Although studying abroad is supposed to be a step towards growth and maturity, don’t be surprised if when trying to adapt to your host city, you start reminding yourself more of a child than the adult you were at home. In many ways, a foreigner trying to assimilate into a new culture goes through the same struggles that a toddler does trying to learn its first culture. Why? Because:
- You can’t read anything or speak to anyone. You’re entering a whole new world that is dictated by an entirely new language which you don’t understand. Even if you took the initiative to become familiar with the language of your host city before actually arriving abroad, at-home lessons do not prepare you for the rapid, slurred speech of the natives. You find yourself relying heavily on gestures and facial expressions as a means of communication, just as a child who hasn’t yet learned to speak does.
- You have the most basic understanding of social practices. Assimilating into a new culture is more than just learning a new language. Different countries have their own way of doing things that is different from your own. Differences in social practices can be slight (for instance, it is impolite to speak loudly in public areas in France. In America, however, this is often considered appropriate and even sociable,) or obvious (like wearing the hijab in many Middle Eastern countries). Still, however large or small the cultural difference is, if you don’t watch out you may find yourself being accidentally offensive, kind of like an overzealous preschooler.
- You walk through life with a childlike sense of caution. With the collective challenge of trying to learn a new language and trying to pick up on even the most minute cultural practices, you may be trying to navigate through your host city with much more discretion than you would at home or even than you would in your host city as a tourist. That scared feeling may make the task of learning a new culture daunting, but you must not crawl up in a corner as you would have in your younger years. It’s imperative that you keep pushing forward with an adult-like bravery!
- You see the world as having that same magic that you once felt as a child. Still, with all the downsides to being like a child in a new country, there is at least one benefit: that you have the ability to see the world in a whole new perspective–full of exploration, discovery, and magic. It’s that same feeling you felt when you still believed in fairies and Santa Claus as a kid; when the world was a mystery, and your curiosity roamed free.
Perhaps the most important action a student abroad can take is to embrace this juvenile state. Let your host city take you back in time to your childhood years. And even if you find yourself asking so many questions that the natives think you must have been born yesterday, remember that in no time you’ll be mastering the language and culture like any other adult there.
Want to learn more about starting your studies abroad? Check out “When You First Arrive in Salamanca”