Many study abroad participants see the sites and take photos but leave without a deeper knowledge of their host culture. On your ISEP program, you’ll have the chance to create a different kind of experience. ISEP programs give you the opportunity to become a member of the host community, rather than an observer.
The term culture refers to the values, beliefs, customs and other forms of behavior shared by members of a social group over a period of time. Culture acts as a sort of filter through which we perceive reality. The way we communicate is conditioned by our culture. Understanding your culture and the way it affects your attitudes and behavior will help you get along with people abroad and allow you to appreciate their culture.
It will be helpful to prepare yourself for the questions you are likely to get about your home country by reading up on current issues, domestic affairs, international policies and important public figures. You may also want to know what ideas about your home country are common in your host country. Likewise, you should learn as much as possible about the culture and social, economic and political situation in your host country before you depart. This will enable you to ask better questions and have more personal conversations. When you get there, try to understand how the local culture influences the way people act.
Below are some helpful approaches that anthropologists use when they observe another culture:
- Observe, listen and describe rather than try to prove your preconceived notions.
- Try to be objective, but recognize that the filter of your own culture will always affect what you see.
- Be persistent in asking questions and learn to ask the kinds of questions that elicit answers. Listen actively to the answers you get. Ask for feedback if you are not sure you understand.
- Try to maintain a certain detachment. Practice being a participant and an observer at the same time, taking part in an activity while you stand back from it to observe others and your own reactions.
- Interact with diverse groups of local people, both young and old, to get a varied perspective on the culture.
- Be prepared to engage with locals on a number of conversation topics, but be aware that certain topics may not be considered appropriate.
- Develop positive, respectful relationships, being mindful of cultural differences and taboos. Remember that you are representing your nation, your university, and ISEP.
- Practice your language skills without being afraid of making mistakes because they can be a great way to learn.
- Take part in university, college or community groups like language clubs, sports clubs, book clubs, churches, or cooking classes. Cooking is a great way to share in local traditions. (Consider bringing a recipe from home to share as well).
- Attend cultural events that are not typically for tourists. Ask your local friends what events are of interest and importance to them.
- Avoid negative comparisons between your host and home countries. Food, religion, thought patterns and social habits may seem strange, but keep an open mind and allow yourself time to understand them.
- Consider keeping a journal so you can spend time reflecting on your daily encounters. This will help you deepen your understanding of your experiences and host culture.
- Above all, remember that this is the experience of a lifetime! Have fun and enjoy your opportunity to be a participant and not a tourist.