Never in my life have I felt more patriotic than I did during the days leading up to my return to the US. I guess this isn’t very common, nor is it the best way to sell someone on study abroad (sorry, younger students being forced to read this!), but I was beyond ready to come home. Europe is nice! The buildings are old and ornate and as a whole, people dress and sound and smell very good. But America, home of Kraft mac and cheese and the one-stop-shop grocery store, was calling to me. America, land of excess, of department stores and quality television programming, even late at night. Land of my family, my friends, my school, my dog. So, no. I didn’t feel any discomfort at all when it was time for me to return to this fine nation of ours. All I felt was joy.
I’ve had a great experience coming back to Tulane and resuming the busy, stressful, chaotic, fun, happy life that has become mine over the past two years. I appreciate the chapter in that life that was study abroad, but no part of me wishes that I was anywhere else. This feeling isn’t something I’ve always had at Tulane, but it seems like it’s here to stay, and I’m pretty thrilled about that. I’m in a new house, the business school is a mess, and I did get lost once because I forgot where a building was. But I’m stressed and I’m happy and Bruff is still not great. I’m home.
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?
I ran up the steps, pear pastry tart in hand, and halted once I saw my two classmates at the top. One of my supervisions had been moved, so I had two supervisions back to back. From what I understand, supervisions are specific to Cambridge. They are lectures between the professor and one to three students, and they generally take place in the professor’s office. To paint a picture of a Cambridge professor’s office, there are cozy couches, a warm fireplace, some bottles of wine to the side, multiple rooms, and even possibly kitchen. These become areas for discussion.
With two minutes to go before the supervision takes place, I begin to eat my pastry for a late lunch. However halfway through, the students from the previous supervision exit the professor’s room, and we had to hurry in. Tart in hand, I apologize, set it on the table, and promise to not touch it. My professor, an elderly distinguished fellow at King’s College one of the most prestigious colleges of Cambridge University, was in shock. The idea that a student would bring food into a lecture, let alone a supervision was unheard of. The student that brought the tart into the supervision, then heard about it for the next ten minutes, and then multiple times again throughout the lecture. After multiple heartfelt apologies, I believe that this incident has been forgiven. However, I learned a few important lessons.
Not only was the structure of lecture in England different, but the rules that came with them. Once you learn the rules, you pay particular attention to follow them. Cambridge is a university rooted in tradition, and they have a right to be. As an individual there only for a semester, it is not my place to be indignant when I get told off for breaking a rule. Instead of focusing on where anything but myself is at fault or judging differences, I can make sure I am doing my best to be respectful and understanding. I like this story of the tart for multiple reasons. It showcases the intimacy allowed in academic discussion, through the supervisions at Cambridge. Yet reminds me to stay on my toes and not get too comfortable.
Having the privilege of already going to Spain (where I am currently studying abroad) for two weeks when I was Junior in high school, I already had a good idea of what to expect when I arrived in Madrid. The same cannot be said for my time abroad in Argentina. Having spent almost two semesters in two different countries, I have made a few missteps, whether it was awkwardly greeting someone (handshake or cheek kiss? I DON’T KNOW!), or saying the wrong word for something or saying it in the wrong accent. I have also encountered a number of cultural differences that have really made me reflect on how my life compares to the lives of others. Growing up in Iowa City and going to school at Tulane, both fairly liberal, politically correct, and socially conscious places (with obvious counter examples: e.g. the recent KA Trump Wall), I assumed that Argentina (as well as a few of the various countries I have travelled to while abroad in Spain) would also share similar values. While in almost every country the expectations and reality do not match up perfectly, I think the most surprising example of crossing cultures for me was encountering, learning about, and comparing the political incorrectness and racism present in Argentina with that of the United States.
Before I elaborate, it is important to note the difference between intent and effect when discussing the political incorrectness of Argentina. Furthermore, it is important to note the difference between political incorrectness and racism. Merriam Webster defines political correctness as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people” and racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Racism is a universal problem that exists in almost every country in some way, shape, or form, and I believe that both racism and political incorrectness, just like in the United States, are present in Argentina, however in a more obvious and overt fashion. It’s also important to note that obviously not all Argentines are political incorrect and are certainly not all racist. From personal experience, the host mother I lived with was one of the nicest and most accepting people I have met. However, it is clear that both of these things, just like in the US, are very present.
To give an example of political incorrectness, while in the US it is offensive to greet an overweight person as “hey fat!” or an African American as “hello black!” in Argentina it is the complete opposite. In Argentina, one would address an overweight person as “gordo,” and anyone with darker skin as “negro,” “negrita,” etc. From personal experience, when walking somewhere from school with my Asian-American female friend, random groups of people (almost always young males) would yell various phrases such as “Konichiwa” or “Ni hao” at her. They would also pull their eyelids back to resemble the stereotype to get her attention and signal their interest in her, making her very uncomfortable. While people are more upfront in Argentina, and in this instance, likely do not have the intention to harm anyone, the effects of their political incorrectness are felt by their targets, especially when they come from more politically correct backgrounds.
In addition to having an overweight body type and being part of a minority race, being a female draws you generally unwanted attention via catcalls, whistles, etc (also present in the US), deriving from the Machismo culture of Argentina. So while there is often not an intent to offend or make someone feel uncomfortable, it is often the effect. That being said, while being politically incorrect doesn’t always involve bad intentions, being racist does.
