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 - from the language and currency used, to understanding the social and cultural norms, Americans traveling to another country typically find themselves surrounded many unknowns.
Learning to cope with the feeling of being “othered” is bound to happen as soon as you find yourself somewhere new -- even here, in the U.S.! And when you’re in another country, sometimes that feeling can intensify.
As Americans going abroad, dealing with stereotypes of what it means to be American are inevitable. So, how do we deal with that? How do we deal with additional stereotypes, including ones that target 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. Check out 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 and take into consideration that someone may not know or have limited context on 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 identifying as queer 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, Queer, Muslim, etc.
Although that might feel like a burden -- don’t let it! Embrace your identity, and at your discretion use it as teaching moments about any stereotypes or misrepresentations they might believe. Emphasize how you are 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 maybe encourage others to rethink what they think they know about your identities.
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 safety. 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.
Author: Trixie Cordova