When I was a Senior US Fulbright Scholar to Taiwan, I could have taken the “easy” road and been satisfied to stay in Taipei with Americans all over the place and English next to Mandarin on all the signs, maps, and menus. But why was I overseas? Not simply to hang out with an expat community and fall back on the easy things I already knew. I was there to immerse myself in a new culture. I wanted to do all I could to immerse rather than simply repeat the culture I already knew but in a foreign setting. So, instead, my family and I took a position in Kaohsiung—a major city in the south of Taiwan—where few Americans resided. It was amazing.
Yes, we were a focus of the community with people stopping us to take photos or offer gifts of candy to our children. We were different, but everyone was so kind, helpful, and giving and it helped us interact with ”everyday” Taiwanese people.
It struck me then that we stuck out because we weren’t of Chinese heritage but a family of light-skinned, tall, blond-headed Americans of European descent. My family and I had a great experience and learned not only the language much faster, but we also became immersed in new friendships, the city, and Taiwanese culture. We grew to know the Taiwanese people and they grew to know actual Americans.
America is different because we aren’t homogenous but a melting pot of many shapes, sizes, and colors. In many American cities and towns, people come from all ethnic backgrounds, so most everyone is used to seeing multiculturalism pass by on the street—whether they realize it or not. That’s not so in many homogenous cultures. So odds are, you don’t look as different as you think you might look in the US.
The real value of an education in the US—or any country for that matter—is outside the classroom. It’s the difference of becoming more than a content expert (learning a particular subject matter) but also a context expert (learning the situation behind, in, and around that content). If you stay alone and isolated in your room, you’ll never understand and embrace the full value and worth of the complex American culture and people. Join clubs and activities to force yourself to engage—take a chance and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how nice people can be.
Another danger is simply surrounding yourself with only those from your home country and primarily speaking in your native language. You could do that at home or take only online classes. Trust yourself and trust the Americans around you (regardless of the stereotypes you see highlighted on television or in the movies) and immerse in the many cultures that are America by taking advantage of all the opportunities provided by the Student Affairs office at your school. Engage!
I remember when my family hosted a Japanese student at our home during the Thanksgiving holiday. It was so fun for us, and her, to learn about all the weird little cultural “rules” surrounding a uniquely American celebration. Thanksgiving is about family, and Mimi became a part of ours. Not only did she learn about the different kinds of turkey stuffing and the importance of whipped cream on pumpkin pie, but our family learned too in explaining the why, who, how, what, when, and where of Turkey Day—a win for two cultures!
It’s in the details that many cultures live. Notice that I’ve referred American or Taiwanese culture, yet they are both a complex, interlocking web made of many, many other cultures. Humans have a tendency to clump and stereotype so that we can simplify things. Not everything can be made simple, and only when you immerse will you discover all the intricacies. I believe it takes about two to six months to become comfortably adapted to a new country and culture. One stops hearing just noise around them but rather voices and words. That is when your new place begins to feel like your home.
All humans learn by watching and mimicking—which side of the street to walk on, which fork to use or how the fork is held, when to speak and when not to, what types and items of food are popular and where they are located in the grocery store, supermarket, or food warehouse. It doesn’t matter the culture—observation is how we all learn our own cultural “rules.” So simply apply that to your experience abroad, and be sure to ask “why” a thing is done a certain way. Most times people answer with “we just do it that way.” With your questioning, you might help that person learn “why” as well.
Remember that pretty much everyone is here to help—especially on a college campus. The effort to engage is what is appreciated by most. I could see that in the faces of the Taiwanese people when I was without words and struggling to communicate. So, break the stereotype of your culture and let people see what it’s really all about through your unique perspective. After all, you were bold enough to even study abroad, which is something the vast majority of people will never do. Don’t stop halfway by just coming here, but fully engage and immerse. You won’t be disappointed. And by the way, welcome! We are so glad you are here.