Experiences in Milan

As we continue to look back at experiences students had last spring, let’s turn to Linjiang Han, a Commerce major who studied in Milan, Italy on the UVA Commerce: Third Year Core: Universita Bocconi program to finish off her third year. In this post, she writes about her thoughts from during her second month in Italy!

One of my biggest challenges since coming to Italy is the use of clothes drying racks instead of dryers. I asked around and realized other European countries also use drying racks. When I lived in the United States, I used to wash my clothes once every two or three weeks. After coming here, I must wash my clothes every week because of the lag time for my clothes to dry as well as the small size of the washing machine.

Another difference is that the grocery stores and product container sizes can be much smaller than they are in the United States. I find this to be a fact that is rooted in culture and not likely to change. In the stores, there is also not as many selections as I am used to and prices can be higher due to the cost of living in Milan and the euro-to-dollar exchange rate. I try to save on expenses by finding less expensive restaurants and places to buy food in bulk.
Not only are the grocery store prices high, but also restaurant prices. While you do not tip in Italy, there are sitting fees that are essentially mandatory tips. These sitting fees are generally €2.50. Once, I thought I should save money and ate a small meal that was €4.50 only to realize the sitting fee costed over 55% of what I ate. To get around this problem, especially when I’m traveling and prices can sometimes be exorbitant in the first place, I will eat at cafes or small establishments where there is no sitting fee. However, when it comes to eating authentic Italian food, especially ones specific to a region, I am willing to pay more money for it. In the following photographs are some of the local foods I’ve eaten: Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia (Squid Ink Pasta) from Venice and Polenta e Osèi (Polenta Cake) from Bergamo.
Related to food, another challenge I encountered when I came to Milan was the late dinner time because of aperitivo. Since then, I have fully adjusted by to it by eating lunch at a later time or eating a snack around lunch time. After coming to Milan, I have realized that not only is my body affected by meal times, but that many Italian businesses tend to take a lunch break. Even at the university’s help desk, there is a three-hour window in the middle of the day when it is closed. Therefore, I am now accustomed to checking hours of operation if I want to go someplace close to lunch time.

Additionally, everyone places great efforts in sorting out trash in Italy. For example, we have five different trash bins in my apartment with one each for plastic, paper, glass, organic waste, and miscellaneous. In addition, personal bathroom trash must be taken out by each occupant that day. I was not used to taking out the trash every day, so it was an initial challenge to remember every day.

I have been exploring Milan by going to different neighborhoods/bureaus of the city. When I went to the northwest part of the city, I was surprised to find a Chinatown. I later asked around and discovered there is a large Chinese population in Milan. After my realization, I asked some Chinese speaking locals about their immigration and was informed they immigrated to Italy when the economy in the country was good and particularly because they already had friends in Milan. This really resonated with me because I immigrated to the U.S. from China. Beside is a picture I took when the Chinese New Year was approaching and I saw there was a lot of decorations in Chinatown. On Chinese New Year, there were so many Chinese gathered that could cause someone to think they were not in Italy anymore.

Unfortunately, I have had more practice speaking Chinese than Italian since I came to Italy. My Italian is very poor and I also cannot roll my r’s. Some Italians assume I cannot speak Italian because I am Asian and they are correct in this case. Once or twice, people have greeted me with “konnichiwa” or “nihao.” The most Italian I have used is to order food to the lunch lady or the basic phrases such as “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” However, I shall endeavor to learn more Italian while I also explore more of Milan.

My exploration of Milan includes going to its different museums. From my visits, I learned a lot about the history of the city I’m currently studying abroad in.  For example, in Milan, there is one central canal with many restaurants known as Navigli. However, in one of the museums, I learned Milan was once more like Venice with many canals but, due to industrialization, most of the old canals were covered over by concrete and Navigli now remains the only main canal in Milan. While I thought this was rather tragic, I am glad Navigli is still around as I often go there for aperitivo and enjoy the view (seen on the left). I believe that anyone who lives in Milan must have seen this beautiful view as they pass by Navigli.

Through walking around Milan and sometimes taking spontaneous routes and detours, I am becoming more attuned to the pulse of the city. I believe by the end of my experience, I will feel like a real local rather than just a student who attends one of its universities.

A big part of my goal for coming to Italy was not just getting to know Milan, as I wrote about in my last blog, but the country itself. By going to other Italian cities besides Milan, I have been able to see the part of Italy that’s less business-focused. In smaller towns like Bergamo, an hour away from Milan, the pace of life is slower, though definitely not lackadaisical, in which Italians take time to eat meals or sit in a gorgeous park to read. On the other hand, in cities like Venice where tourists outpopulate the locals, many of the locals I find are around retirement age and often keep to themselves.

