Svetlana Fenichel is a student at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Cusco, Peru.
Before you study abroad, you can talk about cultural differences. You can read up on the symptoms and consequences of culture shock. You can try to be emotionally prepared, but there is no way to avoid experiencing the startling disparities between the way of life you are accustomed to and your new surroundings while studying abroad.
At times it is uncomfortable…
While in Cusco you are pretty much guaranteed an adventure on a daily basis, especially if your transportation of choice is the local combi and you are taller than 5′ 2″ (like me). Those adventurous mini-buses manage to transport more people at any given time than its capacity permits. At that, if you are taller than an average Cuscenean, you will have to be very creative in the ways you bend and hold on to the handlebar in order to try and avoid the inevitable collision with other passengers. About two weeks into my life in Cusco, on one of those super cheap and fairly unpleasant trips to school, it suddenly occurred to me that it’s not the bus, it’s me who is uncomfortable. It didn’t seem like a big deal to the rest of the passengers, some of them carrying heavy loads or even children on their back. It was a true cultural revelation. This kind of public transportation was created for the Cusceneans, not for foreigners, who are taller and more accustomed to their different standards of comfort. Once I came to terms with this idea, it all made more sense to me, and believe it or not, even became more enjoyable. It made me think of places and things in the U.S. that we tend to disregard even though they might be uncomfortable for visitors from foreign cultures. To me it only seems fair that I have to sacrifice a bit of my own comfort in order to adjust to Peruvian culture, just the way they have to do in their attempts to become accustomed to our western lifestyle.
Occasionally it is comedic…
When in Peru, eat like Peruvians do. If you don’t, you won’t get the full experience of this vibrant culture. Following this motto, I decided to explore the gastronomic paradise of Peruvian cuisine. Having chosen a small restaurant packed with locals (always a good sign) I was recommended a local delicacy, chicken soup. Thinking that I can’t go wrong with a well-known dish I went right ahead. When my meal arrived I couldn’t hide my deep astonishment when I discovered CHICKEN FEET sticking out of my soup, which was very amusing to the people around me. Once the initial shock faded away, I managed to enjoy my lunch. Despite its unusual presentation, the flavor was still exceptional. And surely this one occasion didn’t discourage me from exploring and trying more unknown dishes; it only made it more exciting.
Sometimes it is shocking…
I was shocked to find myself identified as a “gringa,” a foreigner, by so many people. In order to ensure an easier adjustment to the local culture you should probably get used to this term. However, this title does not have the negative connotations we seem to impose on it. So I would recommend just ignoring it because it really isn’t a big deal.
…But it is always worthwhile
So you really can’t avoid cultural differences and their effects, but you can surely transform your attitude towards them. The best advice I can give is to be as open-minded as possible and see your study abroad experience as a unique opportunity to learn from other people’s lifestyles and use that to grow personally. Besides, those petty, or more significant, peculiarities that are so startling to you at first are what make the whole experience unique and unforgettable. Enjoy them while you can!