Americans Abroad: How Can We Do Better?

By Kiana Duncan

The writer is a senior journalism student who has had the benefit of the CCI Semester in Florence (fall 2016) and is now studying abroad on her own in Prague as part of the CCI-Anglo American University partnership. She will blog periodically from Prague for CCI Global.

I was on the metro in Prague riding back from a class when I started eavesdropping on a group of American students talking behind me. The more I listened, the more I could hear all the hallmarks of a student’s first time abroad:

“I can’t decide between Barcelona or Paris for this weekend.”

“It is just me, or is everyone here rude?”

“I’m so annoyed that I can’t find almond butter anywhere.”

They were students from Anglo-American University, part of the massive CEA (Cultural Experiences Abroad) cohort that arrives every semester. These groups are Americans who live in the same building and attend the same field trips, much like Kent State’s Florence program, the key difference being these CEA students come from all over the United States.

I’ve blogged before about my thoughts on cohorts, but it’s interesting to be on the outside looking in. From this side, it’s easy to observe the behavior -- the good and the bad. Americans have a tendency to cling to each other when studying abroad, and understandably so. However, this sometimes encourages a rocky adjustment or even lack of adjustment to the host country. We tend to approach situations, whether we realize it or not, with a sense of entitlement. It takes a while to identify and rein in that tendency, but it’s one of the best things we can do as Americans to appreciate other cultures and mind our boundaries.

What can we do better?

Unlike my first time abroad with a cohort, I don’t feel the urgency to squeeze in a new country every single weekend. Whether this is because it’s my third time abroad and I know if I really want to come back, I can, or because I’m a little older and wiser, I don’t know. But staying here and not feeling the need to jump on every $10 Ryanair ticket has a lot of benefits, and are a sure sign that I’ve grown more comfortable living in a new country.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to travel while you’re in Europe, especially if it’s your first time here. However, the problem comes when we start treating every country as if the people, culture, and experiences are exactly the same. It’s when we treat the small but important details of each culture as trivial because we won’t be in that country for long; it bleeds into life in our host country. When we dismiss the necessity of being intentional and aware of our actions, there’s nothing to stop us from doing it anywhere else, especially where we’re more comfortable. We get lazy, and while it is exhausting to always be aware of your actions and how they fit into the cultural norms, it matters. The problem occurs when we act like tourists. This includes speaking the wrong language in a country, showing up knowing absolutely none of the language (I’ve been guilty of this) with no desire to learn it, or when we treat the entire country as if its only purpose is to give us a good experience. This problem occurs especially when we make light of the culture because we’re either uncomfortable, ignorant, or unfamiliar. Remember, no one owes it to us to make us comfortable. It’s their home before it’s our vacation.

Some American students reject the host cultures in another way: By using their time in a new country as an excuse to drink. While this topic has been beaten to death in every presentation on studying abroad ever, the lifestyle many Americans lead when studying abroad is unstable at best. Going out in an international community certainly has its appeal, but the consequences of clubbing every other night are serious. If drinking is your main focus, you’re going to end the semester most likely very disappointed and full of regrets. When you go out the night before, you’re missing that festival in the morning, or the conversation you could have had over traditional native food with a classmate. Drinking and clubbing can be fun in moderation, but these things can also prevent us from truly experiencing the culture. Americans and Europeans have vastly different drinking styles, and ignoring a casual night out sampling the local beer for shots at the craziest club could mean you’re missing out on a cultural experience.

Another part of rejecting the culture is making broad generalizations based on a few bad experiences, or taking offense because people do things in the Czech Republic a bit differently. Europeans tend to be more reserved than Americans, and Czech people tend to fall at the extreme end of this. While it’s common in American to be in a constant stream of thank you, please, endless hugs, and smiles, you would be very unlikely to experience any of those things on an average day in Prague. It does take a while to adjust, and it’s even harder not to get offended when your waiter makes an adverse comment in your direction (speaking one’s mind and being very direct, good or bad, is very Czech), it is part of the culture the same way Americans say “thank you” after everything. Many Americans here have taken extreme offense, when the key is to assimilate. This doesn’t mean we have to stop being polite, but just understand no one may smile back to you on the street, or when you thank someone for the millionth time, it might start to make them uncomfortable.

Ignorance is Bliss?

It’s true that we all do things that we might not mean to do, and often times, mistakes are accidents and never ill-intentioned. I’ve accidentally been rude to an Italian by messing up a phrase, or had awkward shopping encounters because I didn’t give the cashier the right amount. However, it is our job to be as informed as possible when approaching the unfamiliar. Not knowing really isn’t an excuse. We study abroad to learn, and that includes intercultural learning.

I cringe at so many memories of making a scene in a restaurant to get the perfect picture.

If you notice that posing with your giant margarita and taking 20 pictures with flash is annoying the couple next to you, that’s your cue to stop. If you’re receiving glances from people on the street because you’re not wearing the right shoes for public transportation, rethink your choice next time. (Flip flops in Eastern Europe are a massive no-no; I was, of course, devastated to learn this.) Be sure that what you think is appropriate in a new culture isn’t actually appropriating their culture.

It’s easy to become indignant and defensive, because no one likes to be corrected or embarrassed, but swallow your pride and laugh it off (in the privacy of your room, not to the locals, please). You’ll know better next time.

While rejecting the culture might seem like a silly concept, I’ve overheard an American student walking into an ITALIAN class, greeted by an ITALIAN woman, in ITALY asking:  “Why can’t she just speak English to me?” (*Cue eye roll.*)

Sure, there might not be peanut butter in Italy, but when you complain religiously about what you’re missing out on from home, you’re missing out on a different experience in that new country. It’s different, and you probably chose to go to this new country for a new experience.

When someone speaks Czech to us, we need to attempt to speak it back to the best of our ability. When a store doesn’t have what we wanted, we need to open ourselves up to new experiences. When we aren’t comfortable, we need to embrace that feeling and do our best.

The key to preventing any of these “American-isms” is to approach every situation with humility. We don’t know everything about the culture, and that’s OK. Be willing to be embarrassed for a second. Approach these times with sincerity and kindness. People sense that, no matter what language you speak. But try to speak the language, no matter how silly you think you sound. We are so comfortable in our culture that we never have to imagine what it’s like to be the outsider, and I think that’s what makes us so resistant to change. But it’s not only important, it’s necessary if we want to be global citizens.