I believe I am learning more about Italy, not only through a third-person point of view of traveling, but also interacting with local Italians wherever I go. In Venice, I talked to a local who actually spoke Chinese to me, a huge indication of the number of Chinese tourists who visit the city, and we discussed the city itself. He told me about the pollution of the canals that is not only caused by tourists, which I had previously assumed, but mostly because of the wastes from nearby plastic factories. When I brought up how the U.S. would usually fine such companies to clean up the waste, he replied that the red tape of the system means that these factories wouldn’t really be fined. I found this topic really fascinating because I don’t think I would have researched something like this before going to Venice and I got to see Venice beyond all the touristy canals and through the lens of a local.

Currently I have traveled to six different Italian northern cities, most of which are close to Milan. My travels have provided me the opportunity to practice Italian. Since Bocconi is an international school and my classes are all in the English, I don’t meet many Italians at school. When I go to stores and shops, I use very basic Italian phrases such as “how much.” Through my travels, I seek to gain a better understanding of the Italian lifestyle and culture that are shaped by the country’s history and geographical location. Later this semester, I hope to visit more Italian places, both cities and small towns, in my efforts to become more educated about the country I am living in.

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Japan: The Halfway Point

It may be the middle of summer in Cville, but Leah Corbett, a rising 4th year Japanese major, is still finishing up her 3rd year spring semester studying on the JF Oberlin University: Reconnaissance Japan Program in Tokyo. Read her thoughts from halfway through her semester below, check our her own blog at https://leahandjapan.wordpress.com/, and watch her “daily snapshot” video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLN6dASZnU4.

 

I am almost halfway through my semester in Japan already! Looking back, I’m realizing how far I’ve come since I first arrived here. There was a lot of adjustment, though I didn’t notice it at the time. There were a lot of smaller things that I had to get used to.

For instance, the cars driving on the left side of the road was hard to get used to, and I still sometimes get momentarily turned around by it. Crossing the road without walk signals took extra thinking at first, because I had to double check that the coast was clear. Or, when a car stopped to let me cross, I would nod and wave at the front left seat of the car as I always do, but then realize afterwards that I had accidentally thanked the person in the passenger seat for stopping for me instead of the driver.

Another thing is that Japan is very environmentally conscious, which I think it great! But the annoying thing about it is that there are rarely hand towels or dryers in the bathrooms, so I have to shake out my hands and wipe them on my jeans or shirt. Some students carry hand towels with them for this reason, though I decided that’s not absolutely necessary for me.

For a while after I arrived, I felt very self-conscious when walking around in public. Since Japan is a homogeneous society, I felt like I stick out a lot. One of my first days here, a friendly Japanese man said “hello” to me in English when I walked by, which made me think even more about how not-Japanese I look. The longer I’m here, though, the more I realize it’s not a big deal to Japanese people, especially since there are a lot of foreign students around campus and in Fuchinobe, which is where the international dorms are.

Before I went abroad, I saw a graph on several occasions explaining the cultural adjustment timeline/curve. Right after you first arrive, there’s a honeymoon phase where you’re so excited about everything. Then at some point later the graph drops, which is when various frustrations start to take hold and the initial excitement wears off; the graph goes back up once you’ve more fully adjusted to the environment. There may be more than one drop in the curve.

(Here’s a simple example of the cultural adjustment curve. And yes, I made this in MS Paint.)

I think that right now, I’m in one of those valleys. Midterm season is upon me, and because I and my friends have been so busy I haven’t take much time to go sightsee or hang out much lately outside of school days (though I do have some plans for the upcoming weekend). Life is starting to feel more normal and my weekly schedule is fairly regular, but my subconscious is telling me I should still feel constant excitement and that I’m supposed to have an amazing day every day. When going abroad for an extended period of time, though, I’m realizing that’s not a realistic expectation. Yes, overall I’ve had a good time so far, but it’s okay to have mediocre days, and those don’t take away from the experience as a whole.

Once midterms have died down and once I settle even more into life here, I know my feelings will once again change. I thought that adjustment would happen for a while and then it would be static, but it’s more ongoing than I had previously thought, and I’m curious to see how I will react during my remaining time here.

Cultural Snapshot: the Razor Scooter

Lillian Harris is a 3rd year majoring in Art History who studied abroad with UVA in Lyon in the fall of 2017. Check out some of her cultural observations  below.

