, nationalism and human rights in South Asia. Currently based in London, she is leading a research on the link between gender-based violence and mental health in rural Nepal. She is also working for Zubaan Books, the largest feminist publishing house in the global South on their Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia project. @bidush

4 thoughts on “A Radical Education?

  1. As anticipated from the title alone, this is a great article.

    I fully agree with the recommendation. If I could’ve afforded the fees then SOAS would’ve been my first choice. It has a proud tradition of fighting against exploitation around the world, and has opened the eyes of many students.

    I attend Birkbeck (directly opposite SOAS) and feel that the student culture within most of the institutions in the area is progressive. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else, as it’s hard to overestimate how empowering it is to be around likeminded people.

    The writer captures that feeling perfectly.

    I also respect the blunt honesty in this article, with regards to those students (and faculty) who “moonlight” as something they clearly are not. I’ve lost count of how many “Free Mumia” meetings I’ve walked out on, after discovering the “organisers” knew nothing of the pre-existing campaign and simply wanted to add credibility to their C.V for when they inevitably kicked off their converse and entered left wing politics…

    The writer also captures this reality very well!


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