In the following sections, I present the stories of Musa and Alim, with the goal of illustrating the ways in which these two learners negotiated participation outside of the ESL classroom. As will become apparent, these stories diverge in critical ways, and I aim to highlight how their different discursive practices were contingent on the multiple identity positions that were prioritized in the participants' ongoing, situated negotiations for participation. Musa, at age 18, was embarking on his first experience outside of his home country, and his narrative of participation centered on his “opening” to social worlds outside of his familiar first language (L1) parameters. At age 26, Alim brought a transnational expertise with him, having previously lived and worked abroad, and his narrative of participation centered on how his ethnic and religious identities were contested in the wake of 9/11. In both cases, the learners constructed a sense of autonomy in managing the disruptions they encountered, achieving identity positions that were both iterative and transformative of their previous positions.
Musa was the youngest member of the ESL class in which I became a participant observer, but he was one of the most confident in himself and his linguistic abilities. Before arriving in Townesville the fall semester prior to my data collection, he had just completed high school in his hometown, and he had plans to study engineering in the United States for 5 years as part of the Saudi scholarship program. One major aspect to participating in the program was that Musa felt a strong attachment to a peer group of fellow Saudi scholarship recipients, because he had become acquainted with them in pre-travel and arrival orientations, shared the same course schedule with them, and lived with them in the same residence.
Upon his arrival in the United States, Musa reported to be enthusiastic and optimistic, familiar with the common myths of “America” as representing opportunity and promise. “I mean, come on,” he told me, “it's the land of opportunity. … Like, everyone around the world, believe me, wants to come to America.” He recognized the symbolic value of participating in the U.S. higher education system, and although he had plans to return to Saudi Arabia after 5 years, he expressed an openness to assimilating to some degree. He arrived in Townesville with short hair, a mustache, and a beard, all of which were specific markers of his cultural and ethnic background. After he arrived, he had shaved his facial hair and let the hair on his head grow long, citing, “I am not in my country. I can do whatever I want.” Musa was interested in participating in the social world of college undergraduates, he was enthusiastic and talkative in the ESL class, and his story of his first year abroad centered on his emerging independence and openness to new social and cultural groups.
By the time Musa began his second semester in the ESL program, he had made several international student friends, yet he considered the process of making American friends very different:
The international students are more open, well, not more open, but more willing to meet. But the American, like, you are coming to them, they have their own lives, own friends, own system, and you just bust in, and, you know, some of them doesn't like it.
Here, Musa recognized himself as an outsider to “expert” community practices, aligning himself within the imagined community of international students, which, although hardly homogenous in regard to its members' national identities, languages, and positionality vis-à-vis the host community, he understood as bounded by a common newcomer status. As we will see, Musa took up this position as a newcomer and outsider to the larger host community, and these identities informed his trajectory of participation.
Musa had a strong attachment to the places he considered home in Townesville, and they represented important sites of belonging for him that offered different opportunities for participation outside of his Saudi group. As the study began, Musa was in his second semester in Townesville and had just moved out of the dormitory into a private apartment. He had much regret over this decision:
In [the apartment], nobody cares about you. You just pay and that's it. So you don't have some connection to the community. I don't know my front door neighbors; I never see them.
Reflecting on this move, Musa regretted not taking more advantage of his time in the dormitory, having “a lot of chances” to meet new people.
Musa's photo narrative included several images of the different spaces of the dormitory. When I asked him if he associated any of these images with a particular language (English or Arabic), he associated pictures of the dormitory building and his room with Arabic because he had not yet met anyone outside of his Saudi group. However, when we came to the photograph of the dorm volleyball courts, he reported to associate it with English, saying that it represented the time when he “started opening up to people.” He started to play volleyball, adding some Americans as friends.
There was another critical site of participation that Musa frequented, and that was the lobby of his dormitory. He explained its importance:
And I started to go to the lobby. I didn't take a picture of the lobby, [but] I like to spend more than 2 or 3 hours in the lobby with my laptop and stuff, so anyone who sits next to me, we talk … I had a lot of questions so that keeps the conversation going.