One of the first things that struck me as funny when I arrived in Lyon –  and something I don’t even notice now – is the way people get around here, that is, how people physically get from one place to another: from home to work, from school to soccer practice, from the nightclub to back home. While I expected the preferred mode of transportation to be the bike, or maybe even the Vespa, I’ve found that it’s the Razor Scooter that rules the city streets as the most overwhelmingly popular ride in Lyon.

I used to have a razor scooter when I was younger; my childhood memories are punctuated with bruised ankles and skinned knees from scooting down the driveway at top speeds and attempting bunny hops over the cracks in the sidewalk.

I hopped back on my scooter in high school, when some of the seniors created a Scooter Club. It started out as a joke, but as more and more kids dug out their razors from the back of their garages, the Club became pretty legit. Members rode their razors to and from class and even held scooter rallies at recess.

So it’s funny that this scooter motif keeps reappearing in my life. First in my childhood play dates, then as an ironic joke in high school, and now it’s followed me all the way to France.

Since I’ve become so well re-acquainted with this mode of transportation in my time abroad, I’ve compiled a list of 6 things you should know about the rich scooter culture in Lyon. “Rules of the Road,” if you will. Here they are:

  1. Not just for kids
    • This is the first aspect of scooter culture that I noticed in Lyon. While I had always thought of the Razor Scooter as a child’s plaything, it turns out that scooters are a very efficient mode of transportation used on a daily basis by adults and kids alike in Lyon. I am constantly taken aback when I see a grown man in a suit and carrying a briefcase scooting down the sidewalk on his way to work.
  1. Bikes on road, scooters on sidewalk
    • This is arguably the most important rule of scooting etiquette. Bikes, since they have thick, rubber wheels that are able to conquer the cobble stoned-streets of Vieux Lyon, should always be on the road; most of the roads in Lyon have bike lanes, so sticking to this rule should not be difficult. Scooters, on the other hand, have small, hard, plastic wheels, and do not do well with bumps. So scooters are allowed on the smooth sidewalks. Whether you’re on a bike or a scooter, it is important to stay in your lane.
  2. Scooters have the right-of-way
    • Forget yielding for pedestrians; scooters, as the dominant, speedy form of transportation, have the right-of-way on sidewalks. All walkers should move out of the way for scooters to come through. After all, there is nothing more frustrating than having to decelerate and lose momentum to dodge slow walkers.
  3. Pimp my ride
    • The Lyonnais take pride in their scooters, and do not hesitate to trick them out. For the adults, this might include a little hook to hang a purse, or an added platform on the back for a child to stand and ride with his parent. For the kids, common accessories include decals, detachable bags, and fashion helmets, of course.
  4. Pop a wheelie
    • Scooting is so popular in Lyon that it has become not just a mode of transportation but also a sport. There are many skate parks in Lyon, and one of my favorite activities is going to the quai at Guillotière and watching grown men do tricks on scooters. Think: wheelies, 180s – heck, I even saw someone do a backflip just the other day. It’s really impressive to see all the tricks one can do with the simple Razor.
  5. Paradoxical French efficiency
    • A major change from my life at UVA that I’ve experienced here in Lyon is the whole idea of time. Everything in France takes a little longer than it does in the US. For example, it is considered rude to show up on time to a dinner party, and also, you can count on courses at the university starting at least 10 minutes late. So it’s so funny to me that the French buy so wholeheartedly into this uber efficient mode of transportation, the Razor Scooter, despite a general lack of concern for the need to rush.

It’s interesting to note the differences in daily life in different places: the way we eat, the way we talk, the way we get around. These are the nuances of the way of living that really define a culture and set it apart from others. The use of the Razor Scooter I’ve found in Lyon is just one facet of its culture that makes it totally unique.

They say that instead of focusing on the destination, one should enjoy the journey; in Lyon, I’m taking my sweet time on my Razor Scooter.

Religions of Korea

Jonathan Thomas is a Second Year student, currently enrolled in the UVA Exchange: Seoul National University Program in Seoul, South Korea.

Seoul National University is nestled into a contour on the side of one of Seoul’s largest mountains, Gwankak mountain. The mountain is located to the south of the city, and like most of Korea, is particularly picturesque during the fall months when the trees covering the mountains turn from green to autumnal colors. Getting off at Gwacheon station puts you at the base of the mountain path that begins the ascent to the top of Gwanak mountain.  The path winds its way up, following a clear stream which makes it way down the mountain in the opposite direction.

