"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." — Henry Miller
One of the most rewarding aspects of study/travel abroad is the experience of being immersed in another culture. Students often return from abroad with an understanding of new foods, art, sports or models of business, science or government; this expanded knowledge helps former participants to be more effective and innovative in their working lives and more satisfied on a personal level.
Only some differences are immediately apparent
There are many different models for describing culture. One is that of an iceberg. Because icebergs float, much of their mass stays underwater. The part that is easy to see is not the whole thing. The same applies to culture.
In looking at people from other countries, you can easily see some characteristics about them, such as what they eat, how they speak, and how they dress. It is possible to learn all of those things from books, the Internet, TV, or movies. But to learn the deeper things about another culture, we need to spend time living in it. It is only through immersion that you will come to understand how other people think about their work, spirituality, money, others, or politics.
There are numerous rewards to be had from being immersed in cultures:
- Increased self-reliance
- Better language skills
- Discovery of priorities and interests that you never knew you had
- Greater insight into world events
- A more complete understanding of America's role in the world
But of course, anything worthwhile is also challenging. While abroad, you will come to understand that our host country has its own way of handling:
...meeting people and fitting in. A frequent criticism of Americans is that we are superficial – overly friendly when first meeting people, but then not very good at building or maintaining lasting friendships. Until we understand local ways, it is wise to be slightly more formal and restrained than usual in dealing with people.
...space and contact. All cultures have different notions about physical contact or space. For instance, how far away to stand or sit when conversing, or how to discipline children, or how to greet people (a handshake? a bow? a kiss on the cheek?) are different at different locations.
...beliefs about safety. Different cultures have their own ideas about what is a "normal" rate of crime. People elsewhere think of the US as being dangerous because the rate of violent crime is much higher than that in other Western, industrialized countries. While your family may caution you to "watch out for the pickpockets in Rome," Italian parents (for example) are telling their children to "watch out for the murderers in Chicago and New York City."
...sexuality issues. If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, you should do some reading on your destination. The countries you visit may be more, or less, tolerant than the US.
Do not assume that the same rules apply abroad as here. If there is any chance that you will date local people while you are abroad, you should talk to people who understand both cultures' viewpoints in this area in order to have good experiences and to remain safe at all times.
Two people going out alone for dinner with no further expectations is a very American idea, and this may not happen in many other parts of the world. (People who feel "casual" about each other in other countries usually go out in large groups.)
Women, especially, must make an effort to learn the rules about what is and is NOT safe to do as early as possible. Ask female residents and your faculty leader for guidance. Behaviors that are not significant in America – such as smiling at a stranger, making polite conversation at a bus stop, allowing someone to buy you a soda – may result in totally unexpected reactions from men overseas.
Each host location may have several cultural influences. Expect to encounter many different points of views and ways of doing things within your host country. Think of it as an adventure in learning.
Just as in the US, small town people abroad are very different from their cousins in the city. The people of Sydney, for example, have a very different outlook from that of Australians living on isolated farms.
Many students have wonderful stories to tell about their experiences with public transportation and shopping in markets. No doubt, you will also have many stories to share.
Most Americans find it unsettling to consider issues of socio-economic class. It is a fundamental American belief that most of us are part of the same "middle" class, with equal rights, the same chances of success, and similar life priorities.
Americans sometimes assume that countries that adopt American fashions, teach English in their schools and do business with the U.S. are also in the process of becoming societies without overt class differences. In fact, such a model is common in only a handful of countries (most with populations built largely from waves of immigrants from many different places) such as the US, Canada and Australia.
You may be surprised to see the people of your host country openly acknowledging class differences.
You may come to know other American program participants whose levels of wealth, education or privilege are substantially different from yours. Use this diversity to gain a better understanding of America, in addition to learning about your host country.