For Musa, frequenting the lobby represented an intelligible (Butler, 2004) move toward the center of new social communities; he engaged within recognizable storylines by interacting in public spaces that offered opportunities for newcomers to participate. This is not to say that the newcomer identity was entirely sanctioned by Musa. It was largely imposed on him through community ideologies that placed the onus on L2 learners (and newcomers) to initiate relationships with experts. Yet, by recognizing his position within these discourses, he took up a readable framework by which to negotiate a new and more desirable positionality.
Musa's reflections on his experiences suggest that his opening as a person coincided with his opening to the multiple communities around him. Musa described ways in which his time in Townesville had been transformative. He had become “more sociable” and explained: “No matter where you put me right now, I know I can make a lot of friends. Even starting from zero.” For him, this was a new way of being, as he considered social relationships, especially between men, in his home country as very closed:
You cannot meet someone in a coffee shop [in Saudi Arabia]. You say “Hi” and he says, “What do you want?” They always respond in a negative way. But now, here, I am really opening up to people.
Ultimately, this was a positive stance to achieve for Musa, it was both iterative and transformative of his previous subject positions, and it was realized through his situated navigation of multiple social worlds.
As will become clear when I discuss Alim, Musa did not engage with post-9/11 discourses in the same way as Alim did, and his novice identity was mostly associated with two factors: his age and his inexperience with others outside of the Saudi Arabian culture. Musa, being 8 years younger than Alim, was embarking on his first meaningful experience outside of Saudi Arabia, and his trajectory of belonging reflected his budding independence from the religious, familial, and cultural parameters of his L1 world. Part of that trajectory involved a resistance to Islamophobic discourses, taking up the position that racism was only a problem “if one was looking for it.” He did report being initially afraid of how he would be treated in the United States as a Saudi student, but in a joking manner. “I thought they would put me in a cage and walk me around the city,” he kidded. He even reported being subject to racial profiling in the customs line upon entering the country, getting “picked out” of the line for a special search. Yet, aside from these initial experiences, he did not consider himself to be subject to racism in his everyday life, finding most people in Townesville to be open-minded and interested in his country. This is not to say that Musa was excluded from racial discourses, but his uncritical acceptance of his outsider status points to the persuasive power of discourse around citizenship, belonging, and national identity. As a factor that distinguished his story from Alim's, I will revisit Musa's discursive stance toward discriminating social forces later on.
Alim (age 26) was from a metropolitan city in western Saudi Arabia, and he had been in Townesville for 18 months when I met him. His prior year working in New Zealand was a significant L2 learning experience for him, which he described as the first time he had to use English for real communication both at work and in his social life. In addition to his English-speaking colleagues, he had a native-English-speaking girlfriend from New Zealand who became an important “teacher” to him. During the time I interacted with Alim, I observed him to be confident in his oral language abilities, and he was highly participatory in class; however, I observed him to have some difficulty with literacy skills, and he was focused on improving his reading and writing abilities in preparation for standardized graduate school entrance exams.
Alim's age, background, and experience afforded him a kind of transnational expertise, one that was suggestive of cosmopolitanism and that heavily factored into his openness toward social participation as well as his success in achieving it. Here, I use the term cosmopolitan as it has been applied to personal identity models (Gunesch, 2004), broadly, as someone who feels “at home in the world” (p. 256) and who occupies a “certain multicultural position … a willingness to engage with the Other” (Hannerz, 1992, p. 252). Although this framework for cosmopolitanism is arguably biased toward privileged, Western metropolitan conventions and does not fully capture Muslim cosmopolitanism (Leichtman & Schulz, 2012), I drew from these concepts to understand Alim's comfort level with integrating himself in local social worlds while remaining invested in global trajectories, a stance that is not necessarily common among all adult ESL learners.
