When I first came to Beijing, I thought people were a bit rude. I was constantly being cut in line, if a line even existed. Everything I witnessed on the roads told me that Beijingers cared very little for the rules of the road, caring more about getting wherever they were going as fast as possible. People rush the subway as soon as the doors open, shoving and pushing to get on first. It sometimes irked me, largely because I didn’t understand it. Was it because I was a foreigner that they cut me in line?
Eventually, in one of my classes, we learned about the Great Famine and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, both traumatic events in recent Chinese history that pitted citizens against one another and instilled a mindset that the world is a positive-sum game. In other words, history had changed the Chinese point of view. “If I let him go first, what if it runs out before I get any?” is a question that still plagues the Chinese mindset. It comes from a time where people asked, “if I let him take food first, will I go hungry tonight?” and it has not fully gone away in modern Chinese society.
This obviously contrasts the American zero-sum game mindset, which has a stronger emphasis on rule of law. After experiencing both, there is something truly beautiful about Americans seemingly naturally waiting in lines or letting me go first at an intersection. It seems like a small thing, but it truly does hold meaning. This is not to say that I hated the positive-sum game lifestyle, in fact, after understanding it, I did get quite used to it and found myself shoving on the subway with the Beijingers next to me. There is something admirable, however, about people with the mindset of “I can be kind, there will be enough for me after.”
Culture shock is determined by the level to which one has become habituated to a specific culture, and stepping outside of this comfort creates a disturbance. Living in Madrid, I was enrolled in business classes taught in English with international students and I did not live in a homestay, but in an apartment with friends from Tulane. While it was enjoyable, I felt a very minimal immersion in the culture, and therefore learned very little about the culture of the madrileño. In Argentina, however, I am having a much more authentic and enriching experience, and have been forced to make a greater effort to immerse and adapt to the culture, rather than hide or avoid it.
I believe that the best way to prepare for culture shock is by undergoing this “shock” as frequently as possible. As I have traveled and experienced more cultures throughout my life, I have subconsciously prepared for culture shock by having zero expectations that the culture, pace, mannerisms, or attitude of one place should resemble anything that I have become accustomed to or that I relate to. By lowering these expectations, I feel that I can take account of said cultural differences without the “shock”.
I do, however, believe that the best way to prepare for culture shock is to understand the history of the country before encountering it, as to better understand the identity and culture that this history has sculpted. I wish that I had made a greater effort to understand the history of Argentina and the identity of the porteño before my arrival here, but I have come to realize that it is nearly impossible to learn an unbiased history of the country or an accurate description of its people from any American, English-written source. The cultural mix of the population, from mostly European descent, accounts for much of the unique social characteristics of the argentines. The history of government instability accounts for much of the political characteristics of the present day porteño as well.
In conclusion, I believe that I am becoming more observant of culture over time and by ignoring my expectations, always refraining from holding anyone to the standards that I have been raised by. In the future, I plan to research more about the history of a country before I travel, as to anticipate any social or political oddities, and to be more observant of the identity of its people.
How is higher education different in your host country from the US? Think about overall institutional structure as well as the pedagogy that is employed in the classroom. What strategies have you used to navigate these new rules and mores in these academic settings?
Let me preface my journal entry by noting that my university, FGV is considered the Ritz Carlton of universities in São Paulo and Brazil in general. It’s not uncommon to see damas with Louis Vuitton purses strolling the halls, finance majors flashing their Rolexes, and even secret service-looking security guards patrolling the entrances and exits. Once you get over the first floor cafeteria for which you pay two dollars per kilogram of food and the casual sushi bar available to students, FGV’s classroom setting is worth discussing.
FGV’s international program in management is conducted in English with class offerings in English that relate to emerging market economies, Brazilian foreign policy, and even the impact of BRICS countries on the global world order. These offerings were a welcome addition to my already international focus through the Altman Program, and I knew that I could never find classes this perfect for my interests back in the United States.
Interestingly, at FGV, every classroom is sponsored by a multinational corporation. Since FGV was founded with the support of American President John F. Kennedy, there is a brass bust of good ole JFK in the first floor lobby, accompanied by all of the names of the sponsoring organizations and institutions of FGV. Sometimes I would have classes in the Bloomberg classroom, other times I would attend lectures in the Odebrecht (a renowned Brazilian construction company), with state of the art technology and air conditioning systems, arguably the most important part of the school’s amenities.
Ultimately, however, I learned that the best part about my classes was not only the professors, but also the nature in which my professors challenged me to ignore my own lens through which I view the world so that I could hopefully, by the end of the semester, gain insight into how the emerging world views developed countries and the present world order. I have newfound opinions about Brazil’s positions in multilateral organizations, its thoughts about globalization and free market trade, Brazil’s role as a regional power, and even the reasons behind a rather rocky and unstable relationship with the United States. I feel that my changed ideologies is one of the most important things that I gained from my experience in São Paulo, and something that I hope to bring back to the Tulane campus and my future company upon graduation.
Leaving home after winter break for my second semester abroad, I felt strange. Not in the same way I felt when leaving first semester to go to Buenos Aires (sad to say goodbye to home for five months, nervous to move to a new country), but rather, the opposite. Even with all the new adjustments of moving in, figuring out my new university, and finding my way around the city, I still felt an absence of those feelings I had felt in July. Maybe I did not feel the shock because Madrid is more “western”, or because I have my own apartment rather than a homestay, or because the majority of my classes are in English rather than Spanish. However, when I spoke with other Tulane exchange students I realized that this was probably not the case. Many of the students shared with me the feelings of discomfort I had felt arriving in Buenos Aires, from complaints about the differences in food to the feeling of isolation from hearing Spanish everywhere you go.
When I first left for Tulane my freshmen year, I cried on the plane, scared to leave my family and friends behind to move to a place where I knew no one. Then college began, and from the rush of making new friends and sharing new experiences I was too busy to feel sad about being far away from home. Of course, some of these new experiences were challenging, such as adjusting to the new academic workload, and at times I would feel homesick. When I went home for break, however, I realized how much I had become accustomed to life at Tulane, and I could not wait to go back again. Studying abroad, to me, is a magnified version of that. Once again, I had to adjust to a completely unfamiliar environment, while also adjusting to a different culture and learning to speak a new language. This change, especially practicing my Spanish with native speakers, was initially very difficult and something I was self conscious of. My program required all of my classes to be in Spanish, and for me to communicate exclusively with my homestay in Spanish. By the end of the semester, however, I had grown from these experiences and learned a lot about myself. Not only had I vastly improved my ability to comprehend and communicate in Spanish, but I also realized how capable I was of adapting to whatever new challenge or circumstance presented itself to me. Now the feeling of unfamiliarity had just become familiar to me, and in Spain I am seeking out new ways to challenge myself. In fact, today I decided to replace my Spanish grammar class with a political theory class in Spanish. The class requires presentations and debates on political philosophers, and I am the only foreign exchange student in a class of Spaniards, so we shall see how it goes!