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.
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A bit of home comes to me

Christopher Hoffa is currently studying abroad in London at the City University of London. Check out his blog below!

Hey everyone!

I am checking in with my 8th blog post while being abroad! I am actually currently on a train back into London after a trip to Ireland. The trip was wonderful and Ireland was absolutely beautiful. It was actually my first trip by myself, so it felt much different than anything else I had done before. Though it is different, I did enjoy it a lot. Everything that you want to do is completely in your control and that was something that I definitely enjoyed. With all of this being said, I will move into my main topic of this post, and that will be post-exam life here in London. My flight from London back to the United States is not until June 2nd, giving me over a month of time here without any school.

 

I will talk about the last two weeks, starting with the first week when my brother and mother came to visit. It was there first time out of the United States, which made things very interesting. I enjoyed watching them attempt to learn the culture here in London. During the entirety of the trip, I couldn’t help but think if how they acted was how I acted when I first entered the United Kingdom.  They were amazed by the smallest things and clearly did not understand the norms of the society. This made sense though, as they had no idea what it would be like going into the trip. However, by the end of the week, they seemed to understand a lot about London and were beginning to fit in. They understood how to use the Tube, or Metro System, here quite easily. My favorite part watching them learn the very British words and finally understanding some of the locals, who they were very confused by at the beginning of their trip.

 

After they left London, I went on my first trip alone to Ireland. During my trip, I visited Dublin and Galway. The cities surprisingly different quite a bit from one another. Dublin was a much more modern city and the capital of the country. In terms of architecture, surprisingly did not remind me of any of the cities that I had been to before the trips. In terms of culture, it did remind me a bit of London, which makes a lot of sense given its history. From there, I went to Galway for a day, which was completely different from Dublin. I expected them to be fairly similar, but Galway really felt like it was a small town. It was filled with very cultural life, with music being played everywhere. There were a lot of great food shops and not too many tourists. It really felt like a true, small Irish town. I would say that Dublin felt much more like a tourist city, much different than Galway.

 

To wrap up this post, I’d like to say that I really enjoyed my semester abroad. Even though I am still here, it feels much different without having to go to class. It gives me a lot of time to think about what is going on in my life and giving me much more time to appreciate my surroundings. With a little over a month left, I will definitely be focusing on enjoying my remaining time outside of the United States.

 

Until next time,

Chris Hoffa

Thoughts on being an American abroad

Caroline Alberti is currently studying abroad in Toulouse, France,  on CIEE’s Language and Culture program. Check out her blog post below!

I love speaking French, going out, and meeting people. In fact, I have been trying to go out more here in an effort to meet more people and speak more French (it’s educational Mom and Dad, I promise!). Before coming here, I was nervous about how I would received in French social situations as a foreigner. I’d heard stereotypes that French people were more closed off, or easily offended by imperfect control of their language. However, I have found this not at all to be the case. While I definitely think that French people are less open than Americans, the people I have met have been very kind and I have met a lot of great people.

The funny thing is though, meeting new people here in France is almost formulaic. If you are American and deciding to travel abroad anytime soon (like in the next 4 years to be exact) you may want to expect the interactions of the following sort:

Step 1: The “Bonjour”

The greeting, usually a bonjour and a bise is the first engagement. As I said before I am still  getting used the kiss-greeting thing. This is the step where very quickly my accent is detected. I have a love-hate relationship with my accent. On one hand I think it gives more liberty to make mistakes and makes me interesting. On the other hand, I don’t find American accents particularly pleasing but that could just be me.

Step 2: The “Where are you from?”

The accent thing inevitable triggers there “Where are you from?”. When this happens I have decide how annoying I want to be, and I either give a direct answer or I say “guess!!”. It’s really interesting to me to see where people think I am from. Almost never has someone guessed American. Most often I get English, or German and occasionally Irish, which is so surprising to me because I think that my accent just screams “AMERICAN”.