Desiring to pursue a transmigrant lifestyle, Alim expressed ambivalence over returning to Saudi Arabia despite being a recipient of “the King's scholarship,” and he sought out new and meaningful experiences outside of his home country. “I believe that the best thing is just to have many experiences,” he explained, “to go around, travel around, know more people. The life is fun.” I believed Alim's prior interactions and current investments in both local and global spaces factored into his openness and desire to access and participate in social communities in Townesville. Over the three semesters that he had already been in the IEP, Alim had lived in multiple campus apartments with multiple roommates (both international and American). He took advantage of social spaces that allowed him to interact with new people (e.g., apartment pool and recreation areas), and he reported to be confident in meeting others. Unlike some of the other participants in the study, he did not feel it was necessary to have an American roommate in order to gain entrance into L2 communities. By the time I had become acquainted with him, he had considerable social connections and attended regular social gatherings with both international and American students.
Still, Alim's participation in his social worlds did not come without conflict. Unlike Musa, Alim reported to have had experiences with racism in the United States and was called to answer directly to post-9/11 discourses that positioned him negatively. An initial example occurred during our first talk when I asked Alim to describe his hometown. He began by describing his home city as more open, culturally and religiously, than other regions in Saudi Arabia. Following that initial description, I asked him how he felt about his home country:
SG: Do you like where you are from?
Alim: Yes. I mean before … we were like separate from the world. … Now, it's become more closer. People start to know about my country and about our culture … it's kind of fair now. Before that, most people know what happened on September 11 and they thought we were bad people, but when they start to read about us, they know we can never do these bad things to people … we do care about the other countries, other cultures, religions. Because most people think that Muslims don't care about other religions.
In this interaction, Alim recognized himself in post-9/11 discourse and negotiated a stance within it. Although the topic of his religion had not come up (it was the beginning of the interview), he chose to take up a particular discursive position, as someone speaking to a member of the community that has authored the marginalizing discourses he desired to resist. For Alim, the 9/11 narrative, although it perpetuated inaccurate stereotypes of his religious identity, became a cultural resource that he chose to draw on in constructing his stance toward the larger L2 community (Davies & Harré, 1999). As will become clear, he continuously drew on this discursive resource as he made sense of his ongoing experiences as a Saudi student abroad.
Before arriving in the United States, Alim reported criticism among some family members and friends over his decision. He explained, “So most people are like, ‘If they [Americans] don't like us, why would we go there?’” His father shared this position, to which Alim replied, “Why? If I follow the rules, follow the law of the country, so what's wrong?” He refused to align with either anti-American or anti-Islamic discourses, explaining that the media “can write whatever they want, but there are some people behind that, [and] they want to make something between us.” His agency was voiced in his belief in his “true” identity as a good person: “I believe that I am doing good, so every American can appreciate that because I am not doing something bad. I just come to study. … I am coming to study in their college.”
Despite Alim's strong self-confidence in the face of these narrative asymmetries (Ochs & Capps, 1996), that is, the discrepancy between society's narrative of him and the one he chose to construct of himself, he was not excused from discriminatory storylines, and it is within that framework that he had to negotiate his agency. I will next describe two instances that illustrated the discursive parameters within which he was working.
One example was observed during a relatively brief moment in the classroom, before class began, as students were arriving and getting settled. In these few minutes, the teacher was walking around collecting some completed activities, during which an informal class discussion was initiated on the topic of students' weekend activities. Alim mentioned that a Saudi friend of his was arrested after being pulled over for speeding, and Alim spent the weekend trying to help his friend navigate the legal system and assist in the bail process. Some students were listening, others just arriving to class and getting settled. After Alim spoke for a bit, the teacher commented, “Well, you don't speed, especially if you're a guy, especially if you're from somewhere in the Middle East.” Alim did not appear to react to the comment. Shortly after, the informal talk concluded and formal instruction began.
