Opening Up To Other Cultures

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

Studying abroad can seem overwhelming at times, especially if you have not traveled before. Going abroad with the right mindset can make a major difference in your experience and can help you to truly enjoy other cultures and make your trip the best that it can be.

One of the most important things to remember when traveling someplace new or unfamiliar is to keep an open mind and embrace other people and their cultures. This is applicable whether you are overseas or right in your hometown. You may be surprised to find that you have more in common than you think with people who seem so different than you.

Be careful not to judge others for the differences that you do find. Instead of thinking that what they eat, wear, do, etc. is strange or weird, ask why it is they do what they do.  Many times, when meeting people from other countries or cultures you will discover an interesting story or custom that is tied to that person’s background. This may all sound easier than it actually is. As human beings, it is our natural instinct to judge others who are different from ourselves. But over time, you will find that you can change your behavior to be much more accepting of those with different backgrounds. Especially when going abroad, view differences with others as an opportunity to engage with them and find out more about their culture and customs they participate in. You will gain more by doing so than you ever could from reading about it in a textbook.

So the next time you cross paths with someone unlike yourself, take the opportunity to start up a conversation with them. We would love to hear about how it turns out! Already have a great story about connecting with other cultures? Feel free to share it with us!


Going Back to Italy.

It’s hard to believe a year has passed since I began my study abroad experience in Florence, Italy. During my time overseas, I fell deeply in love with the Italian culture, and fully realized the potential and importance of travel for a young student. My time abroad brought out inner passions I never realized I had, and helped me grow into the worldlier person I am today. And I miss it so much. Since returning to the United States, not a day has passed that I don’t reminisce my time in Italy. The food, the people, the history, all the vespas, everything! The best part about falling in love with a foreign destination, though, is that you can always return. In fact, as you read this post, I’m making my way to O’Hare. Today, I’m hopping a plane back to Italy, the country that still tightly holds my heart.

Flooding thoughts distract me as I prepare for my trip back. I daydream about the monuments I have yet to see, the food in which I will indulge, the culture in which I will re-immerse, and the old memories I will reminisce upon. Bittersweet feelings sway over me when I get lost in these thoughts, and I’m curious to know how I will actually feel once I’m there.

Will I feel grief? Will experiencing the wonders of Italy once more make me long for the memories of my study abroad semester? Or will those old happy feelings will resurface? I know revisiting my old apartment building, school, friends, and my favorite square that overlooks the entire city of Florence will bring back memories that truly changed my life. I spent countless moments discovering myself at these places and with these people, and experiencing them again, with a year’s perspective, will be…what, exactly? I’ll let you know when I find out!

Regardless, I am beyond excited. I can’t wait to tour the Sistine Chapel, a long awaited visit I can’t wait to see in Rome. I burst with happiness when I think about reuniting with friends that still live in Florence, as well as indulging in my favorite delicacies from the local cafes and restaurants. I plan to fill my days with Italian fashion, cooking, scenery, and culture to recall on all of the intense amounts of joy I felt during my study abroad experience.

Above all, I hope to spend time reflecting upon the way my study abroad experience has helped define who I am. I hope to come home even more grateful for my time spent studying and sightseeing in Italy, and as motivated as ever to continue to my travels of the world.

[Guest post]: Feeling Foreign

Cat’s asking me if I want to drive her car.  I’m so busy thinking about how numbered my days are with her and the family that I don’t hear her at first.

“Shelby, come up here. Have a go,” she says again, opening the driver’s side door and climbing out. I look at Clare, who’s grinning like a fool. She urges me with her eyes to follow our host-mother’s orders.

I climb out of the back seat and go around the vehicle to the front door on the right, which Cat’s left open for me. I crawl in and strap myself into the driver’s seat, my breath quickening from excitement and nervous fear.

“You can drive a manual, yeah?” Cat asks.  I grin.

“I’m a farm-girl, Cat. Everybody drives a stick where I’m from.”

Driving Cat’s car isn’t as easy as I’d expected it to be. Everyone had been telling me, the British don’t drive on the wrong side of the road, just the other side. This kind of rhetoric led me to believe that learning to drive in a foreign country was cake, like I was already an expert and only needed to position myself about six feet to the left—like I would be fine behind the wheel of a British coupe, driving my host mom and best friend to Sir Isaac Newton’s home.

In the driver’s seat, all I feel is wrong, wrong, wrong.

* * *

I’d been trying so hard since Day One to be anything but what I was—American. All of us—every student at Harlaxton—shook off our USA garb the second we touched down at Heathrow. We shopped at Primark and Boots hoping it would make us British. We drew out our “a’s” when we spoke and spelled color with a “u,” hoping we could pass as citizens. We fought about which football team was better and we loved the queen. We ate biscuits, not cookies. We said “cheers” instead of “thank you.” We used the metric system.

Day after day, our British professors would stress that there was no such thing as a “British identity.” We were listening, but we knew they were lying.

Everyone but us was, oh, so British, and we were

Just. So. Foreign.

Not just foreign. We were American. They could pick us out in a crowd at a glance. We started to pick out the Americans too, hoping that it would gain us some credibility, but in the end, it didn’t change who we were, and we were never able to mask it.

Why we wanted to, I’m not sure, but it seemed as though all of us were struggling with knowing we somehow didn’t fit in. It was more than culture shock or homesickness; it was feeling misplaced. We’d expected things to be different, and we took to those differences so readily, but we hadn’t expected to never really belong. We hadn’t expected to try so hard to overcome adversity just to fail.

I was coming to terms with this in the driver’s seat of Cat’s car. I was realizing that four months wasn’t enough time to become British. I was facing the reality that I might never be British. I’d come here an American with the intention of changing herself, becoming more culturally aware through immersion, and emerging from her experience as a bright, British butterfly.