I think people don’t usually guess American because in fact in Toulouse there are not really that many Americans since it’s not a super popular spot for American study abroad programs. I actually really like this about Toulouse, since it means that being an American here is kinda special, and meeting other Americans here is rare which makes encountering one of my compatriots here is out of the ordinary and so when it does happen it’s a treat.

There “Where are you from questions” extends to where exactly in the United States I am from, where I have a little existential crisis not knowing whether or not to say PA or VA.

Step 3: The “TRUMP” Part

It may not happen right away (all though often it does). We may get talking about the weather, or studies, or music or whatever, and I’ll think I’m safe… but no no no. The question always comes sooner or later: “So…. what do you think of Donald Trump?”

*Sigh* Then there it is. The unavoidable topic as an American abroad in this day and age.

When I first starting receiving this question, I was a little surprised, but not at all bothered. In fact, I was glad to have an open ear to my rantings about the madness of this past election. It’s something, that like most Americans, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions on (which I won’t really put in this blog because it is not a blog about politics– though I feel like anyone who knows me probably knows where I stand politically). However, with each politically charged discussion I began to get more and more tired of talking about how crazy and doomed my country is (even though a big part of me agrees).

I think the political situation in our country makes it a really weird time to be an American abroad. I am surprised with the bluntness that French people approach this topic with me, since in French culture, personal things like that aren’t discussed as upfrontly. I am also surprised how blunt people are because in theory (though NOT in reality) I could be a Trump supporter. So far, I haven’t met any French person who aligns themselves with Trump’s ideals (if you can call them “ideals”), although with the way the French election cycle is going, I am sure they are out there. When I am asked about politics in America, I think they make the assumption that I am (rightly) unhappy about the current situation. I never feel like I am being blamed or aggressed for Trump’s election, which is something I was worried about before coming. More accurately I feel like the topic is breached with a sense of curiosity and often with pity as well.

It’s frustrating to repeat the same conversation, but it’s one I feel like I have to engage in or else people with think that I don’t have opinions on it or that I support Trump, both of which are definitely not true.

But over all, it’s hard to complain about people being interested in my country and wanting to hear my opinion. I am glad to be able to represent my country abroad at a time like this when a lot of bad images are presented of the United States abroad. In fact, this type of cultural diplomacy that happens within each exchange, the sharing of ideas and opinions, is one of the reasons I love traveling and studying abroad. These interactions, the ones I have had both here and in Morocco and elsewhere have definitely challenged me and helped me widen my horizons and perspectives, and for that I am very grateful.

So Frenchies, keep the questions coming. I promise you I will have an answer.

Anyway, hopefully this post wasn’t too political, rant-y, or pessimistic. I’ll try to whip up a little something more lighthearted next post!

ALSO, since this post was very light on pictures, enjoy this photo of my best friend in Toulouse and love of my life, Cissi, my host dog.

Isn’t she beautiful?? My heart melts every day when I see her.

Pce, luv, & politics,

Curbie 😉

 

 

Reflection before embarking to Italy

Teresa Nowalk is currently studying abroad in Siena for the semester. Check out her reflection before she embarked on her journey! 

Italy. I can’t stop saying it or thinking about it… Soon I will be in Italy to study for about five months, which will be the longest time I have ever been out of the country.  Part of me is of course excited, and who wouldn’t? Gelato, pasta, pizza, mozzarella… But beyond the food, there is the history, art, and the culture. Those are the three things I want to focus on when I am not preoccupied with the dinner table and my stomach (not that I plan on going hungry in Italy). Since I am a history and (most likely) anthropology double major these next five months will be a really neat way to see my studies come alive. To me, Siena will be a recharge: a perfect halfway point for my studies as I conclude my second year.

Many of my thoughts go toward my homestay. I wrestled with whether to do one or not and am still not 100% certain about it. So we will see how my thoughts on the homestay will change later in the semester. But right now, my inner anthropologist is nervously excited to live in an Italian home. I love learning about how different countries eat dinner and what foods they eat in general so I am excited to branch out of the (American) Italian restaurants and their breadsticks. I also love learning about how other countries think about the US, so hopefully as my Italian goes from rusty to only somewhat rusty I will be able to understand why we are the ugly Americans (or not!)… But beyond this, I am looking forward to my sampling of Siena.

