Looking back, the biggest shock when I arrived in Ireland was how American I realized I was. I have been fortunate enough to travel overseas prior to this trip, but to become a resident of another country was not an easy task. The change forced me to realize how much I relied and focused on American culture and way of life. I hunted for Oreos in numerous supermarkets, wore my backwards hats, and overly embraced my foreignness. Now my room here at DCU is filled with an American flag, an American flag towel, American flag backpack, American flag flip flops, and an American flag duvet cover with a matching American flag pillowcase.
While I have continued to embrace my home culture and individualism, I have slowly embraced a more European way of life and made sure to try new things. At the very minimum, I have evolved from my over-the-top American flag shopping spree. Throughout our time in Ireland and our travels to other cities, we have frequently used the adjective “euro.” My wardrobe is now a little more “euro” after buying a couple pieces of clothing at a local store. I am a little more euro in that I can now look the right way when crossing a street. I say “sorry” instead of excuse me, which is an easy way for Irish to spot foreigners.
When I was in Brussels, I visited European Parliament, and on nights out I made friends from Austria to Egypt. In Scotland we visited a local food market and I made sure to try as many local fares as I could (but I could not bring myself to eat haggis.) In Paris, I became an expert on the sprawling Paris metro system. This time I was a bit more adventurous when I tried roasted duck and absolutely loved it. We drank wine and ate croissants and crepes in every corner of the city.
I am so glad I have been evolving into someone more comfortable with a culture, attitude, and home that is not my own. It has been great to get to mainland Europe as well to compare/contrast not just the U.S. and Ireland, but the U.S., Ireland, Scotland, France, Belgium, etc. I have a few trips left and about a month in Dublin. I will be leaving behind so much but come back a person with a better level of cultural understanding. The transition back might not be easy but I will make it through. Even if that means covering everything in my room with an Irish flag.
While I'm sure there are many stereotypes of Americans in Germany - loud, in a rush, rude - two stand out above the rest. First and foremost, our desire for small talk and discomfort with silence are duly noted by the German population. They prefer stoic silence over meaningless conversation. "Nice weather we're having, isn't it?" is unsuitable for elevator rides with strangers. However, with this being said it is important to note the U.S. sided stereotype - Germans are a hard and unsocial people - is very untrue. The value is on meaningful conversation. Quality over quantity kind of thing. Talking for talking's sake is uncommon, and quite honestly, refreshing. There is no need to fill silences and pauses to gather your thoughts before speaking aren't immediately filled with another comment to keep the conversation flowing.
The second is a bit more difficult to define. Throughout the past month, especially when traveling to other German cities like Dresden or Hamburg, the common response from a local after saying we're from the States is "why are you here?" This is not an inquiry about what we are studying or if it was the culture that enticed us. Instead it is a surprised statement with a hint of disdain. At the moment I am still uncertain if the surprise comes from an opinion that Americans are generally uninterested in Germany and therefore seeing people spend long periods of time within its borders is thought of as unusual or if they are utterly unaware of how interesting Germany can be.
Regardless of German expectations we are actively working past our cultural differences and misunderstandings. The group's native German friend group is finally expanding past host parents and student assistants! It may take a little stepping out of our comfort zones, but bridging the gap between German and U.S. customs is an exciting adventure.
I had been in Khon Kaen for less than a week, when Ajaan Dave, the program director, approached our class asking if anyone would be interested in covering a story about a community in Issan that was suffering from human rights violations as a result of a gas company’s activity in their community. The community had specifically reached out to CIEE asking for someone to come and bring light to their story. As a journalism major and a sustainability minor, I of course raised my hand along with a few other students in the program. It was in that moment that we were given the responsibility of being real advocates and telling a real story that actually impacted lives. This was no exercise in a classroom. This was real life.
We knew very little of the issue the community faced before we went to visit them. Before we left, we planned angles and wrote out a few questions that would be our springboard for the interview with a monk in the community, the community members, and the NGO. One half day of interviews and exchanges was all we had to work with. I was blown away during our exchange with the community by their tenacity in the face of a large corporation backed by the Thai Government. They were determined to have their voices heard and their plight known. Near the end of our time, they also asked our group what we knew about fracking, problems that have resulted from fracking, and how communities dealt with them in the US. The fact that we, mere college undergrads, became their primary source of knowledge on a subject that they were experiencing first hand astounded me. Not only was this community trusting my peers and I to tell their story, but they also saw us as an informant, useful to them. In all my years in the classroom, I have never had the privilege of such responsibility, like that which was handed to me in my first few days in Thailand. I am exited to see what other opportunities for advocacy are opened to me in the next few months.
Every year, students choose to study abroad in Europe for the opportunity to travel around the continent. If I am being honest, this is one of the reasons why I chose to study in Madrid, as opposed to another Spanish-speaking country in Latin America. I had never been to Europe before and desperately wanted to see historic cities such as Athens and Rome, and “EuroTrip” must-sees like Paris and London.
But, as I embark on my first weekend trip, I can’t help but worry about how to manage my time between other cities and countries, and Madrid. After all, I chose to study in Madrid—a decision I intend to take full advantage of. That being said, once you actually sit down and look at your calendar, you begin to realize what little weekend time 4 short months leaves you. This creates a problem that I believe most study abroad students encounter: the “I know I am not going to be able to afford to go back to Europe for a long time now, so I want to travel as much as I can while I am here while also immersing myself into the culture of my host country,” problem.
