How People Feel About Us

This week, we read a document with experiences from study abroad students from a university (I think Brown). In this document, students display a wide variety of foreign beliefs about Americans. The way that these students spoke of how people felt about us was a very revealing experience, and I can definitely say that it has had an impact on how I plan on approaching my study abroad experience.

The variety of opinions about Americans is what stood out to me the most. Students that studied in Western European countries such as France or England display a rather positive experience. They said that foreign people were very friendly to them and that the only negative experiences they had were in rather sketchy parts of the city they were studying in (which, in some cases, was nowhere).

Students studying in Africa or Eastern Europe, however, had a much different experience. Students in Africa said that they felt very uncomfortable in certain instances because, for the first time in their lives, they were the minority. In Eastern Europe, civilians had a very hostile approach to the exchange students, which they attributed to the fact that the socioeconomic status of Americans is typically better than that of Eastern European countries.

What I read in this document had a fairly sufficient impact on how I will go about studying abroad. I realized that I will be treated differently based on the country I could potentially be in. I have to keep this in consideration because I haven’t made a clear decision in regards to my future, and the information I read could make or break where I decide to study.


Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Why the heck are we all so judgmental of one another’s countries?

I’m not going to lie, I was quite offended when I read some degrading commentary on our country.  We’re not all that bad!  And I’m sure I could write an equally vicious one about yours… but that’s just it. When traveling abroad, it is so easy to focus on the points that make us uncomfortable; the aspects that are a stark contrast from our home country.

So when I study abroad, I want to make the effort to consciously choose to appreciate every aspect of culture.  Chances are, there is a reason behind a custom I may find offensive.


Reflection: Perspectives

Listening to international students talk about their experiences in the United States was very interesting and eye-opening for me. Honestly, I found it so cool to hear about my country from four different perspectives. Coming from China, Iraq, Slovakia, and France, the four international students on our discussion panel revealed some insights that I had never realized before.

It seemed that all four of the international students agreed that Americans smile way too much. Now, I have heard that before, and maybe it’s true. I know that when I make eye contact with someone — even a stranger — I’m probably gonna give them a friendly little smile. I never really thought twice about it until the panel of students really started discussing it. One girl from France commented that when she first arrived to the States, she was constantly paranoid because everyone smiled at her. She thought they were all in on some joke and that she had been left out. It’s pretty hard for me to imagine that someone could think that way, growing up as I have where to not smile is to be rude. But what really made me question my smiley nature was when one student said that to smile at a stranger on the streets in Iraq would be seen as so odd that people would wonder what is wrong with you. Hearing about their insights into the matter made me realize that there are so many small things ingrained in my culture that I never question, but that I should definitely be aware of when I travel abroad — especially if something as innocent as smiling in the US can be taken to mean something entirely different elsewhere.

My biggest takeaway from the panel was the idea of international students as informal ambassadors of their countries. Each student talked about how so often they have had to dispel stereotypes and myths about their countries. I’ve never thought that I might have to adopt a similar role myself. The thought of having to explain/justify/represent the actions of my country is crazy to me. After all, the United States is so diverse! How could I, as one person, possibly represent the whole of my country? And yet that is something I need to prepare for when I go abroad. Right or wrong, I could be a quasi-ambassador for the US to others and that seems like a really big responsibility and privilege.

I am so incredibly grateful for the Global Engagement class for providing me with these opportunities to grow and challenge my ways of thinking. It feels like each time we meet I learn something new about myself or my country in the process.

5th Reflection

“How did you react to the perspectives on the United States that you encountered this week? What stood out the most to you? Why? How will that influence your thoughts or actions in the future- either here or abroad?”

Over the past few years, I have done a lot of research on studying abroad, and I have gained a lot of useful information and helpful tips. However, I’m not sure I have ever encountered a resource as useful as the discussion panels we had in class these last two weeks. There is nothing quite like listening to firsthand accounts and outside opinions when it comes to life experiences such as study abroad.

