Imagine the excitement of being able to visit a different country to study abroad and live there for a while. It’s easy to romanticize. It honestly is exciting, but after a week, the excitement can fade and the experience can get slightly stressful. I started my study abroad experience with a Global Field Study course that was in Spain about the Camino de Santiago. After the course, I took a bus to Granada to start the summer session. I never realized that studying abroad for summer sessions were different experiences from GFSs or Preview. The GFS I just took was barely training wheels. This is why doing a field study for a week, and studying abroad for a few months are very different: Your English speaking American classmates are a feeling of safety and like you never left the U.S. It’s comfortable to be with a professor that knows what they are doing, and in some cases, speaks the language or knows how to communicate in the country they are going to. If you have NEVER been abroad alone before, studying abroad will be really scary at first. When I was in the US, I would complain about feeling different from others for various reasons, but I couldn’t even navigate or conceptualize a rest stop in Granada, similar to the one on the PA turnpike without feeling like I was on a different planet. I knew the language and could easily survive and get around, but I also felt lonely and lost.
A note on culture shock: being a privileged white American in another country for a few months will never be the same thing as immigrating to the United States. The feeling of culture shock isn’t even similar, but the scary feeling I am experiencing will give me more empathy and make me a more effective resource when I meet someone experiencing culture shock in America. This is day 11, and this is what I’m doing to cope with the lost feeling of culture shock at the moment:
As much as I claim I hate America and hate capitalism, I miss Arby’s. Where I was in America was pretty diverse (more or less), and It was weird to see homogenous locations with people that mostly looked similar. My coping mechanisms for culture shock included watching American comedy shows on YouTube. The most, comforting, American thing that I could think to do was to watch immigrants (Samantha Bea, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver) not because they moved from another country, but because their TV shows are what I associate with American pop culture.
Being in a foreign country also makes you look at your own culture in a way that you probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. I would talk to strangers about American politics, even if they had no clue what I was talking about. As much as I thought that I disliked America, I realized that I was obsessed with it. Love me, red, white, and blue sempai! You’d think I was conservative. It’s a very American thing to talk about politics, and in Spain, this is not normal. This led to some introspection, and I started to notice that I had some subconscious ethnocentric tendencies that I had never addressed before. I was also in Spain on Memorial Day. I would keep seeing posts on Facebook about our fallen soldiers and vets, but what about lost military personnel from other countries? Was America one of the only countries obsessed enough with war to make a holiday to commemorate the dead, yet we don’t do anything for the living ones affected by war? It’s just a regular day in Spain, and seeing an American holiday from the outside was strange.
My point in saying all of this is that in your study abroad experience you won't only learn about different societies, but you will also learn about your own culture and yourself. Leaving your way of life is exciting, but can be a little anxiety-inducing at first. Some important things to do when dealing with culture shock are to go out of your comfort zone and to try to avoid isolating yourself. One of the most effective things I’ve learned to do to get accustomed to being in a different country is to go out and interact with restaurant and shop owners. If you are ever out doing an activity, confiding with your cohort is also an effective way of getting over culture shock.