When we think of “study abroad”, we picture ourselves being in a new country with fascinating things to see, interesting people who are perhaps speaking a foreign language with seductive accents. We imagine refreshing beverages on the beach and unique exotic foods as we parade around different quaint neighborhoods, dancing to live music and taking photos of cool murals. We often don’t take into account some of the hardships or challenges we may encounter along the journey in unfamiliar territory, especially when it takes place for an extended duration and the initial excitement wears off.
Precisely what makes a new country exciting is also what may make it something you may not be accustomed to and hence need to adjust in order to do well there.
In the summer of 2018, I arrived at the University of Ghana in the city of Accra, along with other students from all over the United States. When we were welcomed to the orientation, the program director compared the initial study abroad experience for some participants as a “honeymoon” where everything is charming and great and you don’t want to ever go home because the thrill of the new experience keeps you on a high. After a little while, however, not only does “real life” set in, but you may find yourself missing certain comforts from back home and feeling homesick. You may doubt your entire decision and be filled with dread, thinking, “what did I get myself into and how am I going to survive until the end”? For some students, there may be no honeymoon stage if they hit hiccups early in the path and they may immediately start panicking when things don’t go as expected or if they were ill-prepared for the full range of the experience.
Some example of challenges that a student may experience:
-Language gap or confusion in communication. Aside from language itself, there are often dialectal differences even when the locals speak English, and different styles of humor or expressions. What may be regarded as funny in one country, may be frowned upon or viewed as rude in another.
-Customs and manners may differ when it comes to eating. In many African countries for example, most meals are eaten mostly with the hands and utensils are optional. This may seem “unmannered” to someone’s mother in the states or in Europe, but it’s perfectly normal and acceptable there. In fact, the food tastes juicier when you can just lick it off all your fingers, doesn’t it?
Something I learned in Ghana is that people may carry items on their heads instead of in their hands or on their backs. I was told by a native Ghanian that a person can carry up to twice their weight on their head. I marveled at the balance and skill, but this is a skill that is best acquired from a young age. I remember a time when I purchased a case of water – which came in bags- not in bottles, and it was incredibly heavy. I bought it in bulk, as we were advised as foreigners not to drink tap water unless it was boiled before. Foreigners aren’t accustomed to the bacteria that may be found in the water, which natives can tolerate. Of course, I naturally attempted to schlep it in my hands, but I could barely hold it for more than a few seconds. The vendor pointed to my head and said, why don’t you carry it like that? I said, simply, “I can’t”. Other people gathered to watch me figure it out and they all could not understand why I couldn’t just wear it on my head. At some point, I caved and was curious if it would actually be successful and a new hack for me to take home. I said fine, let me try, there is no way I can carry this home otherwise. Of course the bag flew off before I could blink and it was a sight to behold, the liquid spritzing everywhere like I was having a water balloon fight with myself. Since some of the bags snapped it was now lighter so I was able to take it by hands, so voila, problem solved. I found that having a sense of humor about these things really helps to cope. I was definitely not pestered anymore to try to carry it on my head by those vendors, that is for sure! They finally understood why I was so adamant at first, but they certainly appreciated my cumbersome effort. It also struck me that not only did I learn about them, but it must have been an eye opening experience for them as well, that in parts of the world people only use their arms and backs to hold things.
Other cultural differences to be mindful of are traditional gender role expectations or social norms which may be viewed very differently or with a more old-fashioned lens than what we are used to. I realized that it is often a fine line between appreciating another way of life and respecting a tradition, and simultaneously acknowledging that it’s also okay to silently (or occasionally vocally, but politely) disagree and not normalize customs that may be against human rights. Navigating that can be tough, but I found that having conversations and open dialogue with people who may be able to explain things, or listen and understand the frustrations can be helpful in processing and digesting new information, environments and behaviors. Often there are organizations that are fighting for the oppressed and offering assistance or resources can help effect change too. I think it’s fair for discussions to be two-sided, but emphasizing listening and asking questions rather than just offering sealed opinions can be more conducive to the learning process overall.
My final tip when it comes to experiences that may be on the spectrum from ludicrous to difficult: Always remember that even if you hit tough hurdles, this too shall pass. Although it may not be all glory, it certainly makes for a compelling story!