Identity, multiculturalism and reintegration
Four students discuss what it is like to come back from a year abroad
Photo courtesy of Hannah Wenzel
by Vivien Toth
When a person first enters a different culture (in my case, Indonesia) they feel shocked. They begin to realise how immense the world is and how diverse culture is. The drive we all have in common is a want to explore and experience new cultures. This includes new languages and getting to know people from across the world. When you find your new environment so extraordinary, subconsciously you want to become part of that culture and society. That desire helps overcome some of the challenges one might face away from their home.
The next stage is integration into the culture and society. This happens when the person assimilates themselves to the highest level possible. Integration comes with cultural differences, such as wearing local clothes, experiencing local cuisine, taking part in cultural celebrations and encountering their way of life. In a way, the culture becomes a part of your soul and your being. The third stage is leaving your old life behind - not fully, but partially - and embracing your new identity.
You must realise the need to leave behind your previous identity and embrace the new you.
The final stage is the reverse cultural shock when you return to the place where you used to live with all the new memories and experiences you have acquired. The first sensation is that your body is in one place in the present, but your soul is still stuck in the previous adventure. That is the hardest transition because there are two internal cultures clashing: the one you left behind, and the one where you must re-discover yourself to feel whole again. I interviewed three different students who have all recently returned from their years abroad to look into their experiences.
Would you recommend spending a year abroad and why?
All my interviewees agreed that everyone should experience going abroad because it helps you challenge yourself and takes you out of your comfort zone. Getting to know different cultures is also interesting and fulfilling. Jessica highlighted that “the first six months are the integration and the following six months are the best time of your life”. She also pointed out that it makes you independent and self-reflective. It’s essential to be able to dominate languages because they help you overcome initial challenges as they are vital in communication. As Melissa put it: “When I went to Mexico, I did not know what to expect even though I was able to speak Spanish.” Dialects proved to be a challenge for her. Jessica and Marie, however, had to go beyond their comfort zone and push their limits to the maximum as they did not speak the local language.
How did your stay help you grow as an individual?
Throughout a year abroad, one gains self-improvement and confidence. When you travel abroad, you might question yourself about your boundaries and capabilities of going through the integration process. However, you might also question the reality of it. To some extent, one is challenged by things they didn’t have to confront in the past. At the same time, as Melissa pointed out, “you discover who you are and get to know yourself better – you end up appreciating being alone with your own company”. As Marie said, discovering that you are able to adapt to different cultures gives great self-confidence and pride. This leads to inner growth and a deeper understanding of who you are. Jessica and Melissa also pointed out that “one learns to communicate beyond language”. Additionally, one learns to be organised and prepared for any challenging situations.
What were the biggest cultural shocks?
The cultural interpretations of certain situations are distinct around the world. For instance, Melissa described that being late (i.e. 2-3 hours) for an informal social event is socially acceptable in Mexico. The street poverty and gender inequality between men and women significantly strikes out in Mexico, whereas, according to Marie, it isn’t quite as visible in Hong Kong. However, both cases seem natural to the locals as that is how their social reality is constructed. In Marie’s case, if we consider China, the personal living space is limited due to overpopulation. Although people in China are more individualistic, locals tend to enjoy foreigners’ company. The tradition of constant bargaining and gathering in the streets of Istanbul was one of the most prominent cultural shocks for Jessica.
What do you miss most from your year abroad?
When people leave a culture behind, they tend to miss several facts that had a great impact on the individual. In Jessica’s case, this reflects through “the Turkish way of being”. For example, Jessica misses the Turkish coffee drinking rituals that are used for socialising. Melissa mentioned the importance of friendship in Mexican culture due to the positive mentality. Similarly, the ability to enjoy life and the appreciation of small things tie into the culture. These reflect in the highly valued gastronomy, music, and celebrations in the everyday life of a Mexican. Additionally, one can also miss the diversity of a city where you are able to combine the urban with the rural life and explore the complexity of friendships and other interpersonal bonds, such as in Hong Kong.
How did you find the reversal cultural shock and your reintegration to Aberdeen and what advice would you give to future returner students?
According to Jessica, coming back to the country with a new identity felt like starting all over again. However, the moment you start to try out different things, such as joining new societies, meeting new people, and doing different activities you’ve never done before, you feel fully integrated again. “The key is to keep busy and do not allow yourself to think too much. It is also essential to give some time to the self to embrace everything, but then you have to open a new book and start over.”
As Melissa says, when a person comes back to the Western world, they immediately start to observe and notice the differences in their surroundings, but at the same time, they experience a deep emotional moment. According to her, one tends to idealise what one can’t have. However, in your life, you should appreciate the present moment - in this case coming back to Aberdeen. Melissa points out that you shouldn’t lose touch with the people you’ve met abroad. You also need to try new things and societies - everything that is new, because “your own personal character has changed as well, in a positive way.''
Marie was really excited and at the same time reluctant to come back to Europe; however, the unification with friends and the appreciation of western systematic lifestyle made her feel content. As Marie stated, when you come back, the city and the people haven’t changed. In fact, nothing really changes when you come back, except you. “Since I am an international student, I would like to make the most out of my last year in Aberdeen, and that applies to all countries. I wish I could live my life thinking as if I am always on an exchange so I could make the most of it.”