Whether you’ve just started a gap semester abroad, or you’re planning on participating in a summer program, one of the things you can expect during your time overseas is adopting certain characteristics of your host culture. With Aspire by API’s immersion programs, this happens almost automatically—mainly because you’ll be around so many locals, and in short, we tend to act like the people around us.
In my experience, certain parts of this “cultural adoption” process came easier than others. Picking up the colloquial French words and interjections, for example, happened quickly for me. It didn’t require too much thought, it was fun to try out new phrases, and these expressions made my spoken French sound more natural. In fact, I have retained certain characteristics to this day. For example, I still say aup-là when lifting heavy objects (I admit that’s strange, but it’s a habit!). Looking back, it seems like this type of change was easier because it was superficial in a way: it was taking place “on the surface” of my personality.
Viewing things “the French way”, on the other hand, took a lot more time. This was a much more involved process—it meant questioning certain assumptions that I had taken for granted my entire life. In addition, while I knew that I was going to meet people with differing viewpoints than I did, but I didn’t expect their perspectives to be so drastically different.
For example, the burqa ban was a topic that was being hotly debated in the media while I was abroad. I can remember standing outside of the movie theatre on a Thursday night, discussing my views on the topic with a French friend. We disagreed, to say the least. But how was this possible? We were the same age, we were both college students, and we were both reasonable people. He had clearly weighed both sides of the argument, as had I. How could it be that we had not reached the same conclusion?
Another person with whom I had many interesting debates with was my host father. We talked at great length about the vast social welfare system that had bed put into place by the French since the 1960s—from healthcare, to unemployment benefits, to extensive labor laws. We stayed up talking after dinner, letting our tea get cold, talking about the pros and cons of this type of system. What I found most astonishing was that, although he considered himself rather conservative, he was largely in support of social programs. This was an extremely different stance than that taken by American conservatives! How was this possible?
At the heart of both matters, it was all simply a difference in perspective. The French people I debated, no matter their age, all had a very different view of what the government’s main function was (compared to my American view), and of course this central idea had a big effect when they evaluated government policy.
There were times when I had convinced my new friends to see things my way, times when they convinced me I was wrong, and other times when we just agreed to disagree. I adopted a lot of French mannerisms and perspectives during my time abroad. In the cases when I couldn’t fully agree with the French perspective, the exercise of debating an issue was still useful. Just by having these discussions, I was examining my own worldview and challenging my belief systems. By contrasting my opinions with those of my peers, I ended up with a better idea of what my values truly were. And being able to look at things differently is always refreshing.
When you’re abroad, try to lose yourself in the host culture. In the areas where it’s a bit difficult to assimilate, strive to appreciate the differences and the diversity of opinions that you encounter. Not only will you learn more about your host country—you’ll learn about yourself as well!