“You aren’t a tourist, you are a student. Instead of observing the culture, you should live the culture.”- Lee
Traveling to another country and living in a different culture is not always easy. Even though studying abroad might be the most fulfilling, exhilarating, and rewarding experience of your college education, there will also be moments when you feel frustrated, angry, lonely, and stupid. In fact, you might not realize how rewarding the experience has been until after you have returned home to the United States.
Living abroad can be hard, in part, because you have to make so many adjustments, not only to your daily routine, but also to your preconceived notions about life abroad and your personal beliefs. At first, the newness is exciting. You feel eager to immerse yourself in the new culture and are intrigued by the differences you encounter. This is often referred to as the honeymoon or euphoria phase.
There will come a point during your trip (often after just a couple of weeks) when the newness has worn off and your sense of adventure gives way to aggravation. You might get tired of having to struggle to make yourself understood, and the smallest of obstacles might take on epic proportions. Perhaps you feel uncomfortable looking “foreign” and find yourself feeling homesick for the first time. You might isolate yourself from the local culture and hang out alone or with your American friends more than before. You are experiencing culture shock, which can range from mild frustration to depression.
When you hit this low point, keep in mind that it will pass. Accept it for what it is, and realize that some degree of culture shock is inevitable for just about every traveler. Little by little, you learn how to negotiate daily life in your new setting, and feel more confident. Eventually, rather than feeling frustration, you try to understand the cultural differences, and might even begin to re-evaluate your own beliefs. You have entered the adjustment and acceptance phase. You might still have some low points, but you have an established daily routine and can use your sense of humor when confronted with difficulties. This is the phase when the most profound learning takes place.
As mistaken or partial as stereotypes might be, you will have to confront them during your travels. What many U.S. students are unprepared for when they travel overseas are the stereotypes that exist about the United States. Many people in other countries feel they know the United States very well due to the contact they have with our culture through Hollywood movies, television, the internet, and world events. Others have developed images of us through what they observe of U.S. tourists. If you consider these sources, you can begin to understand the nature of the stereotypes that exist of us. A few characteristics—both positive and negative—that are frequently associated with United States culture and people are that:
Traveling to another country allows you to observe your own culture from a new perspective. This can be both an eye-opening experience as well as a great opportunity to dispel stereotypes. By immersing yourself in another culture, you can get beneath the misconceptions you might have had upon arrival. Similarly, by letting other people get to know you and by acting respectfully towards their culture, you help to foster a greater understanding of the United States that extends beyond fast food, Hollywood, and television.
(This section is adapted from www.studyabroad.com/handbook, written by Bill Hoffa)
No two students studying abroad ever have quite the same experience, even in the same program and country. This same variety is true for students of color and those from U.S. minority ethnic or racial backgrounds. Reports from past participants vary from those who felt exhilarated by being free of the American context of race relations, to those who experienced different degrees of 'innocent' curiosity about their ethnicity, to those who felt they met both familiar and new types of ostracism and prejudice and had to learn new coping strategies. Very few minority students conclude that racial or ethnic problems that can be encountered in other countries represent sufficient reasons for not going. On the other hand, they advise knowing what you are getting into and preparing yourself for it. Temple University Education Abroad can help you to find others who have studied abroad and who can provide you with some counsel.