The following quote is from an African American student’s entry in the IFSA-Butler abroad blog from the fall semester:
“As a black woman I did not go one single day without having at least 2 or more men cat call me, or someone stare at me. I was warned before embarking on this trip that I might face these things as a woman of color because “there are no blacks in Argentina”. However, through investigation I found out that this was false. Although many in the city do not believe and may not have ever seen blacks or indigenous peoples, they do exist. I saw them, met them, and engaged with them. And I even wrote my research paper on the history of blacks or afro-argentines in the country and the explicit and implicit tactics in which the Argentine society attempted to silence and erase their presence. And even after writing and presenting this paper, I was still questioned about the validity of my findings, even by professors. It was only until I showed photos of this silenced and hidden community that I was believed, and with great shock.”
This quote not only mentions the problems with being a woman in a culture dominated by machismo, it also exemplifies a racism problem that still exists in Argentina, evidenced by an educated professor’s denial of black oppression, as well as numerous examples I found online citing racial slurs and discrimination (e.g. refusal into restaurants, clubs, buses, etc.). This problem stems from a number of factors, including stereotyping, misunderstandings, and lack of awareness, and is not just present in Argentina. The United States also has a problem with marginalizing minorities, via aspects such as access to job opportunities and the criminal justice system, as we learned about through our freshmen required reading, The New Jim Crow.
Tying these experiences into my own, it is very important to recognize that I personally, as a white male, have faced zero harassment or discrimination. So while I thoroughly enjoyed my time abroad in Argentina and love it here in Spain, I am now also very aware that unfortunately ones race and gender, due to the views of others about/against each aspect, can detract from his/her experience abroad. Sadly, people in a less privileged position than myself, especially when visiting a country unfamiliar with their race, often have to overcome struggles that I will never have to face just because I am part of a different demographic.
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!
See below…an ECG machine in Argentina…
After completing an entire semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina and now that I have been abroad for almost a month in Madrid, Spain, I am used to being away from my family and friends. Leaving home is not as strange as I remember it being when I first left for my freshman year at Tulane. Furthermore, I can confidently say that I have stepped out of my comfort zone quite a few times. Specifically, I would like to share an example of when I had to book a doctor’s appointment for a physical, so that I could participate in club soccer for the Universidad del Salvador, aka USAL, one of the colleges where I studied while in Buenos Aires. Both the appointment and joining the team required me to leave my comfort zone.
Although I have been studying Spanish for a long time, making a phone call in Spanish can still be stressful at times, as I usually prefer to send emails. In this case, I was faced with the problem that I could only book the appointment via cellphone. So, rather than be discouraged, I made the call and, as most things are after worrying a lot about how they can go wrong, it went completely fine. However, it was not the call but the appointment itself where I would truly find myself outside my comfort zone and face to face with a mysterious device that I had never seen before, the ECG machine.
Admittedly, on the form I filled out prior to the physical, I saw a strange term relating to a test, the ECG, that I didn’t really understand. The questionnaire asked me if I had ever received this kind of test. Since I had been to a doctor’s appointment many times before, I just assumed that I had done this test before and checked yes. I know now, thanks to the internet, that ECG stands for electrocardiography, which is the process of recording the electrical activity of the heart over a period of time using electrodes placed on a patient’s body.
After getting my height and weight measured, the nurse (who was not very communicative) asked me to lay down and remove my t-shirt, and placed a dozen suction cups, which now I know were the electrodes, on my chest and rib cage. From fear of the unknown, I began to worry. Unaware of what would happen next, I feared some sort of shock or pain; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was just monitoring my heart activity and not some robotic octopus monster trying to electrocute me.
Now that I had my physical, I was cleared to play in the club soccer games that were held every Saturday (until the season ended). Joining the club team required me to leave my comfort zone because I was the only US citizen and English speaker on the team. At first, I knew nobody else on the team, and I could only speak Spanish with them because the majority of them spoke little to no English. It was a challenge getting to know the coach and the players at the beginning as well; however, after a few practices and games, they accepted me as a teammate and a friend (we still keep in touch via Whatsapp). Eventually, I became the starting right back/right midfielder on the team, it was a great experience! Now that my semester in Argentina is officially over, I am eager to see how my experience in Spain will compare to it, and look forward to the rest of my time here in Madrid.
*flagging down a Vietnamese rice farmer and getting a ride back to the village on a motorbike*
This is definitely something I (or my parents…) never imagined myself doing. I just completed a week long backpacking trip in Vietnam. In dire need of a nice shower, I arrived last night at midnight to my dorm at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. For anybody who knows me well, they know a backpacking trip is outside of my comfort zone, and that’s exactly why I wanted to do it.
Through the seven days of attempting to use the transportation system in northern Vietnam, I traveled to the beach towns of Da Nang/Hoi An, the metropolitan Hanoi, and the minority villages of mountainous Sapa. This was an eye-openning experience. From meeting other backpackers to having a local tour guide in Sapa, every person I met left me with something. Observing different ways of life forced me to take a step a back from my self-absorbed life of a 20 year old. When you meet a villager who got married at 16 and had three children by 20, it puts things into perspective. I become extremely aware of my freedom and privilage. It also shows you that your way of life is not the best way, just one way.
Something else that stuck with me was the Vietnamese saying “same same, but different.” There is so much truth in this. Being in Vietnam was influential for me. Many people thought I was Vietnamese. When I was in Sapa, it was harvest time for the farmers. Their rice harvest was supposed to feed the families for the whole year. I saw girls and boys my age and younger working in the fields. People that looked like me. “Same same, but different.” Interesting (for lack of a better word) that the thing you have the least control of, your birth, decides so much.
I made it back to Hong Kong as the same but different.