Americans When They Study Abroad
I am a strong advocate for the many clichés of studying abroad. I believe that studying abroad really opens up one’s mind and that there is so much value in traveling and immersing in new environments. To be placed out of your comfort zones, to deal with different cultures, and to learn more about other places in this world are incredibly important life experiences that help us grow in immeasurable ways.
Whenever I study abroad, I make it a point to do my best to immerse in my new environment. I also find making local friends to be the greatest honor and pleasure of my excursions abroad. Going to a new country and sightseeing is one way to experience a new place, but in order to dig deep beneath the surface, meeting people from the host county is imperative.
With help through funding, scholarships, and support from my parents, I have been blessed to have the opportunity to study abroad six times. Each time, I felt that I grew a little more and learned a bit more about myself and the world around me. I truly realized that there is no end to learning and that the more one sees, the more they realize they do not know.
I do have one grievance about my time studying abroad through American programs. It seems that I do not seem to share the same ethos of study abroad with several of my American peers.
It is understandable that when one goes abroad, that excitement really catches up to us and potentially puts people on a frenzy of night activities. People enjoy drinking, clubbing, night life, party life, and so forth. People have the right to enjoy indulging themselves in these activities. The problem that I notice though is that my American classmates tend to overly invest in finding the nearest bar or club whenever they study abroad. I would often question if this truly is an international experience? They might try to justify their actions by saying that each country has their own clubbing culture and that going to these clubs is still a great way to meet locals.
By communicating with my local friends and visiting the club a few times myself, I found that the rule of thumb seems to be that most clubs in other countries are frequented by mostly Americans. The other patrons might be from other countries but are still not from the host country, and then local people seem to be the minority. This is why I am staunch in my beliefs that going to bars or clubs abroad is not the best use of time abroad.
As much as I love the United States, I find going abroad to meet Americans abroad to be slightly counterproductive, especially for immersion and the purposes of expanding my creative horizons. Immersing within the American expat communities has its perks and is a good way to find a network abroad when one is out of their usual comfort zone, but I observed it becomes very hard to leave once you become entrenched in that social circle.
What really irked me recently was when I studied abroad in Taiwan just this summer, this student I met really enjoyed the club scenes and night life of Taipei. When the program finished, this student made a big post on Facebook emphasizing how they “lived and breathed Chinese for the past three months”. Based on what this student was telling me and our classmates, most of this student’s time was spent at the bars and clubs with their American friends. I think this example demonstrates an interesting cognitive dissonance among Americans who spend time abroad. They realize that there are great rewards for immersing in the local environment and making local friends, but why don’t they?
There are many reasons why Americans exhibit this behavior when they are abroad. When you’re in a new country, it’s understandable that it may be intimidating to meet the locals, and it may be even more of a challenge if there is a language barrier. So when most people study abroad, they go to a new location and usually gravitate towards people who are in a similar situation, excited and nervous about being in a new place. Meeting Americans abroad and classmates that have the same interest of studying abroad is part of the experience, but it is incredibly important to reach a balance. To me, meeting Americans abroad as an American almost defeats the purpose of studying abroad. That is not to say that you should completely discriminate spending time with Americans but the essence of studying abroad is to get out of one’s comforts zone while truly breathing and living in a new environment. I use my limited time abroad to take advantage of the unique opportunities to meet people in the host country. To spend time with Cuban college students in Havana or having your Taiwanese friends take you around to Taipei’s local night markets are experiences that can only be attained in those local environments. Creativity seems to spur from interactions with locals from the host country. My fear and observations have been that by being unable to truly immerse, Americans impact their own creative outlets and do not make room to develop creatively when abroad. If they are unable to immerse, they only carry their American ideals with them without being able to truly meld with the local environment around them. As a result, their ability to be creative abroad is impacted significantly and limited to only what they experienced before going abroad.
My humble suggestion is to take these interactions naturally. Sometimes, local people come up to you to initiate conversation and that should not throw you off. Take this as an opportunity to really listen to what they have to say. Use your judgement to make sure this person does not have bad intentions. If locals initiate conversation with you, I would take advantage of that momentum to continue the interaction. I can also give cliché advice on joining clubs abroad and so forth, but what I find to be true is that there is always an avenue to meet people. As long as you are involved and creative with your pursuits, the chances of running into locals who are willing to interact with you and have common interests are relatively high.
I could go on and on about how lucky I am to have met local friends during my study abroad experiences, from that fortunate encounter with a French college student at a bench in front of the Eiffel Tower to the gym at National Taiwan University, I’ve always been blessed with meeting hospitable and kind local people. I did not limit myself to meeting people in one specific setting or circumstance. I allowed myself to be creative even though I do not consider myself an artsy person. I allowed myself to go out of my comfort zone and found myself meeting people on trains, buses, gyms, tourist sites, lines for food, and so on. I had to be creative with the way I met people, and even though it did come with some risks of running into awkward situations, I found it to be incredibly rewarding and meaningful.
Creativity, art, and culture are all fairly hard to find at nightclubs and bars. The best chances of discovering the spark of creativity is just by engaging with the local culture around them and thus entering a situation where the creative possibilities are truly boundless. Immersion is a key to a creative growth experience abroad. This piece is not meant to come off as harsh criticism as opposed to being an imploring encouragement to those who study abroad, particularly Americans, to really reflect on what their purpose is when they study abroad. American students do exhibit what I would almost call an “anti-immersive” kind of behavior when studying abroad. There are many Americans who are probably an exception to this rule, but this is a pattern of behavior I have noticed during my time abroad and have had many long conversations about this phenomenon with both my American peers and local friends who I have met abroad. It truly is not easy when it comes to meeting local people. The chances of getting into some awkward situations, encountering language barriers, and just feeling out of place are relatively high, but that is a growing experience in itself. I have heard my American classmates complain about how it is hard to meet local people during their study abroad experience. That is something I agree with, it truly is not an easy endeavor. The important message and lessons I want to share is that genuine cross-cultural exchange is incredibly valuable. I constantly think back to my own interactions with my local friends in various host countries, and I only hope that my American peers can enjoy the same kinds of rewards and euphoria from these kinds of cross-cultural interactions.
Victor Zheng : Graduated from the University of Virginia double majoring in History and Chinese. He has had the opportunity to study abroad in college six times through various means, such as scholarships and self-support. Victor hopes to explore the realms of international journalism and perhaps one day become a foreign correspondent.