(with, of course, all due respect to mr. e e cummings)

Monday, July 25, 2011

For Those About to Study Abroad (or really, go anywhere new)

Maybe you have heard me complain before about the sheer inadequacy of my preparation for studying in Syria.  A great deal of this lack of helpful preparation is due to the fact that my program was new; no one had sent undergraduates to Syria as part of an organized program before.  Still and all, there are a couple things I'd like to have been told.  Here's a brief listing.

Disclaimer: these are drawn from my own experience, which as you can read in earlier postings involved a lot of challenging times, places, and people.  I know other students who absolutely loved every minute of their time abroad and so would have very different things to say about the experience.

(Upon reflection, I'd say these are actually pertinent for people going into any kind of new situation, even going from Houston to Baltimore or one job or school to another.  I am too much a pseudo-philosopher.  Nonetheless, hopefully this is helpful.)

1. It really is important to know why you want to go where you are going.  When you reach (one of) the low point(s) of your time abroad and only want to go home, it helps to be able to remind yourself of unquestionably logical and firm reasons why you are in this place.  For me, this was the fact that I want to improve my Arabic and can do so best in an Arabic-speaking country.  In addition, I wanted to learn about Middle Eastern Christians and Syria is the place for it.  Even when I was lying on my bed hating everything, these were reasons I couldn't argue with.  Having them settled even before my arrival in Aleppo made this a lot easier.  (Maybe this is an advantage to studying in a place that you have to justify to everyone you mention it to.)

2. In my orientation, we were told that it was fine to talk to our parents while freaking out, but to make sure we called back as soon as we were feeling better so that said parents would not get an inaccurately negative picture of our lives abroad.  This is good as far as it goes, but I think it's also important to have people back home you can be completely honest with.  Depending on who you are, this could be parents, friends, partners, clergy...whatever.  In practice, this means that if you have a massive freak-out session because you just can't do this one more day, you can talk to these people and then not worry about reassuring them, because they will love you even if you don't call back in a couple hours in a normal state and they will have confidence in your ability to take care of yourself.  This doesn't mean they don't worry-- it means they trust you and you know it.  Living abroad can be stressful enough without having to hide your stress.  (Note-- I know sometimes you can't be completely honest online anyway, thanks to your host government.  We knew from the very beginning that our internet use would be monitored.  But the principle still holds.  Have someone(s) with whom you'll be as honest as circumstances permit.)

3. Be as fine as you can with your own style of cultural acclimation, and use it.  People are very different, and these differences become very obvious when you are studying abroad and in stressful situations.  Some people are happy to jump right into things and make twenty local friends the first week and can be seen soon after smoking with them next to "No Smoking" signs.  Some people are me and think this sounds terrifying.  They might have a couple local friends by the end of the second week and only really socialize with them in the dorms.  This is okay.  The only way this is not okay is if you don't socialize at all and never push yourself.  Measuring yourself against other students in the program in terms of vocab retained, friends made, local coffee shops visited, or "adoptions" by local families is kind of counterproductive and just makes you sad.  Or happy, but in a vindictive way.  Likewise, people deal with stress in different ways-- soccer, yoga, playing solitaire, watching movies, hanging out with other people.  Just roll with it and do your own kind of best, which sounds cheesy and perhaps is, but also keeps you sane.  I was so frustrated with myself for being shy and not bonding instantly with any of the Syrians or Americans, but I was the one the Syrian girls came to when they had troubles with the Americans.  Go figure.

4. Things I most glad I brought with me include: breakfast bars, a garland of paper stars, and some Peppermint Patties.  There are weird things you miss when you leave home, and little things can make a lot of difference with this.  Little things also make very good bartering items...I'd forgotten deodorant when I showed up and traded some breakfast bars for a stick of it with a girl down the hall.  When I popped out the first Peppermint Patty (with full knowledge of how alliterative it was), not only was it delicious, but I got the attention of all the other Americans who were around.  Little things make a difference even if they're not from home.  By the time things started getting crazy in our program and the country at large, several of the students had picked up the habit of buying bunches of candy bars whenever they went to the supermarket.  If somebody (including you) was having a bad day or being nice or getting frustrated or hungry or scared, giving them a candy bar meant a lot.  It helped that the exchange rate was great for us and these nice German chocolates cost maybe $1 or so.

5. Finally, because I'm getting long-winded and also 5 is a nice number to end on with a base-10 system, pay attention to cultural mores-- but not too much.  You may be shocked to hear this, coming from me, the super International Studies Major who loves to harp on Context and such.  And I agree that it's important to have some idea going in of how not to offend everyone you meet, and equally importantly, not to be terrified by everyone you meet.  For instance, going to Syria, you should know as a woman not to force a handshake on a man or to sit up front in a taxi.  You should also know that cross-gender friendships are okay; the nice guy who asks you where you're from is (usually) curious and actually nice, not creepy.  But if you spend all your time trying to keep to specific rules and guess at the other ones, you have no time to have fun.  People will generally forgive your mistakes if you are sincere about trying to avoid them.  Make sure to reserve some brain space for interacting with people, because in the end, that's what they are.  They're people, not just sociological structures of language, culture, and society.  They just might like you.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Heads Up

In a flurry of being unable to focus on my actual research today, I have decided that I will resuscitate this blog for new purposes.  I'm not entirely sure what those are yet, but they will likely include me thinking online about life, theology, religion, international affairs, and language, as these are the only things I think about anyway.  I think it might be nice to post little essays from time to time and see what people think.  This is mostly a warning: I am going to remove everyone from the email update list, since you were there to hear about Syria, not my philosophical jumbles.  If you'd like to keep getting email updates when/if I ever post anything here, please just let me know and I'll be happy to put you back on that list.  If you do not, thanks for following along on my earlier adventures anyway-- knowing that I was remembered stateside meant more than I can express here.