Monday, February 15, 2010

Seventh in Seven

Traveling to Senegal is the seventh time that I’ve been abroad my life, and I went abroad for the first time seven years ago. I’ve had a pretty good average, I’d say, of going abroad once a year. This is also my third time in Africa.

It’s strange to travel with people who are going abroad for the first time or even to Africa for the first time. I developing, secretly, (not anymore) a theory about cross-cultural experiences and what people experience as they go abroad more or stay abroad longer. I’ve decided to make a list of changes I’ve seen in myself and in others who have more experience abroad.

Every time I go abroad I stay for a little bit longer- I was in Kenya 1 month, then Argentina 2, then Kenya again 3, and now Senegal for 4 or so. None of these trips are long-term, so this list would probably look very different if written by a seasoned ex-pat. In any case, I’ve just found the differences in myself interesting, so I thought I’d share.

  1. Logistics- From frustration to expected challenge: Entering a new place and culture presents logistical challenges as much and perhaps more than it presents social challenges. A person has to relearn simple things that they never remember having to learn at home like finding a bathroom, using the phone, or buying groceries. At first, I’ve found that people react with anger or disbelief when they encounter these new realities. People find themselves saying that the way the new culture works is stupid or slow or inefficient. They blame the other rather than realizing that it’s just different. The more I travel the more I expect these challenges and take them as part of the experience as much as the cultural aspects. It’s even fun to wake up every day and look forward to the next logistical puzzle and experiential learning experience.
  2. Unexpected- What?!? to leaving space for it: Making a schedule in another country is a funny thing. You can do it, but you never know what will pop up. Again, I’ve found reacting with anger or frustration doesn’t help the situation, while leaving room for delays or sidetracks and taking them as they come makes every day more enjoyable. Eventually you come to understand better what you can accomplish in one day with the resources available.
  3. Planning- Every detail to on the fly: Speaking of unexpected, getting to know a culture makes you more able to figure out things as you go. I’ve often started off with grand plans gathered from the pages of my travel book. But the more I get my nose out of the book and watch the world around me, the more I learn from the people I get to know and get to experience things off the beaten track.
  4. DIY to making friends: Every time I try to do things by myself at first in another country, I end up getting ripped off or taking all afternoon for a task that should take half an hour. The more I can learn from other people or follow them and learn from them as they do things, the better. I recommend ditching your “I can figure it out on my own” attitude as soon as possible and humbling yourself enough to ask for help. This hopefully, will lead to meaningful friendships and working relationships that will facilitate getting tasks done and learning about cultural differences.
  5. Relationships- Excited and Shallow to Real and Slow: I was hesitant to put this on the list. But the truth is, I’ve experienced it first hand. There can be a lot of false-intimacy when you travel abroad. I’m talking about the “We are the World”, “You’re my brother/sister” stuff that is used a lot to evoke emotional responses but actually is only true once you’ve been through the fire of cross-cultural living. I’ve found that quickly made friendships don’t usually last, although sometimes they continue with a veneer of agreement at the cost of not learning anything from one another. The sooner you realize how different you are from one another, the better. This includes the difficulty of the economic disparities as well. Facing this reality is not fun, and can sometimes be isolating, but jumping over this hill allows one to engage in the hard work of building lasting relationships across cultures. This, I believe, requires a lot of self-awareness, humility, and patience, which can yield a great reward in the end.
  6. Being proudly Non-American/Wherever-you-are-ian to Being Yourself, including American: My sophomore year of college I would say that I was half-Guatemalan, half-Kenyan, and half-Argentinean. When I abroad I would join people in bashing America. Eventually I realized that I will always be American, no matter what I do, and I actually like many things about America, despite its faults. I now try to walk the fine line of being myself, including my nationality and all of the history, good and bad, that comes with that. I believe that I’ve learned more in cross-cultural experiences when I know where I stand and then I can place the traditions, beliefs, and experiences of the people I meet in relation to that. Surely being abroad changes people and opens their eyes to new things. But if a person doesn’t know before leaving which beliefs they hold that will not change, they can become a punching bag in another culture. This gets at the point that when you travel, cross-cultural learning is a two way street. I am a representative of myself, my family, my university, my city, and my nation wherever I am in the world, and the people I interact with want to learn about me and America as much as I want to learn about them and their nation and culture. As the traveler, you are required to bow to the realities of your host culture more often and to put your interests to the side frequently in order to learn, and I recognize that this is essential. Yet, doing this does not have to equal demeaning yourself or your own culture. The more I travel, I find that I learn more and do better if I keep a good hold of who I am and where I come from, have my own pillow, and keep a few Clif-Bars with me. People have their own non-negotiables that should be examined and reflected upon when you travel, but not abandoned.
  7. Theory-making to Question-making: My favorite pastime is listening to people who have been in a country for two weeks talk about how they would fix the healthcare system, the corruption problem, or the ubiquitous lack of coins (a real issue in Dakar, and Buenos Aires for that matter). In short, I’ve found that the solutions posed oversimplify the problems and rarely use local resources, including local expertise and labor. The best thing that I’ve found one can do with these issues is ask questions of people who are from the country in question, or who have been engaged with the problem for a significant amount of time. This may reveal some of the complexity that a visitor’s initial frustration hides.
  8. Only in Insert-Country-or-Continent-Here to Bubble Bursting: I’ll finish with this. I’m tired of travelers making stereotypes from their experience of a place. Recently, I said I was tired and wanted to sleep all day and another student said “Oh, you’re becoming Senegalese!” Uh, no, and that’s offensive. The conversations I hear between some students here who have created their own Dakar-merica bubble are circular, whiny, and unproductive. Those conversations are similar in pattern to the international development blogs that I’m tired of reading. Talking about the same thing with the same people from your same culture over and over again every day leads nowhere. I try to ditch that for new adventures, or sometimes naps.

I’ll stop here for the sake of your free time and continue with these thoughts later on. Please post your thoughts and reactions to the items on this list- is your experience similar?


  1. Hey, Emily-- thanks for posting this! It's really interesting, and I can also see some of the things I've done wrong in what you're saying. I think one of the deepest things you said was about maintaining your "roots" while still being open to new experiences and cultures. I totally dig that, and I feel that's real. Actually, one Senegalese student kind of encapsulated it for me in our conversation a few weeks ago:
    Him: Do you like being American?
    Me: Yes, I guess, mostly...
    Him: Mostly? Why mostly? You should be proud to be an American. Everyone should be proud of where he comes from.

    I thought that was neat. Anyway, thanks for the thoughts. I love reading your blog! Hope you don't mind a fellow Senegal-adventurer posting here.

  2. Hey Claire! I love it when you comment on my blog! Au contraire, I wouldn't say that you're doing things "wrong" it's just part of learning, I've done everything that I talked about in this post. It's more self-reflection than group critique. :)

  3. Hi Emily,

    This is an awesome blog and with your permission I shared it with some students in a workshop I had last year and would love to do so again this year.