Just before the peak of the mountain, there are a series of buildings, where you’ll find an ornate and active Buddhist temple, with its members still operating and maintaining the temple. However, this isn’t out of the ordinary. Walking up to the top and finding a temple is quite common in Korea, with many of them located on or around mountains. This doesn’t mean that Buddhists or Buddhist monks are in anyway secluded. Often times you’ll see monks with their heads shaved dressed in gray robes riding the subway. Additionally, if you take the bus from Seoul National University to the closest subway station on the east side of the school, you will be thrust into the busy area of Nakseongdae station. The busy streets are home to coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and churches. The churches are highlighted by the spires jutting up from them, but apart from this they look like any other building on the street.

What is remarkable about this is the coexistence of both of these religions in harmony. Many times, religions butt heads, clash in their ideology and generally don’t get along. While there have been rises and falls in popularity of both religions in Korea over the centuries, Korea has had a history of religious acceptance, especially of foreign religions, and the divide between Christianity and Buddhism is about fifty-fifty. This has created a dynamic that has continued into the present. The religious order of Korea isn’t something of tension, but rather a virtue, where the religion you hold is your belief and the religion another person holds is their own belief. This has created a society where Buddhist temples and Christian churches sit virtually side-by-side without the slightest hint of animosity.

While this may seem trivial, to me it’s a refreshing reassurance. Currently, there are quite a lot religious conflicts spread across the world, and these conflicts are some of the most difficult to resolve. Therefore, to see a country and culture like Korea where two religions can coexist, sans conflict, gives me hope that those conflicts have some sort of resolution, and makes me appreciated Korea for its unique cultural aspects like this one.

Can You Really Cross Cultural Boundaries?

Lauren Bredar is a 3rd Year student studying Global Studies and English. She attended UVA in Morocco this summer.
On Monday of my final week of my internships at Fondation Orient-Occident, an NGO that helps immigrants and refugees, I met a man name Abubakar. Abubakar is a refugee in his late twenties from Central African Republic. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, with deep brown skin, and a soft voice. He wore a white and black baseball cap with a Nike swoosh, and a form-fitting white t-shirt when I first met him. He speaks English with a thick accent, but enjoys talking to people in either French or English more than anything.
On Wednesday of this same week, I met a man named Oumar. Oumar is my same age, 21, and a refugee from Cameroon. He is average height, with high cheek bones and a wide, constant smile. He wore a bright blue t-shirt and spoke only a few words of English.
At first glance, Abubakar and Oumar seem to be similar people —at least more similar to each other than either one of them could be to me: they’re both refugees from sub-Saharan Africa; they both came to Morocco; they’re both in their twenties; and they both hope to one day immigrate to the US.
But my interactions with each man could not have been more different.
Once Abubakar started talking, he couldn’t stop. Each of the three conversations I had with him lasted more than an hour, and ended with me excusing myself to finish my work. I could tell he thinks deeply and often about life and what it means and his own personal philosophies. But when he spoke, I grasped little more than a very general, superficial understanding of the subject we were discussing (“discussing” is probably not the right word to use here, as our conversations resembled extemporaneous speeches far more than a two-sided discussion.) I attribute this utter lack of clarity partly to his broken English, partly to his soft voice, and perhaps mostly to the fact that we have very different ways of organizing our thoughts. Coherent for him is not coherent for me.
I would leave these periods of listening to him talk with confusion and an acceptance that I would simply not be able to see his ideas the way he saw them. I accepted that there are some cultural boundaries that can’t be crossed. I accepted that we’re different, and try as we might to connect despite the differences, maybe a genuine connection isn’t possible. We will never be able to see each other the way we see ourselves or wish to be seen. I don’t see this as a problem—just worthy of recognition.
But my single conversation with Oumar left me with a feeling that completely contradicted how I felt after speaking with Abubakar. Oumar and I had a two-sided conversation. Despite our speaking in French, I understood what he had to say and he understood me. He made jokes and I laughed, because his humor made sense. I could follow his train of thought, I could read his facial expressions. I like to think that we saw each other how we intended to be seen. Just after coming to the conclusion in my mind that some cultural differences make understanding impossible, I met someone with a background that couldn’t be more different from my own, and yet understanding was natural and easy.
These conversations taught me that sometimes cultural differences give way to connection. Other times, they interfere with understanding. Either is okay. As long as you try hard enough to know which.

A reflection on the grocery store

Katherine Poore is a Third Year English and French major, attending UVA Exchange: University of Edinburgh this semester.