Trust me, I am no expert on the matter. However, I do have some tips for coping with the pressure of balancing your adventures in your host country and your adventures abroad:
- Which cities do you want to visit the most? Which could you do without seeing? Don’t go on a trip simply because all of your friends are going, go because YOU want to. Your time in Europe is short and precious, so don’t waste half of it traveling to places you could really care less about.
- Class load is significantly less when you are studying abroad, so take advantage of the afternoons and evenings you have during the week to explore your city! This is a great way to explore your host country without having to a sacrifice a weekend of travel.
- Plan, Plan, Plan! My saving grace this trip has really been my trusty ‘ole iCalendar. With it, I have been able to map out what weekends I am willing to leave open for travel and what weekends I want to stay in Madrid. This comes in handy especially when GW has scheduled program events you must attend, or if you have a paper coming up!
- Figure out what YOU want. Listen, everybody has different priorities while studying abroad, and that is 100% ok! That is why you need to figure out what is most important to you: traveling throughout Europe or learning about your host culture. Do you want to work to find a balance? Or would you rather just pick one? It’s all up to you. If you can answer this question right off the bat, you’re in good shape!
When I first landed in Buenos Aires, we were asked to meet outside the arrivals gate to meet with program officials and other students. We were then assigned a partner to share a cab with, as we headed to meet our host families. I had two large suitcases and a carry on, and when we walked outside to the cab, the driver became furious at the amount of luggage I had. He started arguing that his car was too small (it was not) and wanted to be paid more, and I stared blankly. I spoke no Spanish, and all I could do was exactly that -- stare blankly ahead. Thankfully, my cab partner communicated for me and settled the issue. It was a small moment, but it was also when it finally hit me that I was in a country where my ability to communicate was nonexistent. I felt so deeply out of place, and for the rest of the cab ride, I remained silent. I entered my home stay to be greeted by my host mom who spoke minimal English. The first three weeks of living in Argentina was characterized by a lot of head nodding to sentences I could not understand and being heavily dependent on others to communicate for me.
After I started to align with the pace of my Spanish classes, I began to pick up on the language tremendously. I now not can speak Spanish well, I can understand it also for the most part. This improvement was one I did not see coming, and one I am all too thankful for. Because when I had my ability to communicate removed, I became highly self reliant to do daily actions and have become very grateful for the newfound independence. My program is set to end next week, so I have been thinking a lot about the areas I have grown in.
But, I also have to come to terms with leaving. I have made Buenos Aires my home, and to return to the United States will be a strange type of readjustment -- adjusting to a place that is already so familiar! Granted I have travels planned out after the program ends, this discussion of coming back is nonetheless a difficult but also a healthy one to have. I am so grateful to have met the people I did and for the experiences I went through to be at the place of comfort and peace I am at now, but I miss so much my family, my friends, and my life at GW. With no doubt, I will be returning to a different environment, one which I left for four months. I will be returning to people who have in these four months have changed like I have. Being here and witnessing change daily has helped in not fearing it and rather to embracing it fully.
All I can say is that I am happy to be here and I am happy to be coming home. Thank you also to Buenos Aires for being so sweet to me this semester.
More often that not, it seems that the ‘study’ aspect of studying abroad is considered more secondary to the true experience of immersing yourself in a culture you are unfamiliar with. But, the courses I have been taking through my program have been a beautiful complement to my time in Buenos Aires.
To start off with, I have not taken Spanish prior to coming here. I only have a background in French, which helps tremendously in learning Spanish. Because I am at a beginner level, I have Spanish from Monday to Thursday with two different professors. From the beginning, they only spoke to us in Spanish, which was overwhelming but now I am so glad that they do. It forces me to pay more attention to the vocabulary I learn from class or from my host family and to then connect the dots together to understand what they are saying. Being in Buenos Aires itself while doing this is nothing short of what I needed. I am able to leave the classroom and put the language to use daily, and I see myself picking it up faster and faster each day.
I absolutely love the courses I am taking here. Latin America had always been a component in my previous classes -- never the focus. To be taking three classes that deal with issues areas within the region is what I have looked forward to all last year. One is called “Drugs and Violence in Latin American Literature and the Arts.” I came in with the misconception that it would focus largely on subjective violence -- in essence, people killing people or other acts of physical violence. But, the professor focuses more largely on systemic violence or what causes this subjective violence we see on TV to happen. The other two courses I am taking are centered around Argentina, one dealing with its environment and one with its history. All three of these courses overlap and remain more interesting than the next. There are often field trips to museums or such for these classes, which adds to the experience even more. I am able to really delve into what has been a interest of mine for a while, and being able to discuss what I learn with my host family adds a new perspective each time.
Learning about Latin American in the U.S. compared to learning about it within the region itself has been vastly different and eye opening. Being in Buenos Aires itself gives you further context to the history and politics and literature I learn about in class at IES, which makes for a more deeper understanding. While in the U.S., you can learn about all of these subject areas but the context and the views of the people from the region itself can go missing from time to time. But, what I have learned at GWU has definitely given a solid background for me to expand my interest and knowledge to greater heights.