Navigating a New Culture

While every aspect of study abroad can be very intimidating, navigating a new culture can be one of the most frightening and difficult things. New customs, language barriers, and awkward situations are all things you will have to adapt to during your experience living abroad. Here are some tips as to how you can cope with these differences.

First and foremost, you must remain open-minded. Be open to trying new things and new  places. Instead of always sticking around the touristy areas that are typically more westernized, venture outside of them to try somewhere more traditional or local. Cultures vary by country and within countries. Some may be more similar to what you have come to know here in the U.S., but more than likely throughout your experience abroad you will find many differences between the host culture and your own. Whether it is the manner of greeting someone or the way you hold your eating utensils, the best advice is to at least try it out and mind cultural norms.

Additionally, you have to consider the situation from local perspective. If you are unsure of a  certain custom or are not confident as to how to act in a particular setting, observe your peers to see how they comport themselves, and most importantly, do not hesitate to ask questions. Although you may have become accustomed to acting in a certain way, it may be considered rude or offensive in your host culture.  Asking questions shows that you are taking an interest in learning their culture and oftentimes people will be glad to answer them. It also avoids any potentially awkward situations you may put yourself in.

That brings me to another point. Depending on where you are, the local people may or may not have had much contact with American students. Often times, you are not only representing your school and yourself while abroad, but also your home country. Don’t be that one person who sets the bad rap for us all. People can remember you by the littlest things, especially when you are a foreigner.  Allow them to remember you in a positive way  rather than a negative one. 

Even though it can be challenging, navigating a new culture is also very rewarding. It gives  you a chance to learn not only about the new culture, but more importantly about yourself.  You don’t really know what kind of person you can be until you are pushed beyond your  boundaries. As you begin to adapt to your new environment, you will see changes within  yourself, especially looking back to the first weeks when you arrived. 

One of the most rewarding parts of study abroad is being able to integrate into the host culture or to “become a local.” The more you are willing to adapt, the less you will stand out.  Nothing beats the joy of having someone ask you for directions on the street and being able to point them the right way. 

There are two sides to every study abroad program: inside and outside of the classroom. Outside of the classroom you will constantly be learning from your surroundings, immersing yourself more and more into the culture as you go. Eventually, that one part that seemed the scariest or most uncomfortable at the start will become the part you miss the most.