I was already aware that in practically every corner of the globe, there are some negative stereotypes that surround Americans. We are known for being loud, uncultured, and slightly obnoxious; and while those stereotypes may or may not be true, as an American I can definitely see where those perceptions come from. However, the various perspectives I heard over the past week made me pause and think for a moment. I had never considered that Americans might be perceived as rich in some parts of the world, nor had I considered the fact that some people believe that the United States is a dangerous country. There were numerous examples of perceptions that I had never even considered, or at least I did not think they would ever be an issue I had to deal with.

The most eye-opening experience was when we heard from the panel of international students who are currently studying here at OU. It seemed as though the list of cultural differences they had experienced while in America was never-ending. They touched on practically every aspect of life from religion, race, clothing, facial expressions, and even sidewalks—the changes they experienced during their time here were both minor and major differences that definitely affected them ever minute of every day. Hearing the experiences of the international students here at OU made me think about the kinds of differences I will experience during my time abroad. Of course there will be cultural discrepancies, language barriers, and religious differences wherever I go, but I had never spent much time considering how the little things in life would affect me on a daily basis. Life in America is not the same as life in other countries.

Ultimately, the discussions on the perceptions of Americans in a global setting allowed me to consider what sorts of differences I will experience abroad and how my identity as an American will affect how I will perceive those differences as well as how I will be perceived by others. The fact that everyday life will be so different both excites me and makes me feel slightly overwhelmed in the best kind of way possible. That feeling of being so shocked by the differences and so over-run by them will be a challenge, but that experience will allow me to grow as a person and to learn how to adapt to new situations.


Journal #5 – Perspectives

After reading the blog post from Benny Lewis, a native Irishman, and hearing from various international students here on campus, it was interesting to see how American culture is different from their native culture. The blog post was seemingly more harsh than the students we interacted with but that is actually a cultural difference. In Irish culture, people are much more blunt than Americans tend to be, so it comes off as harsh because nothing is sugarcoated. Some of Lewis’s points also appeared to be more of a generalization of America as a whole even though he only lived and spent time in major cities. I feel like his opinion would shift some if he spent time in smaller communities. (I would also like to add that him calling out Americans for stereotyping people from other countries was not a fair point because he was doing the exact same thing).

I honestly did not know what to expect when we had the panel of international students come in to class. I was surprised that most of them lived in the U.S. for some time or had visited multiple times before residing here at OU. One noticeable difference between the panel and Lewis was the cultural differences weren’t aboslutely huge. Now, there were some larger noticeable differences from Chinese culture to American culture but for the most part the differences were in smaller mannerisms, such as eye contract and smiling at strangers.

Having international students straight up tell us what is different from their culture to American culture made it very easy to adapt to another culture when abroad. It also made me think that before going abroad, talk to an international student and ask them what is normal everyday behavior in their culture.



Reflection #4

In class last week, Jaci asked for four volunteers. Several of us raised our hands before she even explained the activity. We went outside into the hallway, and our TA (Gabrielle) explained to us that we were acting as explorers into a new culture the rest of the class was making up. Kenzie drew the short straw and had to go in first. She asked everyone in the room (about a dozen people) if they had a leader. Only three girls would respond, and they only responded in “yes yes yes” or “no no no”. Lucy, my suitemate, went in next after Kenzie’s debrief. Now, everyone would talk to her, but they said admitted to basically everything from attending school to cannibalism, still only using “yes yes yes” and “no no no”. I went in third. Everyone but the three girls who had spoken to Kenzie would talk to me. I asked them which girl was their leader and got mixed answers. I also asked if they lied (though I knew it wouldn’t get reliable data) and got mixed results again. Riley went in last. He was unapologetically rude and loud. For the first four minutes, no one would speak to him. The final minute, though, was a showdown between Riley and Hennessey, who are two of the biggest personalities in our class. At the end of Riley’s time, he whisked the makeshift flag off his shoulders and claimed this new land for “Boomsoon” (a nod to rude colonizers claiming “new” lands).

When we all filed back into the classroom after final debrief, we discovered that there was no real culture. They had based their responses solely off of our attitudes when asking them questions. If we had been friendly, they answered “yes yes yes”; if we had not, they answered “no no no”. This activity was designed to teach us the importance of respecting people from other cultures, especially when asking them for a favor (showing us their culture).