Your faculty leader may be planning a course to countries where there are majority and minority populations just like the U.S. For example:
- Pakistanis, Indians, and Caribbean people in the UK
- North Africans in France and Spain
- Turks in Germany
- Haitians in the Dominican Republic
- Laplanders (Saami) in the Scandinavian countries
- Koreans in Japan
- Native people in most Latin American countries
- Aboriginal people and Asians in Australia
- Indians and Lebanese in many African countries
- Maori people in New Zealand
Just as in the US, ethnic diversity in other countries sometimes makes relations complicated and it also adds variety and richness to the society as a whole.
Work against your own stereotypes...
Many people, if not most, have one or more very strong (and usually negative) ideas, not always based on experience or knowledge, about people who belong to another culture.
Before you travel, read about the culture of the country you will visit. While abroad, maintain an open mind about what you see. If something seems strange, try to understand it by discussing it with your program leader or someone else who understands both your culture and that of your host country.
...and those of others
Just as Americans have stereotypes about people elsewhere, they have stereotypes about us. For example, that we are loud, immature, ignorant of other countries, judgmental, promiscuous, wasteful, and drive large cars, .
We suggest that you act in a way that will convince your hosts that these stereotypes cannot be applied to all Americans, or at least not to yourself.
A word to "heritage students"
If you are an American going to a country where you have some ethnic heritage, do not expect that you will slip easily into Polish, Italian, French or Vietnamese culture, for example, because your grandparents are Polish, Italian, French, or Vietnamese.
If you have grown up in America, you are primarily American, despite other influences. While you can gain rewarding insight into your heritage and family, be modest in your expectations about fitting in or having an instinctive understanding of your host country.
Cultural adjustment is a process
Many travelers go through different stages in relating to a new culture:
- The "excitement" stage. Everything around you is new and exciting. An open air market appears picturesque, the vendors seem lively, the food for sale smells fragrant and tastes exotic.
- The "disillusioned" stage. You have the same experiences as before, but now you make a negative assessment, not a positive one. The same open air market now seems to have become run down and chaotic, the vendors seem aggressive or obnoxious, the food has become gross. "Culture shock" may be a factor at this stage.
- The "balanced" stage. With time, you realize that there are as many positives, as there are negatives, in the new culture as in your home culture – they are just arranged and presented differently. Your anger and disappointment fade, and you realize that you can function effectively outside your home culture. It's clear that the open air market is different from the store where you buy food at home, but you see that both have their advantages.
But getting back to culture shock...
"Culture shock" is a name given to the collection of feelings that sometimes arise when travelers are overwhelmed by cultural differences. The symptoms can include feeling lonely, homesick, overwhelmed, fearful, angry, confused or judgmental.
Having culture shock does not imply any shortcoming on your part – it's just an occupational hazard of living an international and intercultural life. Just as an athlete cannot get in shape without going through the uncomfortable conditioning stage.
We can't prevent experiencing culture shock, but we can reassure you that culture shock has been overcome by thousands of students before you.
Smoothing your cultural adjustment process
As you approach the challenge of adapting to a new culture, remember that you have already done this at least once, on at least a modest scale, when you graduated high school and came to Palm Beach State College. Until making that step, you lived in the "culture" of your high school and your local community. Think of everything that you have learned since then and how different your life is now!
Before going abroad:
- Attend the mandatory PBSC scheduled student orientations
- Read about your host country in websites and guide books
- Follow world news
- Try to meet people from the country where you are going right here in Florida.
- Stay physically and psychologically well. Eat well, sleep enough, and don't drink any alcohol. It is against the PBSC Student Code of Conduct policies. You will be sent home if you violate the policies. Drinking alcohol is not permitted!
- Deal with any dissatisfaction promptly and directly. If you have concerns about anything, address these quickly so they don't stew and get worse. Talk to your faculty leader immediately for resolutions!!!!!
- Be patient with yourself and others. Remember that cultural adjustment is a process and that everyone goes through it at a different pace.
Returning "home" is an intercultural experience, too
Many people find it exciting to return to campus from study abroad or other travel experiences. It is often while trying to settle back into former routines that study abroad participants realize how much they have grown and changed. Some report that their overseas experiences changed their perceptions, their ways of doing things or even what it means to "be themselves." You will bring many new attributes to your home, the PBSC community and neighborhood with your newfound learning and experiences.