Thursday, January 24, 2008

Can you handle cultural immersion?

By: Jennifer Kumar

When I originally prepared to go to India to study, I read a book on an American who studied somewhere in Africa. When he returned, he referred to his parents and family members by terms he learned in the native language of the African country he studied in. No doubt, not another American soul for miles forced this type of cultural immersion. It was his personality that accepted and integrated this behavior.

I wanted that to be me, in India, all alone, no other Americans around for miles.

Maybe that was one reason, beside the financial reason, that encouraged me to discontinue my preplanned study abroad program. I had taken the time to consider how much cultural immersion I wanted. I had found out my study abroad experience to India would be travelling with a group of Americans, possibly studying in the same class with them and bunking with them also. The type of personality I am this offered me too much of a comfort zone to go out on my own and meet the locals as it were. I knew I had to be the only American in the area (for the most part) to get the experience I want, almost like the one the student above had.

Of course, that is why many students study abroad; to learn about another culture through cultural immersion. Though there are many factors to consider in your study abroad choice, the amount of cultural immersion desired should be carefully considered.

Do you want to be the only American (or person of your nationality) in your classes and in your dorm (hostel)?
Do you want to travel with a group from your college, but be in class with locals, stay with a host family or with local students in the dorms?
Do you want to travel with a group, be in class with this group and also bunk with this group?
Do you want some mixture of the above?

When I was in India, foreigners did come and spend short periods of time in the college at various degrees of immersion. Two students from St. Olaf college actually stayed in the hostel with the Indian students for a few months, following the same strict rules and curfews as all the rest. Then, there were foreign students who stayed in the guest house. These students that came in groups of 10 or more studied in the same classes together (classes did not have Indian students, though they may have been taught by a local professor), and bunked together. It was infrequent you'd see them mingling with the Indian students, especially in one-on-one situations. Looking at them, I knew if I had taken my original study abroad program through the American university, I would have been one of them. I can appreciate the difficulty in acculturating to India. It's not easy. Being in a group of Americans may make it seem like it's easier. It's all in how you look at it. For me, I know I would have been tricked by the facade of the American group- thinking I can make it in India, I have my posse with me. But, also it's hard to assimilate a culture when you're only hanging out 'with your own' - even if you are in another land!

Some people do need the comfort of that group. I respect that. It's hard to socialize with people who may not be fluent in your language or way of speaking English. I know, I been there! If you need a comfort of the group, going it on your own definitely should not be considered. Culture shock at your detriment can happen in that case. Culture shock can happen anytime you live in a place that is new to you, but when you are in a foreign country with a totally different culture learning about the rules ahead of time is not like having to live them. Intellectually knowing something and behaving out of thought or habit are different sides of the coin. This requires an open minded attitude in thought and being conscious about changing your behaviors if it is required for your success in your study abroad location.

In fact, I firmly believe once you experience your study abroad culture shock and then adjust the best you know how, you will be able to handle the ups and downs and changes of life with a different type of ease and grace than your counterparts who have not had this experience.

Related articles: Is Mine a Case of Reverse Culture Shock (Reflections on adapting back to American life after a life in India.)


Yu^2 said...

I think it gets harder as you get older. The first time I was in a different country going to school was when I was five, in Cairo. I was the only Burmese kid in the class, and in the school! After a while you get used to being the only person who is a foreinger or of your own nationality. When I went back to my own country after four and half years, I still felt like an outsider, it's been like that everywhere I go ever since.

Jennifer said...

Thank you, yu^2-
I think you're point is true, when you're the only foreigner you would get used to it and going back to your native country would be a big adjustment- if anything looking the same but acting different (in comparison to acting the same but looking different as a foreigner who's immersed in another culture!)