(It took a long time to look Euro. photo by: unknown tourist)
Studying abroad is a unique experience in a college student’s life. Although every student’s experience is an individual one, there are common core experiences…or are there? Recently, I met up with a Brazilian colleague who showed me that your experience abroad is impacted by your personality as well as your home country. Before speaking with him, I never thought about my being American as a critical factor in the tough transition I had to the French culture and language. But after our conversation, I realized that your home country does heavily impact your ability to adapt to life abroad (as well as your personality, of course). Let’s take a quick look at how 2 different home countries created two different reactions to life abroad.
Home Country – Brazil
***Ricardo describes Brazil in the late 70s / early 80s when he was a teen as being a militaristic police state. Schooling was extremely rigorous, bordering on totalitarian regime. Going to school was not a place of encouraged learning; it was a place of dictated lessons and chores. During high school, Ricardo’s parents moved the family to Paris in search of a better life and work. His first few months were a little tough as he had never really studied French before and didn’t know what to expect of French culture. However, after a few months when his language started to improve, Ricardo enjoyed the comparatively easy going French culture. He attributes this short and fairly positive transition into the French culture to his home country. In comparison to Brazil, France was a paradise. The culture and school system were lax and easy to adapt to. For him, this was an accepting culture that allowed him to be who he was instead of suppressing him. He and his family lived in Paris for 6 years until they decided to give Brazil a 2nd chance with its newer and improved government. Overall, he describes his time in France as a positive one.
Home Country – USA
Growing up and going to college in America, I was used to an informal and interactive classroom environment. In France, the classroom is a rigid environment in which students do not interact, they listen. But the differences in culture and experience abroad didn’t stop there. In the United States, we have a tendency to be overtly politically correct and bend over backwards to accommodate all different types of people (illegal or legal). We are quick to defend any group of people by placing the title of bigot on any person who does not accept and glorify the differences amongst our people. This acceptance and love of different people is not shared by our French friends. They have a very single view of whom and what is French. Anyone who looks, acts, or speaks differently than them is a foreigner and an unwelcome one at that. For me, transitioning to France was so tough because it was an unwelcoming culture with a completely different work ethic and school system. What they viewed as championing for more rights, I viewed as lazy and demanding; what they viewed as being discerning, I viewed as unwelcoming. What I viewed as a good French speaking day for me, they viewed as just another foreigner who can barely speak French. Once I got accustomed to French culture, improved my language skills and changed who I was to fit in with the French, I had a great time in Paris.
Over the past few years, I have spoken with students who have also had a tough time adjusting during studying abroad. And it wasn’t just in France either. This would support Ricardo’s theory that the home culture can predispose students to a certain experience abroad.
You can’t change what country you were born in and who would want to? So what can you do to counteract the home country affects on your study abroad experience? Research, prepare and accept! Research the host culture by talking to natives via a language exchange (mylanguageexchange.com) and following the news at least 6 months in advance. Prepare your linguistic skills by practicing with a native and taking classes at a local cultural club of the host country in your town. Also prepare yourself mentally and physically (aka clothes and overall look) to fit in. Accept the host country for what it is. Go abroad with an open and non judgmental attitude. If you follow these 3 steps, you are well on your way to reversing the effects of your home country on your study abroad experience. Bonne chance!
***Name changed to protect the innocent