By Emily Guzman
Study abroad is an immersion into a culture not our own, so we anticipate an initial culture shock when we depart for several months with only a handful of useful tips on how to survive as an outsider. But it is interesting when juniors return to campus, after so many months of calling another country home, only to anticipate a similar experience back on campus. Cultural differences between the U.S. and abroad are amplified once again.
“I was really nervous about coming back to the States, entering a culture that is a bit more individualistic. I had this sort of stereotype in my head that ‘Oh my gosh, Americans are going to be so mean!’” said junior Meredith Quinlan.
Quinlan, who returned from Senegal last month, explained the importance of community and family during her stay. People live close to their families and spend a large part of the day together. She said that now it is difficult to be alone for long periods of time because when she was living with twelve host siblings abroad she was never alone. She knew all of her neighbors, and it was common to strike up conversation with people she passed along on the street.
Junior Jameson Drouin experienced a similar emphasis on family and community in Quito, Ecuador, and has become aware of the differences between his host family and his family back home in Chicago.
“I’m very close with my family, but at the same time I don’t feel as many familial obligations as I did down there,” Drouin said. “You definitely have respect for it because you realize how important the family structure is, as support for every member of the family”
Junior Dana Robinson, who also studied in Quito, is more conscious of her daily interactions with people on campus because in Ecuador, it was customary for her to greet everybody, ask them how they are, and inquire about their families.
“I feel like I’m being really rude to people when I’m not like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and when I don’t greet everybody by name or spend time talking to them,” said Robinson.
But in some ways, it has been a relief to be back in the U.S. Robinson explained that the Ecuadorian culture is much more sexualized and exclusive. People were very focused on their image, so if a woman was not a conventional beauty, she was treated poorly. This treatment of women in Ecuador versus the U.S. is one of the major cultural differences that Drouin also noted early on.
“I became a lot more aware of how I looked, and then I thought, if [people are] looking at me, I may as well look the way I really want to look. It was kind of an empowerment thing for me,” said Robinson, who pierced her nose for the first time and got a tattoo while abroad.
Like Robinson, who had wanted to pierce her nose for quite a while, Quinlan decided to grow dreadlocks in Senegal after a long-term attraction to them. Her decision was influenced by the religious culture in Senegal, as well as with an encounter with an American girl abroad who had them. She admitted it was also because she wanted to rebel against the clean-cut lifestyle she has lived for most her life.
And for Quinlan, growing dreadlocks was a way to feel more accepted into the culture because they are common among the beach-goers and the musicians especially.
“I got tons of attention. I’d be walking down the street and [people would] be talking about my dreads and calling me child of Bob Marley. We’d be out dancing or out in the markets and people would come up and start rubbing my head,” said Quinlan.