October 25, 2019

For this month’s Staff Voices post, Chanae Brown, a Program Manager for Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and Greece shares her perspective on navigating another culture as a student of color. 

My first time going abroad by myself, I left my college in Virginia to study on the other side of the world in Osaka, Japan for one semester. After numerous years of Japanese study and far more years watching anime and soaking up what I could about Japanese culture, I felt ready. I couldn’t wait to experience authentic Japanese food, watch anime, make new friends, and enhance my Japanese language skills; preferably all at the same time. As a young Black woman, I felt prepared to experience life in Asia, but through the questioning of friends and family, I did start to get a bit nervous. Would my culture shock be more severe by going to a place where not many people looked like me? Would I be safe, and would I make friends? Would the language barrier pose any problems? I thought that my enthusiasm for study abroad would see me through any difficulties, but unsurprisingly, there was a bit more to it than that.For the first time, I was in a place with no family of my own and where few people looked like me. While there were some rough patches, my time in Japan was phenomenal, and I have since returned several times for personal travel and for work. 

For those of you that want to study abroad in a location that may be very different from what you are used to, here are a few tips that may help you out:

  • Indulge in cultural practices, relationships, and norms that remind you of home. From long, arduous hours taking care of my hair, to snacking on food doused in jerk seasonings, I found ways to reconnect with myself and cultures that were familiar to me. If the city that you study abroad in doesn’t have anything to remind you of those things, you may want to request that your family or friends send you snacks, hair care products, or mementos from back home. Online shopping also may have what you need!
  • If you have the capacity to do so, don’t be afraid to educate others! While traveling and spending time in a new place, miscommunications or microaggressions can occur and they understandably can cause frustration, anger, or discomfort. Educating others is not a mandatory responsibility, but you may find that expressing your thoughts and feelings may result in a deeper level of understanding between other program participants or local friends. 
  • Even if you don’t encounter any miscommunications or microaggressions, you may find that talking about your identity with other people can be enjoyable and provide a sense of comfort. During my time in Japan, I met two other Black women from different parts of the US, and we quickly became friends that I knew I could rely on and take comfort in them when need be. We went to parties together, cooked meals together, and explored Japan in a way that made me more thrilled to experience Japan as a Black woman. 
  • Remind yourself that in this day and age, it is easier than ever to connect with others, and you may be surprised by the connections that you make. Towards the end of my time in Japan, I became friends with a Japanese student that had the same music taste as me, and I was surprised by how I was to connect with someone over something like my love of music, which my family passed down to me. I also joined a few clubs on campus that allowed me to bond with others over our similar interests that crossed national or ethnic lines.
  • In the event of rough days, remember that you deserve to be there! What initially fueled your desire to go abroad? Was it an urge to see the world or desire to take a break from what you’re used to? 

By the time I returned to my university in the US, I knew that studying abroad in Japan had been the right choice for me and it has lead me to a career in study abroad. I encourage any interested student to pursue time abroad, regardless of how you think you may be perceived. At the end of the day, this journey is yours, and your future self will thank you!