Acclimating to an unfamiliar environment abroad can be mentally demanding on many fronts. The constant influx of new information keeps your mind sharp and your legs racing toward your next adventure, but even the most experienced traveler can become overwhelmed at times. Formulating a simple plan of action can help to prepare travelers for navigating unexpected, unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable scenarios in a new host community.
1. Focus on functionality instead of perfection. One of the most challenging aspects of living in a new country is functioning in a foreign language. Language is the most essential form of communication and in a surrounding where speech is unfamiliar, subtle cues and contexts may go unrecognized. The idea of arriving in a new country without a basic foundation in the language may seem daunting, but it is also a great way to learn. By focusing on functionality instead of perfection, learning new terms and building a useful vocabulary will come more naturally. As a foreigner, it is understandable not to know the ins and outs of your host language immediately. People in country can be understanding, so be understanding with yourself as well.
2. Make a list of goals that you want to accomplish while abroad. As a newcomer to any culture, it is easy to get lost in the day to day adventures of your new life as a traveler. Making a list of objectives for yourself can be a grounding force to keep you on track and help articulate what you want from your experience. While a general list is helpful, a good way to help follow through with your goals is to make your list more practical by honing in on a topic, specifying your goal, and focusing on things that can be measured tangibly. For example, if your goal in cultural competency is to learn local traditions, then learning to cook a traditional meal, having four conversations with someone of an older generation, and going to see a traditional performance, are good goals to add to your list.
3. Assume the best of your hosts’ intentions. Whether you are living in a homestay, or have your own apartment, misinterpretations can happen when engaging with people who have different customs than you. At times, you may not understand why people act or react the way they do. In some scenarios, it can be easy to attribute behaviors in our host culture to ones we find familiar in our own culture. It is good to remember that certain cultural aspects do not have an equivalent, and actions can be displayed with different intentions than we find at home. Assuming the best of your hosts’ intentions can help you explore other roots of possibilities for actions you may not fully understand.
4. Be culturally sensitive. As guests of a new community, it is important to understand your hosts' impressions of Americans and realize that this will influence their understanding of us. Without deliberate awareness of surrounding norms, behaviors, and displays of respect, our actions as foreigners can be misconstrued. Essentially, cultural sensitivity is the awareness of cultural differences and the ability to adjust accordingly. Experiences abroad can be more challenging because of the difference in cultural understanding, however it is important to remember that in America, we also may face uncomfortable scenarios surrounding issues of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical and economic disadvantages. The ability to seamlessly adapt to different perspectives can depend on the ability to actively listen and observe rather than act.
5. Utilize resources. A combination of in-country support from your study abroad program, external sources, and developing a personal strategy, can make your time abroad more easily managed. Before traveling, research the resources offered by your home country, country of destination, and program. While in country, you may closely connect with your host family and friends, but at times they may not understand the specifics of your concerns. Many programs provide resources such as peer mentors and access to networks while abroad. If you have concerns reach out to the program officer or on-site staff for help. They are a great resource, and will be able to help you or connect you with someone who can. Knowing your resources can make life abroad easier.
6. Adopt an approach of observation and awareness. It is common to approach an interaction with expectations of how you foresee an exchange happening, but in new environments this can hinder the ability to accept another perspective. By entering an exchange without preconceived notions, it may take longer to navigate simple interactions, but with patience it can help you adapt in the long run. Before engaging, observing how interactions are handled across socioeconomic classes, genders, elders, family, friends, etc. can help discern the appropriate action. Attentive awareness of how things are said and done can help determine what to do in certain situations.For example, when meeting someone for the first time, you may anticipate a greeting as a hug, a hand-shake, or a couple of kisses on the cheek. Greetings are a basic part of human interaction that can vary dramatically between cultures. In some cultures it may be inappropriate and insulting to exchange kisses in greeting someone of the opposite sex, but in other cultures it may be rude not to! Noticing the mannerisms of people within your host culture can establish a trend of how people generally conduct themselves. Directing your energy to appreciating new customs, rather than anticipating them, can alleviate the pressure of assuming a fixed outcome.
7. Commit! In order to meet the challenge of acclimating to a new culture, it is important to let go of a certain level of self-consciousness and fully experience the customs of the people in the target country. The possibility of making mistakes in a new culture is inevitable, but by committing yourself to remain engaged, you can take note of mistakes and use them to make progress. Remember, to agree or disagree is irrelevant. Appreciating the similarities and exploring the roots of the differences is what cultural immersion is all about!