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Researching Your City for What to Expect

rachel bornstein

I knew my identity as a racial minority in the U.S. might affect my experience abroad. I know some other students may be thinking the same thing. You could fantasize all you want about what you want to see and do in your destination country (eat delicious food, meet locals, venture out on excursions, etc.). You could make a list of goals you plan to conquer by the end of the program. You could spend many weeks packing and repacking your suitcase. By now it seems like you’re all set and ready to step onto that plane, right? But don’t forget one underestimated task to prepare yourself for your destination. Do your research! The sooner you educate yourself about your destination, the easier it is to react smoothly to the infamous culture shock.

But what do I mean by research? I’m in no way suggesting you crack open the textbooks! In educating myself, here are the five areas I focused on gathering information about:

  1. Social life
  2. Social “issues” (I use the word “issue” sensitively in understanding the diverse interpretations of what an “issue” is within a certain culture)
  3. Colloquial expressions/dialect special to the location
  4. Usual ways of dress
  5. Living in that location as a racial minority/LGBTQ/female

When addressing these topics, don't just refer to ONE site. Look at many, and do not underestimate the effectiveness of community forums (Reddit, Quora, Diversity Abroad, etc.), which provide a unique perspective from people who have actually experienced the above topics.

For example, in preparation for living in Granada, Spain, I googled the following phrases:

  • social life in Spain what to expect
  • living like a local in Spain
  • how women are treated in Spain
  • Spanish dialect in Granada, Spain
  • most popular colloquial slang in Spain
  • problems faced living abroad in Spain
  • my personal experience living in Granada, Spain (read other people’s experiences)
  • living in Granada, Spain as an Asian female (looking up information about being a minority abroad is VERY insightful!)

In doing your research, especially if you are reading somebody’s personal perspective/experience, do not just read one and assume you will face the same. One person’s experience pertaining to the topics could be quite negative and may make you worry about what lies ahead for you, but another post could be discussing a positive experience! Pay attention to what happened to that person and how that person reacted in that situation. Vicariously learn through them and prepare for the possibilities of what can happen at your destination.

Researching the social “issues” and living as a female racial minority provided some of the strongest mental preparations that influenced my personal experience. In researching “issues,” I ran into an ideology of machismo, which is an amplified sense of masculinity and gender roles -- a term used in Latin America and Spain. Definitions of harassment are different in each culture, and what is interpreted as sexual harassment in one country might not be the same in another. While I was certainly cat-called, you sometimes have to keep an open mind, and I simply kept an eye out for the tone of the situation and trusted my instincts. If you visit a Spanish-speaking country, it is not abnormal to feel like you are being intensely stared at on the streets by men (and women). I emphasize ‘American’ because gender issues are culturally varied depending on the country and its history. Be aware of the social “cues” of your destination— how your actions/words might be interpreted in a different culture AND how that culture uses their actions/words toward you.

In addition, I felt increasingly self-conscious about my race when I first arrived. I got more stares than in the U.S., and certain words in Spanish sounded inappropriate if you translated them back to English. A lot of Spanish terms seem to address physical characteristics, whether that's "fat" or "Asian" or "dark-skinned," but sometimes it’s not meant in a derogatory way. I found it best to listen to the tone, and listen to my instincts. Certain ethnic-based colloquial expressions exist, so be aware of that. That said, I didn't feel hindered from having some of the best moments of my life!

The purpose of this advice is to help you educate yourselves and prepare for the possibilities, but I am not telling you to “deal” with how different your destination might be. I always recommend if you feel unsafe or worried, you should always talk to someone to help you process it, whether that’s CEA staff or friends at home, and to report to the police and staff if something serious happens. I only warn of the importance of recognizing a cultural difference vs. judging/criticizing that culture and believing what your society has taught you is “better.” My active research immensely helped me maintain an open mind and an ability to adjust, and I hope it helps you all too!

Rachel Bornstein is a CEA Alumni Ambassador from the University of Oklahoma and went abroad to Granada, Spain, in Spring 2018.

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