But most importantly, I have a few goals while abroad. Perhaps I am naïve and drank the study abroad kool-aid, but I hope to become more confident when I am abroad… And like everyone hopes to have better grip on the future, I hope to figure out what I want to do with two humanity degrees by the time I come back. More personally, I am determined to be more social and befriend as many people as possible. This is because, for me, as much as I want to have great stories when I come back, I also want to have others’ stories because an adventure should never be an individual experience. So to both my future self and to my readers: here’s to the stories and Italia.

Reflection of arriving in Costa Rica

Jamir studied abroad this past summer in Costa Rica for six weeks. This is his second journal on the blog. Check it out!

Jamir Nahuel Kai

15 May 2016

Study abroad reflection #1 

It’s hard to accept reality. A strange articulation, I know, but I can’t express the bulk
of my feelings right now in any other way. I’m experiencing a surreal blend of comfort,exhilaration, and unease. Primarily, I’m overwhelmed by the gorgeous climate this evening. Fresquito is how my host-sister’s boyfriend described it. I would agree, cool and fresh feeling.

Secondarily, I miss my fiancé already. We haven’t spent more than a day apart for the last three years, and the plane ride to Costa Rica was enough to make me feel the distance between us that is to last for the next six weeks. Once I process the tropical breeze alongside the pangs of missing my beloved, I begin to tear up.

I can’t believe I’m finally here! I’ve been dreaming about this very place since ninth grade. That’s six long years of fantasizing about walking amongst the mountains and the bugs (so many bugs) and seeing beautiful, diverse, Spanish-speaking people all around me. And now I’m here. Los ticos do indeed, as all the posts I have read claimed, greet kindly all passersby. And greetings are specific to the time of day. 

My host-sister is a ray of sunshine, but busy. To make sure I got to see the beauty of the town and surrounding towns, she and her boyfriend took me for a sunset drive around the highs and low of Carrillos Alto and Carrillos Bajo. We took an even further trip out to a bigger town called Grecia and I tried my first authentic Costa Rican dish! I didn’t like it all that much. But that’s okay! Dinner by my already loving and caring host-mother, Alicia, was fabulous and filling. First day of school is tomorrow. Bright and early.

UVa in Costa Rica Pre-departure reflection

Jamir studied abroad this past summer in Costa Rica for six weeks. Check out his journal before he left on his trip.

Jamir Nahuel Kai

12 May 2016

Pre departure reflection

My passport has finally arrived! My new duffel bag has finally arrived! I just picked up a new pair of sunglasses and my two ounce travel bottles are filled with sunscreen, body wash, and bug spray. I’ve spent hours online researching various aspects of Costa Rican culture and I’ve had a long conversation with my host parents’ daughter about my stay in their home. It is now officially feeling quite real that I will soon be leaving for Costa Rica and living in Alajuela for an entire six weeks. But even though everything feels prepared, the butterflies in my stomach are telling me otherwise….

What if I don’t like the food? What if my host family aren’t okay with gay people? Will I be able to stay in contact with my mom without an international phone plan? And what am I going to do without being able to sleep next to my fiancée and our two dogs every night for a month and a half??? The truth of the matter is I’m equally as worried as I am excited for this imminent trip.

However, as a teacher candidate in my fourth (out of five) year at the University of Virginia, I recognize the value and importance of studying abroad. I can’t wait to start experiencing the new culture, meeting new people, and improving my Spanish. I’ll be doing a semester-long teaching internship at Monticello High School in the fall and taking standardized assessments in July, so I want my fluency to be as perfect as possible before returning home to the states. I also can’t wait to be capturing moments, sharing them with my loved ones, and transmitting my experiences in various forms. Above all, I’m very thankful for this opportunity as I’ve never been out of the country and I’m the only person in my entire extended family to attend college, let alone spend a month abroad to study a foreign language. I shall return stronger, more knowledgeable, and with un montón de memorias that I’ll utilize and cherish forever!!