Experiencing a new culture is like writing with your non-dominant hand; it will take time, patience, awkwardness, practice and experience before it reaches the level of the dominant hand.
A lot of worries, ignorance, generalizations, and even stereotypes follow some students abroad when they leave to experience a new culture. He or she might make assumptions and stick with them because that’s what they “know” or what they’ve heard all their lives through media or their environment. However, going overseas to be immersed in a new culture shatters those beginning beliefs and stereotypes, opening their eyes to a new world.
What my AFS program does in order to reduce worry, ignorance, and stereotypes are orientations. These little meetings help students who will go overseas by knocking out some of the thoughts and worries rambling through the participants and the parent’s heads. On May 31, 2015, I had my first orientation, Pre-Departure Orientation. Our meeting place was at a hostel. Yes, a hostel, but man were those boarding rooms vast and commodious!
I excitedly attended this orientation with my Dad, Mom, little sister, and little brother. The first thing we did when we entered the boarding room was introduce ourselves to other parents and students. (All of the students – about seven of us – were girls! Apparently, not many guys apply to study abroad in high school.) Then, after receiving helpful (Family) Participant Guides with tips for studying abroad, everyone in the room did a fun exercise. Each of us had to write and draw with our “non-dominant” hand. I giggled through this entire exercise because it felt so weird. But that was the point! After all of our cackling and cheeks sored, the two hostesses of the meeting pointed out that the exercise resembled studying abroad: it can feel weird, and it can be uncomfortable or even stressful, but during the entire process, we still have fun, and with time, we will get better and feel more comfortable.
Next, all of the students paired up into one group, and so did the parents. In our groups, we all collaborated, creating a list of our concerns and expectations. Then, both groups chose and shared their top three concerns and expectations. My group’s concerns differed greatly from the parents’. We were concerned with language barriers, trying new things, and getting lost. The parents were concerned with safety, having what we needed, and coping in stressful situations. It was then that the hostesses introduced a tactic to ease some of our concerns: DIVE.
Describe, Interpret, Verify, and Explain, also known as DIVE, is a great tactic when “diving” into a new culture. For example, if I am in a new culture and don’t understand if something is part of the culture or if someone is being rude, I should DESCRIBE the situation, INTERPRET whether an action is a rude gesture or a part of a culture, VERIFY the situation by asking my host family if the action is normal, and EXPLAIN or EXAMINE what was just learned.
When that was finished, we broke for lunch.
In the middle of the orientation, the hostesses split the entire room into two groups. One group would stay inside, and the other would go out into the hall. After a short wait, one hostess came out to my group and explained that we were new students in a school, and we had to try to get invited to a table. The catch, there was only ONE way to be allowed into the group, and we had to find out. So, we were released into the room, and we scattered like doves. I had no clue what to do. I aimlessly wondered around the meeting table, asking the other group if I could join their table, but they ignored me. Finally, I complemented someone, and they let me join. I was so ecstatic! However, it wasn’t until later that I realized that I had automatically placed my left hand on the person’s right shoulder. THAT was the thing that got me invited to the table. This confused me at first, but the hostesses explained that every culture is different: different ways of communicating, different ways of living, different ways of making friends.
Next, everyone was given an image and asked to write as many details we could see. No assumptions, just details. It was only after we expressed our observations that we gave our assumptions. At one point in this time, two mothers had opposing ideas: one thought the man in the photo had a jacket because it was cold while the other thought his jacket was off because it was hot. This exercise was to explain just that; culture can influence how we view things. Which led back to DIVE.
At this time, parents were dismissed from the room, and only us students were left. With just us girls, we were given two exercises. For the first, we had to answer questions about our host country to see how much we knew about it. (I only scored around 40%). Then, we were asked to answer the same questions about our own country. I aced that with flying colors. However, the exercise showed me how much research I needed to do before I went abroad.
For the last exercise, us girls were broken into four groups. In these groups, we were given “What if” situations. The ones my group got were: What if someone smoked in your host family and you didn’t like it? What if a host mother is jealous of me and doesn’t feel included? After discussing scenarios with our groups, we shared with the room.
Coming to the end of the orientation, everyone was brought back into the room. It was then that the hostesses brought in study abroad students who had come to America but were soon departing back to their country. These students were from Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, Germany, and France. The students expressed how much they loved studying abroad and gave each of us great tips: try new things, make mistakes (the only way you can get better), get involved and join clubs. “Communicate” was the number one tip. I asked the girl from Japan about clubs at high schools over in her country, and she told me that, unlike in America, I could only join one club.
Ending the orientation, the hostesses expressed their cares for our safety. Each of us would get the contact information of an adviser or liaison. They encouraged us to start blogs and to write letters to our future selves, which I did. And that was that. That was the end of my first orientation.