Going abroad to study, intern, teach or volunteer is a decision that comes easier to some than others. It’s natural to have some hesitancies and fears when deciding to take that leap, because there are so many unknowns. From the language and currency used, to understanding the social and cultural norms, Americans traveling to another country typically find themselves surrounded by all things FOREIGN.
Learning to cope with this; the feeling of being “othered”, is bound to happen as soon as you find yourself somewhere new -- even here, in the U.S.! And although the feeling that you’re looked at as ‘different’ can happen here, that feeling can certainly multiply when going to another country.
As Americans going abroad, dealing with stereotypes of what it means to be American are inevitable. So how do we deal with that? And how do we deal with additional stereotypes? Stereotypes that address the intersectionality of our identities? Beyond being American, we also identify ourselves by our racial/ethnic identity, religion, disability, gender, sexuality, or other. Going abroad to other countries that may not understand or tolerate our multiple identities can be frightening and intimidating. Still, we want to ensure you that although an experience abroad isn’t completely free of negative encounters from time to time, it shouldn’t be the deciding factor in your decision to go abroad.
Do your homework
Dealing with stereotypes abroad starts with understanding the culture and history of the people you’ll be living among. So, if you know where you’re going, do some research about that country. If you’re going through a program offered at your school or through a separate organization, they’ll most likely provide you with some resources about where you’ll stay. Feel free to use some of our Destination Guides to help you gain insight as well.
Knowing the history and culture of a country is an ideal starting place. Next is knowing what that country is like today. Research current events and trends to understand how that history has shaped current attitudes or politics of the people. Some countries make international headlines because of the setbacks or progress made with regards to the changing landscape of what the people want or demand. Think about current issues such as gay rights in Russia, or the Arab Spring. It’s important to understand the state of affairs where you’ll be living. That way, you can be much more mindful of how you are perceived, and therefore possibly treated.
"Where are you from?...No, but where are you really from?"
How many of us have ever dealt with this question? AND rolled our eyes in disgust or anger? One of the most challenging parts of going to another country is that saying you’re American -- from Florida, New York, Texas...is just not enough. People of color find this particularly aggravating, especially if you’ve spent your entire life and upbringing in the U.S.
Keep an open mind about who you’re speaking with, and take into consideration what they may know or not know about American identities. It’s one thing to combat stereotypes among other Americans, but it’s different when you’re dealing with a person who might not understand the weight of their words. For example, it’s not uncommon in certain countries to use the term ‘Negro’ interchangeably with ‘Black’ or ‘African’. Or perhaps homosexuality is not only unaccepted -- it’s illegal. Meanwhile, some countries cite religious texts or cultural superstitions about how people with disabilities are being punished for actions in a previous life.
While these beliefs and practices don’t justify hatred or being mistreated, it could help you gain a better understanding of why you may be viewed or treated in a specific way. Having an open mind will help you develop more patience, diplomacy and tact when it comes to responding. They don’t happen often, but if they do, you’ll at least develop some cross-cultural skills beyond the classroom.
Don’t be afraid to BE YOURSELF
No one is immune to dealing with negative stereotypes when they’re abroad. And it’s impossible not to feel like you are now the official spokesperson for everything you identify as -- Black, gay, Muslim, etc. It’s inevitable that you’ll receive a lot of questions.
Although that might feel like a burden -- don’t let it! Embrace your identity, and use it as an opportunity to TEACH others about any stereotypes or misrepresentations they might believe, and how you’re just ONE person speaking from your own personal experiences -- not necessarily an entire community!
Be yourself, and engage in a dialogue that allows you to challenge their preconceived notions. While you can’t possibly represent an entire group of people, speaking from your own experiences might be enough to make others rethink what they think they know about you.
Identify your support network
Having said that, it’s just as important to use discretion and caution if you do find yourself in an environment where your identity may not yet be understood or tolerated on a larger social scale. While it would be hypocritical to assume that an entire nation of people share the same exact beliefs, remember that you’re a visitor to their country. If you’re gay and out at home, but chose to study abroad in a country where homosexuality is unaccepted, make sure you identify and develop trust with the people who know you and are equally invested in your health and safety. You don’t need to pretend to be someone you’re not to be safe; but at the same time, exercise caution and be mindful of how you may be perceived in public places.
These are very, very broad recommendations about how to deal with stereotypes. So much about coming to terms with stereotypes we’re faced with abroad has to do with how strongly we identify ourselves. It’s important to embrace who you are, and to be proud of who are becoming, but to be mindful that other cultures may have limited experiences with foreigners like yourself. As long as you do your homework, keep an open mind, be yourself, and identify a support network, your experience abroad will surely be memorable and meaningful.