Don’t Study in the US: Part 3, the Cultural Side

Though it feels like most people talk about improving their career prospects or getting a better education when they discuss why they want to study in the U.S., in an informal survey on our Facebook page, the majority of you said the cultural experience of studying abroad was the most important reason to study overseas.

Cultural Immersion

Cheerleaders at George Mason (Creative commons photo by Flickr user J Rosenfeld)
Cheerleaders at George Mason (Creative commons photo by Flickr user J Rosenfeld)

For Nareg, it was the “spirit of adventure” that drove his decision to come to the U.S.:

The experience of it all was definitely a major factor: to be away from family and friends, in an unknown environment, is just the kind of adventure which would educate more than any book or lecture could.

Farima agrees.  She says her initial motivation for coming to the U.S. as a high school student was to get a better education, but over time it has been the cultural exposure that has kept her here:

After studying for one year in the US, I realized that I really want to continue my education here. After three years now, I have loved my experience even better and it has been very meaningful to me. I have not only gotten a better education, but also I have learned a lot about the different cultures in the US and the world. I have learned how to look at these cultures in a different perspective and learn something from it.

That’s not to say that cultural immersion is always easy. If you’ve been following this blog you’ve read a lot about surviving culture shock and integrating with American students.  And you know that it’s hard, and fraught with missteps.

Challenges

Sebastian wrote earlier this year:

When I first got to the U.S. I had a really difficult first week. I was too busy adapting to the change; the moving, the new environment, the different culture, the food and even the weather. I was too busy to even meet new people. And without people around I got homesick real quick. I missed my family, friends and so many people that it made my whole stay hard for the first week or so.

Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick
Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick

The differences are not just in small things like availability of your favorite food or the way people say hello – although both of those may be different and can be jarring.  In fact, you’d be surprised how often people who study abroad talk about missing their favorite foods from back home.

You may also find fundamental differences in things like what people like to do on a Saturday night and how to relate to the opposite sex.

Sebastian eventually found a strategy for coping with the culture shock and homesickness, and has ended up finding his place on campus.  He says, “I met some Bolivian guys, and then American people too, who made the whole experience different. When you are around people, getting to know that new place, getting to know each other, or just hanging around, it is a totally different story.”

Some students never adjust to the culture shock though.  In response to a New York Times article earlier this year looking at the “China boom” – the influx of Chinese students in the U.S. – a Chinese student at the University of Illinois surveyed his friends about their American experience:

For two weeks I asked other Chinese students in the U.S. to tell me about their lives. Some were acquaintances, others complete strangers. As far as they’ve told me, they aren’t “booming” at all, not even close – they are troubled, isolated or sleep-deprived.

For some the homesickness can even become overwhelming.

My friend Xue Li and her friend making dumplings
Tara's friend Xue Li and her friend making dumplings for the Chinese New Year

Even those who adjust well can face challenges. Tara, who has adjusted quickly and completely, struggled a bit when she returned home because of how much she had changed in the U.S.

But she also says that she now feels she has two homes, writing on her personal blog:

The most difficult question for me to answer is that which country do you love more,China or America? !  Ohh, so hard!!!  My love goes to America and China equally!

Teaching Others

All of our bloggers have reiterated time and again how much they value the relationships they’ve made with people from all over the world, and the opportunity to share their own culture with others.

Farima holds Afghanistan's flag
Farima represents Afghanistan at a school cultural event

Jamal is usually the only person from Kyrgyzstan that her classmates have ever met. “When I say that I am from Kyrgyzstan, many people laugh and think I made up such a country, or that the name is misspelled,” she says.  But she adds:

It is so cool to represent my little country Kyrgyzstan in the United States. I try to do it in best way I can and let people know more about our culture and traditions, and perhaps make at the same time important connections for my future business relationships. And I am very proud of this.

You might remember Arwa from part 1 of this series.  She is receiving her higher education in Pakistan, and says that although she would like to study in the U.S. someday, right now it’s not a possibility.  When I asked her what she would want to teach Americans about Pakistan, Arwa responded:

I think it will be a brilliantly incomparable and honorable opportunity for me if I get to share what my culture, my traditions are like and similarly learn about foreign customs and how we can learn from one another.

I’d want the world to taste the sweet and spice of our food; to listen to our mythical music; to read our rich, glorious literature; to understand the universality of our religion; to explore the grandeur of our architecture; to witness the sovereignty of our heritage and history; to marvel the beauty of our art and craft; to wear the elegance of our attire, to witness the glamor [sic] of our festivals and celebrations..The list can possibly never end for a proud Pakistani.