Check out her blog, where this post can also be located!

https://wanderingthroughwilderness.wordpress.com/posts/

Week one (plus a few days!) in my new city has finally come to a close. It was a blurry time-warp, populated by an enormous number of new faces (and accents), relentless Facebook-friending, and everyone’s favorite collection of small talk questions (that is: What’s your name?  What year are you?  Where are you from?  What are you studying?).  I’ve relived the first-year experience, attending Welcome Week events, waiting in line for a student ID, and struggling to decipher a new online interface for my student account (it’s beginning to seem to me that universities make these intentionally user-unfriendly, although I cannot for the life of me decide why).

It’s been quite a challenge for me to figure out what to write about now, after this first week abroad. I have, unsurprisingly, developed a laundry list of ideas, thoughts, and observations I’d like to share, ranging from the strangeness of my role as a third-year-first-year hybrid to the surprisingly visceral response I had to learning that Scots, apparently, don’t refrigerate their eggs (guys, I could write a whole blog on this).  Of course, one’s first week in a new country usually entails an inundation of newness and, as a veteran overthinker, this makes picking one topic incredibly difficult.

So, where to begin?

I weighed my options, half-wrote and then abandoned a number of topics, and finally settled on the aspect of this experience that has, so far, presented the greatest form of culture shock I’ve experienced: grocery stores.

Many of us could probably agree that the U.K. and the states are not, in the simplest terms, that different; we speak the same language, we’re both shaped by primarily western cultural influences, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what seems to be a thriving coffee shop presence around Edinburgh (this gives me, perhaps, an alarming degree of comfort; nothing feels more like home than coffee).

But still—the differences here are slight, if you get beyond the obvious disparities, and it’s these differences that lead to feelings of displacement, that remind me I am elsewhere.  I am not from here.  I am not home.

Part of this, I suppose, is my being mentally prepared for the big differences.  I knew tipping was not common practice, and that my accent would stick out more, and that the weather would be unpredictable and mostly cold.  But I didn’t consider the minute differences, like the different clothes sizing system, or the extra charge for a plastic bag to carry your purchases at any given store.  And the grocery store, I suppose, is where these minute differences come together in greater numbers, presenting themselves in a way I can’t ignore.

My favorite brands are absent.  There’s no Chobani yogurt, or Jif peanut butter, and the Quaker oatmeal flavors are different.  They sell milk in different sizes than we do.  The nutrition labels don’t look the same.  It’s fun, yes, to explore these new foods, to try something different, but this is also the place where I feel the least at home.  The avocados are in the refrigerated section, and the fruit containers are different, too.  Instead of plastic boxes, with those snap-shut tops, they’re covered with a plastic film.  Even though it’s September, there’s no canned pumpkin anywhere.

The fact that these are the things that remind me over and over again that I’m a foreigner here speaks, perhaps, to how finely tuned my senses are to what feels like home.  I can handle the weather just fine, or the currency shift, because I knew these were coming, and I’d considered them beforehand.  But the absence of pre-minced garlic? That was jarring.

I could probably go on about how deeply food culture has an impact on national identity and how grocery stores themselves tend to be significant community establishments, but, to me, this experience has pointed toward a more personal realization.  Home—for me, at least—is a far more detailed and specific concept than I’d thought.  It has nuances, and parts of it seem incredibly shallow (the fraught search for baby carrots, for example, should not make me feel as out of place as it does). The micro aspects of daily life, I’ve realized, color my perceptions of place and belonging just as much as the macro ones.

The point of this whole drama, I suppose, is to say this: this place has a lot of resonances with what I’m used to at home.  To say I feel like a fish totally out of water would be misleading—I’m getting along fairly comfortably, although I encounter new cultural gray areas each day, and it’s easy enough to conduct everyday life here relatively smoothly.  But, because I’m in a place where my mind doesn’t have to be occupied by the big differences of lifestyle and culture, I’ve had more room to examine what—beyond the people—makes this place different, and unique, and unlike the country in which I grew up.  I’ve started thinking about what makes home feel like home, and all the parameters of home we consider.  There’s home as a sense of familiarity, or as a university, or as a structure.  There are perceptions of home built solely on the foundation of friends and family, or there’s home as a nation, a state, or a town.  We have homes that aren’t homes at all, that are places we rarely live—like, say, summer camp—to which we feel deep connections.  Some homes bring out different parts of us and aid in our own self-discovery.  Some homes, in both the very abstract and highly concrete uses of the term, challenge us more than others.  There are countless ways to think of home, and there are countless ways we discover it wherever we are.