Time is of the Essence…. Or Maybe Not

This past week, I felt very lucky to have heard an international student’s view of the United States. I have never had the opportunity to speak with someone from another country, so hearing the opinions of those students was very eye-opening. For the most part, they seemed to know a lot about the United States however, there were some things that stood out to me. The most prominent, was that the students were not used to students standing up when the class ends, instead they were accustomed to waiting for the professor to dismiss class. It amazed me that they did not leave class at the time that class ended in their countries. However, this made sense as they continued talking, because for many of them, time was not as important as it is in the United States. For example, we create a schedule, stick to it, and are on time or early, whereas in many international areas, they are very lenient in their time and it is often acceptable if not preferred to arrive late. The students very much stressed the difference between time here and time abroad, which I had not known about before.

Although time is so very important in the United States and being on-time shows respect, I need to realize that in other countries, this is not the same. I must take into consideration the cultural norms relating to time and respect that arriving on time could be considered rude. This will take some adjusting to, as I am a very punctual person and get irritated easily when people are late, however, I must realize that this is the way their culture functions, and to fully engage, I must adjust my views of time.


Chinese Culture Day

Today, the Confucius Institute came to OU for a Chinese Culture Day.

Full disclosure: I didn’t know if I was going to even try to go. I had only a few minutes between classes, and in all honesty, you never know what the quality of the events held on the South Oval will be like. But I thought about how I know next to nothing about Eastern culture, and made a point to at least look around.

I was nearly late for my French class because of how engrossed I was. There were girls playing the mandolin–an instrument I’ve never seen before but was immediately fascinated and impressed with. There were OU students who are taking Chinese and students from the institute were teaching other students how to write Chinese characters. There was food, which both smelled and looked amazing, but that I didn’t have time to stand in line for. I did grab a cup of tea though, because they had a demonstration of Chinese tea-making and an array of choices in said tea. Overall, I was very impressed and glad that I decided to go.

I was fascinated by the display of Chinese culture and it made me frustrated too. I really have no excuse for not taking the initiative to learn bout Eastern culture before now. With such resources available, there’s no reason not to open yourself up to new experiences. I’m grateful that we have these opportunities, and I was glad that other students were actually taking time out of their busy schedules, like I did, to actually walk through the booths and fully immerse themselves–not just come for the free food.

Students practicing Chinese characters
Students practicing Chinese characters
Chinese Tea-Making
Chinese Tea-Making
Girls playing Mandolin
Girls playing Mandolin
Students stamping Chinese characters
Students stamping Chinese characters

Reflections on Foreign Students Panel

In class last Thursday, we had the opportunity to chat with four foreign students who are currently studying here at OU. They were all women, and each was from a different place: Iraq, France, Slovakia, and China. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, they had some surprisingly similar thoughts about life in the United States. Across the board, it seems that the little things have really shaped their experience in America.

The amount that Americans smile is something that all of them mentioned, which I found funny. Being from the midwest, I’ve been taught to politely smile at everyone I make eye contact with, and that’s pretty typical of most domestic places I’ve visited. In big cities, this is less common, but it’s still prevalent. Emmanuel, the French woman who spoke with us, was particularly confused by this. In combination with how focused we are on making eye contact, she said she was constantly convinced she had something in her teeth or people were laughing at her. While we tend to be more outwardly friendly than the French, Americans are much more concerned with personal space. She said in her first interactions with Americans, she found they were constantly scooting farther away from her while she talked.

All of them noted how flexible the American education system is. The student from Slovakia had also studied in Spain, and in both countries there was basically no ability to choose what classes you’d like to take once you’ve selected a career path. Schools are also more purely academic, unlike American universities that host social events, sponsor hundreds of clubs, and constantly hand out free T shirts. This is perhaps one reason why schools in the United States are so much more expensive than those abroad, something they were all baffled by.

At one point, the student from China remarked that she was working on getting over being nervous about speaking English. She said she knew that people sometimes couldn’t understand her, and she felt bad. I was shocked by that because, while she had a moderately thick accent, her English was excellent.

