Helen Walters is a senior at Oregon State pursuing a degree in Bioresource Research with a minor in Chemistry. During Summer 2012 Helen voyaged with Semester at Sea (SAS) – a program that provides students with a multiple country experience. During her 2 month voyage, Helen visited the countries of Spain, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Morocco and Portugal.
This past summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in Semester at Sea’s 2012 Summer Voyage. The entire experience was made possible because of funding that I received from both Semester at Sea and Oregon State University. Throughout my program, I wrote and shared a blog of my various adventures and experiences with family, friends, and contacts back home. The trip, as one would imagine, was incredible. The new sights, experiences, and friendships I discovered were beyond anything I had previously imagined. Being immersed in so many different cultures stimulated a lot of reflection time when I got back to the U.S. I discovered that what I had most taken away from my SAS experience was a broadened sense of the world and a more accurate sense of self.
As it turned out my favorite experience wasn’t the snorkeling in Croatia, or the camel riding in Morocco, or watching the 2012 Eurocup semifinals in Barcelona, Spain (and mind you I am a huge soccer fan). My favorite part of the trip was how I felt at the end. I thought for a long time, “why was it that out of all the new experiences I had and people I met, that the ultimate end of the experience was a greater understanding of the world and how I fit in it.”
This brings me to the crux of my reflection: Culture Shock.
You hear many times before embarking on your journey abroad that when you reach the destination, you will experience something called “culture shock.” Culture shock happens when you are completely immersed in a culture that is unlike the one you have spent your entire previous life in. It can be scary, exciting, new, and ultimately shocking. Culture shock is discussed as something to be feared, wary of, and ultimately inevitable. The reverse of culture shock happens when you arrive back home and are re-introduced to America.
When you arrive back stateside from your study abroad, people view you differently and you view yourself differently. You feel like a different person and those around you, who are at all perceptive, take notice.
Before I went on the 2012 Semester at Sea Summer Voyage, I had never been out of North America. I had never before heard people speaking languages that I did not understand, nor had I seen stop signs written in Arabic (a language I could not even begin to read) and I certainly had never met people like those I met abroad. I was in culture shock.
One of my favorite experiences actually involved being lost in Istanbul, Turkey. I was looking for a hotel that my friend’s mom was staying in and somehow managed to get very lost. It was dark and we were wandering in the back alleyways of Istanbul. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t understand any of the people and therefore asking for directions was quite challenging. My friend and I saw five Turkish men sitting on the side of the road playing a card game and chatting away. Desperate, I approached them and asked for directions to the hotel, as I frantically pointed to the address on the piece of paper that I clutched in my hand. They were talking in Turkish. I was talking in English. Not a word was understood. It was obvious that we were at an impasse.
Then, one of the elderly gentlemen took my precious piece of paper containing the address I was trying to reach. He raised his hand in a motion to follow him. Then the question was “do I follow the old man down the dark alleyway or do I not?” Well, yes was the answer I came up with. Yes. For twenty minutes, my friend and I walked through winding alleyways, up and down hills, and around buildings as we followed this man. Eventually, we came out on the busy street. Right in front of us was the hotel and the man was frantically pointing to it, as if saying “please, it is right in front of you, you cannot miss it from here!”
As I am searching in my purse for some Turkish liras, the nice gentleman just walks away. Although he didn’t accept any form of payment for his help and he may never remember me, I will forever remember him as the man who showed me the way in Istanbul.
Yes, some of the culture shock was scary, but mostly it’s exhilarating. For the first time, I was the minority. I was the one having difficulties speaking a language that was foreign to me. Ultimately I was the one who didn’t “fit in.” It was absolutely wonderful. This new atmosphere induced vast amounts of learning about other cultures and stimulated a desire to understand the world better.
The bottom line is that no matter how well one attempts to prepare for it, culture shock can still happen. When you return you may be the quiet one who prefers to re-examine the scenery of America, or you may be the boisterous one who wants to share every single story you have with every person you meet. Regardless, remember your experiences abroad and remember how they have allowed you to see the world in a different light. Most importantly, remember that no matter what you saw or did, you are still the same person, but with a greater understanding of the world at large.