“Tell me a little about yourself.”
Although these might sound like words from an employer in a job interview, these words also comprise a phrase you’re likely to hear during any extent of time abroad. Whether you’re getting to know a host family for the first time or you’re meeting some new friends downtown, you are surely going to be asked to share a little bit about your personal life and identities with international acquaintances. So, what are you like? What do you believe in? What words or traits represent you? However you identify, it’s crucial to be aware of how you are going to be received abroad. While you are likely to be accepted, remember that other cultures do not necessarily value the same identities or lend the amount of privilege you might be accustomed to, and that you are always a reflection of identity groups you align with, organizations you represent, and the United States at large.
How do you think we arrived at the stereotypical image of the “ignorant American” abroad? When Americans go abroad, be it for pleasure, travel, education, etc., we serve as ambassadors for ourselves and beyond. As unfortunate as it is, you might come to realize that the whole world does not “bleed blue” like University of Kentucky Wildcat fans, or that wearing your sorority letters makes you stand out tremendously in your destination. Ultimately, presentations of yourself and your identities, conveyed both verbally and physically, can be directly related to your reception and experience abroad, as well as your safety and security.
- Be mindful of cultural differences.
Before you go abroad, do yourself a favor and research your host country. Regardless of the duration of your time abroad, you will encounter individuals who will want to know about you and about your home. Think about how you want to express yourself and how you will articulate and represent your identities and organizations. Know what is commonplace in your destination, and know how you might handle adversity if someone questions you based on your identities or affiliations.
- Pack simple.
In this case, less is not always more. ‘Simple’ in this context means consider packing clothing appropriate for the literal and social climate of your host country. Thus, if wearing flamboyant patterns or brand names and logos sprawled across your chest is considered a fashion faux pas abroad, consider packing inconspicuous clothing that helps you to blend in in your new setting. Likewise, know what cuts of clothing are considering appropriate so you can respectfully enter establishments abroad.
- When in doubt, mum can be the word.
Ever worked your way into a discussion you can’t back out of? Topics spoken about freely in the United States may arouse foreign opinions or thoughts on the issue that you have never heard, conflict with your own, or leave you speechless. While you should serve as an advocate for yourself and identities, know your own comfort level and overall safety before interjecting unpopular (or unwelcome) perspectives or opinions!
Being mindful of customs in your destination will undoubtedly save you from social blunders abroad, and is likely to help you adjust upon arriving. Keeping safety in mind, you can learn about yourself in addition to others abroad by thoughtfully sharing your identities and listening to and learning about those of others.
Photos and post by Sarah Caton
Sarah Caton is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador studying Spanish and Gender & Women’s Studies. She participated in the UK Partner SOL Costa Rica program.
This post can also be found on: https://spaceplaceandgrace.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/know-yourself-know-your-worth-your-image-abroad/