The Culture Clash: Why We Study Abroad

BEFORE THIS SUMMER, I HAD NEVER LEFT THE COUNTRY–NO, NOT EVEN TO CANADA OR MEXICO. As one of the uninitiated, I’ve always expected people to come back from their Study Abroad Experiences fundamentally changed. Does their time in the Middle East mature them beyond their years in the face of extre me poverty? Does the jaunt to gay Paree turn them into Eurotrash sophisticates, swathed in Givenchy and armed with a cigarette holder? As far as I can tell, no. To all appearances, they’ re the same old UofC kids who are still thrilled as a pig in mud to pass out in someone’s bathroom for weekend festivities. When asked about their travels, they were “awesome” and “I learned a lot of Spanish” and insert X story about clubbing experiences because, hey, we’re legal in most other countries! Fuckin’ sweet!

It all begs the question: why study abroad? What are people supposed to get out of it, or rather, what do they want out of it? Surely it can’t be worth it to go through all those applications for programs and scholarships and thousands of dollars spent on plane tickets simply to mullet-watch in the swankiest clubs in Buenos Aires and Barcelona. When university education establishment figureheads talk about traveling abroad, they inevitably use the jargon of the “Study Abroad Experience,” as if we are to simply trans p l a nt ourselves onto foreign soil and absorb, and some how this makes us into better, more useful people. You can find this on the University’s Study Abroad website: “an extended period of time abroad offers a cultural immersion, an opportunity to examine habits and attitudes different from, some times inimical to, those at home […. Students] return to Hyde Park with a larger view of the world, a wider sympathy for its peoples, and a stronger sense of themselves.” Oh really? Because there seems to be a very high chance that one can simply hang out with other American students and get to know the discotecas of Spain much more intimately than the Spaniards themselves. One of the reasons I specifically chose not to go on a UofC-sponsored program was that the prospect of taking the University bubble with me to a foreign country was repulsive and seemed counterproductive– how are we supposed to enjoy raw, unadulterated foreignness that way?

What I found out was that pure foreignness doesn’t really exist, at least not in the way that I expected it to. On all programs, you receive a somewhat structured version of reality. In my case, I spent the summer– rather, winter–in Santiago de Chile living with a host family and studying at a language school. My family had been hosting exchange students for about four years, so they were used to slowing down the hyper-speed Chilean Spanish to an understandable pace and explaining all the nuances of life for our benefit. The goal is to avoid confusion, but confusion is the most distinguishing marker of foreignness that I encountered and
no number of study abroad program employees can completely eliminate it. For what is foreignness but that which is different from our daily life? People within our own country can lead seemingly foreign lifestyles, but there is a common understanding we share that defines our existence as a society. We not only have the same language, but the same jargon–we can discuss Britney Spears’ antics or the battle between the Cubs and the Brewers for their division and be fairly confident that our conversation partner will be aware of the players involved, if not the specific situation. There is a cultural consciousness specific to America created by–what? Mass media? Knowledge passed down through generations? The educational – industrial complex? Probably a combination of the above

In any case, one of my earliest lessons in Chile was an attempt by my teacher to initiate me into the Chilean cons c iousness. Santiago has three major soccer teams, some more working class and others for the elite–Colo Colo, La Universidad de Chile, La Católica – and the major newspapers are La Tercera (more leftist) and El Mercurio (conservative). Slowly, one begins to build a mental arsenal of train stations, neighborhoods, political figures and alliances, universities, and other societal signposts to help you navigate your way around a foreign country. If, as a Chicagoan, you are told that so-and-so is from Naperville and they went to Northwestern, you can probably ma ke some educated guesses about his income level and other aspects of his character that wouldn’t be too far off. The Green Line is the “sketchy” line and Lakeview, Pilsen, and Ukrainian Village are artsy neighborhoods. The University of Chicago is prestigious, University of Illinois at Chicago less so–and so on and so forth. A Chilean transplanted to Chicago would know no ne of this, and the most disorienting part about living in a foreign country is lacking the ability to make the sort of stereotypes and associations we use to order the information our world provides (and that can’t be found in a guidebook,
no matter how hard they try). The result is a confused mess of places, names, and intricate social webs that mean nothing. Chile seemed less and less foreign as I learned what it meant for someone to say that they were from Vitacura (read: criminally rich, likely Pinochet supporter) or that it was perfectly acceptable for couples to make out on the subway. Along with the formal acquisition of your foreign language of choice, abroad experiences teach you the regional language and norms that sharply contrast with your own. They challenge your sensibilities, despite all pretensions towards tolerance, and make you re-assess your habits that you normally take for granted.

And then you meet other Americans floating throughout the city. The meeting is joyous: oh, you’re from Texas and you go to Boston College! I know what that means! The expatriate community is always welcoming, always ready to make new friends despite differences that would have prevented friendship back in America. When faced with all that is violently not – American, the expat never shies away from taking solace in the American. Even though I am nowhere near jingoistic in my waking life, I’ve never been so excited to celebrate the Fourth of July and angrily demand free drinks from the bartender because I’m American, dammit, and today is my day. A bond forms amo ng the group when re miniscing about everything you miss– real grocery stores and not just dirty mini-marts, indoor heating during the winter, being able to take a shower without lighting a match first–and by being part of a novelty group. We are no longer the confident and in-charge majority, but a cute and lost minority group fo u nd terribly interesting by the locals: “Hey, what do you think of George Bush? Are there a lot of school shooters / kidnappers / high school cliques in America?” Another fun lesson: foreign perceptions of America are often formed by headline news and 80s teen movies.

Out of all the confusion and the helplessness arises purity. When meeting a Chilean (or the informed citizen of any land in which you are an ignorant stranger), you have no idea what to make of them, so you simply have to judge them as they act towards you. When meeting another American, the desperation to speak English overwhelms you and the solidarity of the lost takes over any differences you may have. The greatest lesson I have taken from my Study Abroad Experience was the ability to openly accept and assess people on their merits. I’ve lost shyness in approaching strangers and the Hyde Park tendency to stare directly at your feet when walking– or, at least, I did for awhile. Back in the motherland, it’s simply not acceptable to (soberly) introduce yourself to total strangers at apartment parties. A world of familiar places and faces means that social webs and judgmental tendencies return. Such is life– I am back in the real world. And when people ask me how my summer was, I do reply with “Awesome” or “Cold” or “I learned a lot” and not much else, and maybe they wonder how it changed me, if at all. Silently, I am missing the warmth and openness of being a stranger in a strange land. Ideally, that is what one should get from their time abroad – the reminder that people are simply people, that our values are only one set among many, and the realization of how much you have been shaped by your own culture. And if you’ve actually taken advantage of the opportunity to be forced to question why you live your life the way you do, you come out shaped as an individual, more confident and closer to your core self. But the discotecas are pretty sweet, too.