To me, it would seem grocery stores are a significant part of my perceptions of home.  American accents signal home.  Coffee, as I’ve said, feels like home.

So, in writing all this, I simply mean to be saying: this place will, as most places in which we invest ourselves do, become a sort of home.  But what kind of home, I wonder, will it be, and what will make it different, and how will God use this home to help me grow in ways my other homes can’t?  What parts of this city and this experience will become home, and what will stay foreign, or uncomfortable, or disconcerting?  I, of course, can’t provide answers to any of these questions yet (although I certainly have hopes for what those answers might eventually be), but I’m glad I’m thinking about it now, before I’m pulled into the whirlwind of academics and weekend travel that I sense heading my way.

It is a gift to be here, in a new city and country, with new friends and new foods and new opportunities.  It’s overwhelming at times, and exhausting, too, and questions of what I’m here to discover and who my friends will be often take away from the sense of peace I want so badly to have.  But these are good questions, and productive questions, and Edinburgh, I suppose, is not such a bad place to be asking them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unhinged in Jordan

Dominick Giovanniello spent the entire 2016-17 year studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, participating in CET’s intensive Arabic language program. He shares an experience navigating social norms.

 

In an effort to compensate for all of the carbs I’ve been eating and the hookah I’ve been smoking, I decided to get a gym membership a couple of months ago and to my surprise, I’ve found that I actually really enjoy it. The gym I go to is called Troy 24/7 even though it doesn’t open until 5PM on Fridays and Saturdays. It sits on the main street, right on top of a hookah store and a barbershop staffed entirely by Syrians. The gym itself can politely be described as worn…for example, all of the pads on the machines are ripped and several pieces just seem to be held on by black electrical tape. It’s not the cleanest gym in the world, and the owner’s attempts to spruce it up, like painting blue triangles on the wall, only serve to emphasize that fact. Nevertheless, the staff are super nice and helpful, and the gym members – a weird assortment of foreigners, mostly Koreans; out-of-shape older men, and tattooed gym rats – have become a familiar community for me.

The other day when I went to the gym; however, I had a weird experience that left me a little wiser. And although I generally tend to hate blog posts where X-encounter taught me Y-valuable lesson about myself/culture/life in general, I really want to talk about it since it helps me simply articulate a concept that I’ve been struggling with.

Usually when I go to the gym, I bring a bottle of water; however, this time I forgot and so I went to the front desk, paid for a bottle of water, and watched as the owner used his fingers to unscrew the hinges on the door of the broken refrigerator where the water bottles are stored. No big deal. The next time, I also forgot to bring a bottle of water, so I put some money on the counter, went to the fridge and started to unscrew the hinges. The employee on duty, Abu Noor, an Egyptian working in Jordan because the economy is better (which tells you all you need to know about how awful the situation is in Egypt), saw me as he was walking past and cried out, “Stop! What are you doing? You can’t do that!”

He marched up to me and I started to explain myself, but he cut me off, “No you can’t do that. It’s not your place. When you go to the store and there’s something you want but can’t reach, you don’t climb the shelves, do you? You ask whoever’s working there.” Abu Noor kept getting more and more agitated as he tried to explain this concept to me. “You weren’t doing anything wrong. But it’s not your fridge, just because Muhammed (the owner) did it doesn’t mean you can!”

At this point, I was extremely confused and could not figure out what he was getting so worked up about. I’d apologized, it was an innocent mistake, and not even a big deal to begin with! Realizing this, Abu Noor grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “I know you’re a respectable guy, studying Arabic, and that you want to learn as much as you can. But you need to know that when you study a language, you’re actually studying three different things: language, culture, and behavior.” It then dawned on me that he wasn’t actually mad at me, rather he was offended by the way I had just assumed that I could go about something, which in his mind wasn’t my place to do.

Although those words aren’t innocent, particularly “behavior” in a patriarchal society, I think that they’re really insightful. Learning a language, especially when you’re overseas, isn’t just about grammar and vocabulary. The ultimate goal of language learning is to be able to use that language to communicate with and connect with other people. Additionally, every word, phrase and interaction is shaped by an enormous amount of implicit cultural, historical and social knowledge. We take it for granted, but every time we interact with someone else from our own culture, we’re drawing on an entire lifetime’s worth of interactions and operating within a very firm, defined set of social norms. It’s a reminder that you need to get out of the classroom to gain a full understanding, and it doesn’t just apply to language learning, but to every field of academic learning.