I believe this interaction illustrated several of the discursive parameters within which not only Alim, but community experts such as his teacher, were continuously working. As a longtime teacher who, on several occasions, seemed clearly to value students' diverse backgrounds and expertise, as well as the critique of mainstream values that they often brought to classroom discussions, her comments cannot be easily or straightforwardly analyzed. Recognizing that the practice of teaching is complex work with multifaceted goals, I interpreted her brevity as motivated by a need to transition to formal class time. Further, based on my previous observations, I took her comments to be a critique of the repercussions of 9/11, as a well-intentioned piece of advice for her students who, albeit unfairly, had to deal with the realities of racial profiling in the aftermath of those grave events. The interaction illustrated how differently positioned actors engage differently with powerful structures of discourse. Although neither speaker overtly imposed nor resisted these structures, they were nevertheless acknowledged through this interaction and thus seemed to be reified.
A second example of how Alim's experiences were continuously shaped by racializing discourses was described to me by Alim, as he opened up about some of the discrimination he encountered in his efforts to become friends with Americans. “We [Saudi Arabians] really like American people,” Alim told me, “but all my friends, before they meet me, they told me, ‘We were afraid about you. We don't want to be close to you.’” One critical incident he described involved a new friend, Stanley, a 23-year-old undergraduate student from the Midwest who became a connection for Alim to participate in many social events with Americans. Shortly after the two had become acquainted, Alim was paid a surprise visit by Stanley's father who, upon hearing that his son had become friendly with an international student from Saudi Arabia, became concerned enough to drive a considerable distance from Stanley's home state in order to confront Alim, without warning. Alim described the interaction with the man that followed:
I said, “I have no idea … what Osama or other person say. But I have ideas. I mean, Islamic religion is a really good religion. It doesn't tell us to hurt people. They told us if you kill someone without any right it is equal to you kill[ing] everybody in this life. That is a really big sin if you did. So if Osama Bin Laden, or other [person], kill someone because of Islam, I don't care about what he says. I care about the real things.” And [Stanley's father] is kind of like, “OK,” I mean, he told me, “It was nice to meet you.” And after … Stanley said, “[My father] wants me to be with you. He wants me to be with you. He told me, ‘I want you to be with this guy.’”
Alim made sense of this critical event by interpreting it as one of the interactional feats he had to accomplish as part of his bids for fuller participation. Like many Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, he was compelled to answer for actions for which he was not responsible (Howell & Shyrock, 2003), having to discursively refigure himself within post-9/11 narratives.
The result of this interaction was a new and transformative identity position for Alim, one in which his legitimacy was recognized; as Alim put it, the man now “wanted” him as a rightful participant in his son's social worlds. However, in reading this interaction beyond its face value, it becomes quite apparent that a number of discursive maneuvers were possibly achieved in this exchange.
In reflecting on this event, Alim narrativized his agency in his refusal to align with such discourses. He said, “I saw them [other Americans] changing, but I didn't think I did much to change them. … I'm just normal. I am just as I am here like I am at home or in any country.” In one way, Alim's reading is a valid reading, and it is, in fact, how he saw himself as an agent: Attaching himself strongly and proudly to his religious identity was the action by which he was able to influence his present circumstances. However, a more critical reading of this interaction reveals unequal power structures at play, and the extent to which those power structures shifted through this interaction is questionable. As characteristic of broader discourses that place the onus on L2 learners to negotiate for participation rights in expert communities, Alim was able to achieve a legitimate status largely because he was granted the right to speak by a more powerfully positioned “expert.” Thus, the circumstances around this incident provided an intelligible framework from which Alim could act. Furthermore, it is quite possible that Stanley's father was able to accept Alim without entirely changing racial frames (Bonilla-Silva, 2006), making an exception for him as an outlier to the status quo. Thus, this interaction showed not how Alim simply unmade his position (and all by which it was constituted), but also how he was able to “do something with what was done to [him]” (Butler, 2004, p. 3); his agency was situated, and his viability was constituted by the discursive parameters under which he spoke.