Emmanuel mentioned at the end of our discussion how uncomfortable it was for her that people here are so overt about religion. She was shocked that the university allows religious groups to so vocally recruit people and promote their causes on a public school campus. In France, she explained, religion is a private business. People don’t talk about it, much less shout about it.

While the United States in general is certainly more vocal about religion than France, I don’t think the fervent, conservative population at OU is indicative of the whole nation’s attitude about religion. I’ve lived in America for my whole life, and I grew up in a fairly religious family, but I was surprised and even a little uncomfortable when I first encountered people shouting about God on the South Oval. I wish that I’d had an opportunity to explain that attitudes about religion (and many other things, for that matter) vary wildly from region to region in America.

Talking with these four students opened my eyes to a few things about studying abroad and traveling in general. First, things that are a given here aren’t necessarily typical or even acceptable in other places. When I’m outside the US, I’ll have to do my best to suppress  my urge to cheerfully grin at strangers. When in Rome, and all that.

After hearing about the gross disparity between the cost of higher education here compared to most other developed nations, I may also consider dropping out of OU and getting my degree abroad. Just kidding. While the price of college here doesn’t thrill me, I’ve had a wonderful experience in the American education system thus far. Hearing about the rigidity of foreign programs, I’m glad that I’m going to college here, given that my interests are so varied.

I also want to get over my fear of speaking French with native speakers. As our Chinese guest demonstrated, there’s an inherent insecurity that comes with trying to communicate in a language other than your first one. As good as her English was, she was still concerned that we were judging her abilities. As the native speaker in that situation, I was impressed by how good she was, and I can’t distinctly remember any errors she made. People generally aren’t judgmental of your language capabilities, as anyone who has ever tried to learn a language can understand how difficult it is to attain fluency. That’s something I need to bear in mind.

Lastly, while most countries aren’t quite as diverse as the United States, it’s never safe to extrapolate your isolated experience in one region to a whole country or population. In traveling, I’ll be sure to encounter a lot of polarized opinions. While it’s tempting to assume that a subset represents an entire country, that’s just not fair. Take every experience with a grain of salt.





Epiphanies and Insights from Visitors

I really enjoyed having the opportunity to speak to a diverse panel of exchange students and hear their opinions on and reactions to the US. Each guest was interesting and inviting in her own way, and I really appreciated all the thought and personal reflection they put into their answers so that we could learn more about them and the country they’re from.

While there were many engaging ideas, one thing I found really interesting among the topics brought up was the discussion we had on personal space. First off, I never even thought about the idea of personal space and that people can have different levels of comfort with different amounts of personal space until it was put into words. However, once it was articulated by Emma, it made complete sense to me, and reminded me of a similar cultural experience my mom and I had. On a flight to Rome, a man sitting between us on the airplane had the opportunity to move to an aisle seat, thus giving all of us more room. He politely declined, which baffled myself and my mom. In hindsight, this makes perfect sense with what Emma was talking about, and this is something my mom and I experienced all across Europe during our time there. The other thing I thought was fascinating and challenging to my perceptions was the idea that a person can change their cultural norms and mannerisms, and then change back (ie come to America without a need for much personal space, become accustomed to it, and then go to China and experience “reverse culture shock”). I had always thought some of those things were ingrained in a person by their culture since birth, and it didn’t occur to me that a shift in a cultural behavior or expectation could take place. I think the reason this conversation stuck out to me was that even though I hadn’t thought of it prior to hearing it, the example of personal space made the most sense to me in illustrating cultural differences and the assimilation that can happen to those differences.

After reflecting more deeply on cultural diversity, I hope to be both more introspective and understanding of different views, beliefs, and mannerisms people have, no matter where I encounter them. As such, I hope I can be more aware of it I’m making another person uncomfortable, and be let another person know if they’re making me uncomfortable because of an underlying cultural difference. I also hope to learn as much as I can about these differences, not only because that builds empathy, but also to have an open mind to what I can adopt into my own “culture”, whether that is intentional or just by living there.