Words of Warriors Things I Learned While Studying Abroad, pt. 3: The World
Just kidding. Having returned from my Fabulous World Adventure, I thought I would conclude this series of posts by sharing some lessons I learned about the wide world out there. Hint: whatever you expect it is, it isn’t. I lived in Britain for four months and it still confuses me! Even on an in-depth semester, you can’t truly come to appreciate all the nuances of a foreign culture and how it compares with your own. Still, England Semester taught me much about British culture and people. Throughout the semester, I learned these things about understanding other cultures:
There are some things you will (partially) understand immediately.
Even though I had barely been using British public transport for a month, I acutely felt the pain and awkwardness that everyone else felt when a passenger raised her voice or talked too loudly on the phone. I fully joined in the huge Harry Potter culture across the pond—I even spotted the occasional aloof-looking older person sporting a subtle Harry Potter scarf. And even though I had never seen a children’s Nativity play before, I shared in the joy of watching adorable kids reenact the Christmas story.
There are some things you will grow to (partially) understand.
As the grey, rainy semester progressed, I quickly learned to imitate the British and hurry outside to bask in the sunlight as soon as the clouds dissipated for even a moment. I learned the acute struggle of deciding whether to risk breaking your umbrella in the wind or just getting soaked. I came to understand—if only in part—the strong connection Irish people often have to their beautiful and verdant land. (The picture below is one I took in Ireland!)
There are some things you will never (even partially) understand.
Tipping for service. I could not for the life of me figure out how tipping worked in Britain. They said I wasn’t supposed to tip, but then included a “suggested gratuity” on bills that was added to the “total.” So… was that “total” my actual total or just a suggestion? Whom should I tip? Whom should I not tip? It was a mess, and I’m sure I have both wasted money on unecessary tips and grossly offended some people who expected a tip and didn’t get one.
Not everyone is the same as you, and not everyone is the same as everyone.
The first point—not everyone is the same as you—will be readily apparent to you. For example, I noticed that I smile at strangers (the horror) while British people generally do not. However, the second point is another important lesson: the world is not divided into “same as you” and “different than you.” People differ widely from each other, even in the same country! Though this fact is easy to accept when applied to America, it can somehow fade into the background when we generalize unknowingly about another culture. Of course, some generalizations are inevitable (this blog post is guilty of that), but you must be aware that there are vast differences of religion, interests, regions, careers, and classes that divide every place on earth. Still, in a way, that makes me feel better. If you allow the places you go to be diverse, then that creates an opening for you to add to that diversity, as opposed to being completely “other” and out of place. You can approach another culture with openness to learning as well as sharing your own background and way of life. If a semester abroad can teach you that, it is absolutely worth it.