I was going to fail.

* * *

I wake up from a hard slumber aboard Flight 86 to Chicago. I’ve missed the safety demonstration. I look out the window on my right.

I’m somewhere over the Atlantic.

I feel the tear streak down my cheek when I realize I’ve missed my chance to say goodbye to England. The woman next to me shifts in her seat to comfort me.

“Oh dear,” she says in an English accent. “Are you leaving home?”

I laugh as I wipe my eyes and say, “No, I’m going home.”

“Oh, you’re American!” She laughs at her mistake and pats my hand.

At 30,000 feet above sea-level, I start to understand what re-entry shock is. They’d warned us about it back at the Manor, but what they didn’t explain to us is that going back where you came from after you’ve been away, after you’ve changed, after you’ve spent four months trying to fit in elsewhere would make you feel like a foreigner in your own home.

Maybe I failed at becoming British, but I became a different American than I was before. I know how it feels to be foreign. I know how scary it is to feel misplaced. I know how depressing it can get to not know where home is. I know that being stuck between coming and going is unnerving.

But I’ve learned that the time you spend in the interim is the time you spend really living.

Shelby Koehne is an English major who studied abroad at Harlaxton College in Spring 2011.

Coming Home: Biggest Culture Shock

There we were: my seven best girlfriends and I sitting teary eyed at our favorite Ristorante La Giostra in Florence, Italy. The eight of us, sitting in silence, glancing at each other, the restaurant, the people, the food… all of us, making sure to take in every last detail, knowing it would be the last time we’d experience a moment exactly like this.

Before my arrival to Italy, friends and family prepared me for the all too common, “culture shock.” Sleeping habits, language barriers, unfamiliar places, and loss of comfort zone were aspects that could have made the transition difficult. However, the moment my foot touched Italian soil, I knew something incredible was about to begin.

The city of Florence had a magical way of pulling on my heart strings, making every detail shine a little brighter, every foreign word sound like a beautiful song, and every bite taste like a little piece of heaven. When lost, I explored. When I couldn’t understand, a smile was exchanged. When exposed to something new, I embraced it and let it influence my new, foreign way of living.

At that last dinner, I understood that my time was up, and the next morning once I got on the plane to head back home to the US this reality would only become a memory.

Home. The excitement of reuniting with family and friends, sleeping in my big bed, eating my favorite home cooked meal, were all things I focused on to make the transition back to Chicago a little less painful. After the first couple days, and getting my fix of all the details I missed while abroad- it hit me, that feeling I had escaped experiencing in Italy- culture shock.

No one could have prepared me for the way I was felt after the excitement of coming home subsided. Reality hit me square in the face. Back to the same work, school, locations, and faces I had known my entire life. It wasn’t the case that these elements were flawed; it was my new way of thinking that didn’t match my old environment.

I knew I had to be proactive and shake this horrible culture shock. I decided to make goals: Working two jobs to save money, do well in school to graduate in time, implement the way I saw the world in Europe to my bearings in the U.S., and continue to be the inspired individual I became while abroad.

My time studying abroad in Florence, Italy has left a permanent handprint on my heart. That experience changed my life for better in so many ways, and I came out of my travels a more cultured, open minded, secure, independent, wholesome person. And like my mother always says- “If you’re sad to see it go, find peace in knowing that it at one point made you the happiest you could be.”

Florence Italy

Until we meet again, Florence!

My relationship with India.

Originally published on Sara’s travel blog on August 2, 2012

Today, I will be returning to the United States after spending the last two and a half months in India. I don’t know how you all feel about the question, “So….how was your trip?”, but I hate it! How can I even possibly begin to explain what has just happened to me in the past two and a half months in India? Yet, the best description of an experience like studying abroad came from one of the students at my hostel during one of our tea time discussions: studying abroad is like a relationship. In the same way you can’t simply answer questions about the health of your marriage or relationship, you can’t describe the good and the bad of your study abroad experience in one simple response. It seems that this is the type of relationship I have with India.

Stage 1: My first date with India. I arrived in India on May 16, 2012. Like most first dates, the first day was a little awkward. I watched a man pee on the side of the road, walked around the streets feeling very aware of my whiteness, almost got hit by a few rickshaws, and ate food that I did not recognize and was too afraid to ask what it was.

Stage 2: Getting comfortable. It wasn’t until I arrived in Mumbai, after spending a week in Delhi, that I began to feel like this relationship between India and I could really work. I stayed with my friend’s sister and visited an old friend from Eastern who I had not seen in two years and didn’t think I would ever see again. I even wore a saree and was fed lots of delicious food (this time I was comfortable enough to ask what it was).

Stage 3: Is it love that I’m feeling? After Mumbai, I spent two weeks at the Asha House, a children’s home near Delhi. Here, I fell in love with 29 beautiful children who accepted me immediately upon my arrival. They tried (and failed) to teach me Hindi. But, they taught me cricket and seven stones, while I taught them how to do the Hokey Pokey.

Stage 4: Could India be the one? After my stay at the Asha House, I ventured down to Hyderabad, the location of my study abroad program. In Hyderabad, several Indian families welcomed me into their homes, and it was here, in Hyderabad, where I attended my first Indian wedding, mastered the art using Indian public transportation, and made friendships that will last a lifetime. I felt less like “a foreigner” and more like a part of a community.

Like most relationships, not everything has been perfect, including the times I have been ripped off by rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers, when the power goes out every five minutes for just enough time to disconnect my computer from the internet, and the internal struggle I face every time I see someone throw their garbage on the side of the road. But, I guess this is just how it is with relationships: you accept the other for the good and the bad. Although I have been in India just two and a half short months, I think I might just be in love.