Knowing what you might expect when you first arrive in your host country can ease your transition to living abroad and help you make the most of the experience from the start. While what follows provides information and advice on how to avoid potential problems that could occur overseas, it is not meant to suggest that the experience before you -- living and learning on foreign soil, in a culture not your own -- is something you should fear. Indeed, it should be one of the most enriching, fulfilling, interesting, and educational experiences of your entire life. This is what it has been, in any case, for nearly all students who have undertaken it.
Arrival and Orientation
Immigration and Customs
When your plane lands in your host country, immigration officials will ask you the purpose of your visit and how long you propose to stay in their country. They will examine your passport, as well as visa and immunization certificates if they are required. They may or may not then stamp your passport, and you are free to enter the country. Depending on local practice, as well sometimes as the season and time of your arrival, this procedure can range from being quick and cursory to laborious and time-consuming. Even though you will be eager to exit the airport and start your study abroad adventure, it is important to be patient and respond very politely to any questions.
After Immigration, comes Customs. You will be asked to declare (perhaps in writing) if you are carrying certain items in your luggage. Be sure to declare any restricted items, as luggage may be opened and checked. Always be respectful and polite. Never make jokes about bombs or illegal drugs. This kind of behavior can get you detained by the police.
Many study abroad programs arrange for a representative to meet arriving students at the airport and transport them to the program site. Others will give directions, but ask you to find your way. If you are directly enrolling into a foreign university, there may or may not be someone to greet you and provide campus and local orientation. If your program does not offer on-site orientation, or if you will be directly enrolled in a foreign school, you will need to orient yourself to your new environment. Use the topics listed below as an overview of what you need to know:
The purpose of on-site orientation is two-fold: To review what you learned from your pre-departure preparations and to provide you with current site-specific information and perspectives about your surroundings which may not be possible at a distance and beforehand.
It is likely to cover the following areas:
Introduction to the program - Your registration for course work will be confirmed. You'll learn about the program rules and academic requirements, and you will be given information on social and cultural events and opportunities.
Health information - You'll be told about any special health precautions to take in the local environment.
Safety information - How to lessen the chance of becoming the victim of a crime or an accident while you are abroad and how to behave so as to maximize your personal safety vis-a-vis crime and violence.
Personal conduct - How to behave in ways appropriate to your status as a guest in your new environment. You cannot use the excuse of being "foreign" if you disobey the civil and criminal laws of the country.
Notifying local authorities - Your program representative should help you register with the local authorities, if this is required, and with the U.S. embassy or consulate so that you can be located in case of an emergency.
Housing - You may be taken to your dorm or apartment or introduced to your host family.
Language Training - Some programs offer basic training in the host language as part of orientation. Introduction to the local culture: lectures, tours, meetings, etc. on the local culture.
Communications - You'll be told about the options for keeping in touch with your family and friends at home.
Independent travel - Your program representative may be able to provide information on methods of travel, how to arrange it, and any safety factors involved.
Coursework and Credit - As discussed earlier, getting your planned course work approved by an academic or study abroad advisor before you go abroad is the best way to ensure that you get full academic credit for it. But this is not always possible, and even when classes are pre-approved, things may not work out as planned.
If you prepared adequately prior to your departure, you will have some idea how to negotiate the registration process at your host institution. It is important to monitor any changes in your study plans and communicate with the study abroad coordinator in the beginning, when you still have the capacity to make changes to your course selections.
Cultural Adjustment and Exploration - Living and learning overseas successfully usually means adjustment to a different lifestyle, food, climate, and time zone, often accompanied by the necessity of learning to communicate in a foreign language. This process is never easy and can include mood swings alternating between heady exhilaration and mild depression. In the early weeks, you will probably feel excited about your new experiences and environment. Soon, you may find the excitement of new surroundings and sensations increasingly replaced by frustration with how different things are from home.
Culture Shock - This frustration and confusion is usually called 'culture shock.' Variations of culture shock can affect even experienced travelers and is considered a natural (and perhaps even essential) part of adjusting to a foreign culture. Symptoms can include depression, sleeping difficulties, homesickness, trouble concentrating, an urge to isolate yourself, and irritation with your host culture. Even if you are used to being away from your family, you may still have problems. After all, you are now away from everything that's familiar. There are numerous ways to combat your feelings of disorientation until they pass (as they usually do):
Learn as much as possible from local residents about their culture.
Keep in touch with other American students. If you are directly enrolled in a foreign university, find out if there is a local hangout for American students. It can sometimes be helpful to meet with them and share experiences. Avoid letting these become gripe sessions, however.
Keep yourself busy doing things you enjoy. When you have free time, visit museums, go to movies, and tour local sites of interest.
Keep in touch with your family and friends at home. Letters, phone calls, or e-mail contact will make you feel less isolated.
Try to keep your long-range goals in mind. Experiencing a new culture will inevitably involve some frustration and feelings of loneliness as you leave the familiar and incorporate the new, but they don't last forever.
Don't overdo any of the preceding suggestions or you risk never making the adjustments to your new environment that are requisite to your purposes for being overseas.
In sum, since there is almost no way to avoid culture shock completely, you should try to accept it as something everyone goes through. Keep in mind that students returning from study abroad often describe working their way through culture shock as a necessary maturing experience, something that provided insight into their own cultural assumptions. You can ease your transition by recognizing the factors that cause culture shock and taking steps to minimize them. For most students, the symptoms of culture shock wane after the first few weeks or months, as they begin to understand their host culture better. However, if you find that feelings of irritability and depression linger, you may need help from a doctor or counselor. Your program director or the international students office at your host university should be able to direct you to counseling or support organizations.
Fitting In and Being Accepted
Your study abroad experience will be heightened if you try as much as possible to become part of the local social environment. In the beginning, it is perhaps wise to behave like a guest, as indeed you are. For a while you may even be accorded a special status, that of a well-meaning (but not-quite-with-it!) outsider. But as time goes on, you will want to be able to behave in ways similar to that of the local students and citizens-- and others will begin to expect such behavior of you. This means learning what behavior is and isn't appropriate in this new setting, and acting accordingly. Observe local students in your dormitory, on campus, on the street. If you live with a host family, see how family members dress and interact with one other and others. It's fine to ask questions about local customs and ways of behaving. In fact, people will appreciate that you are trying to learn about their culture and lifestyle, and are likely to help you adjust.
In some countries more than others, there is an unflattering stereotype of an American tourist, one who throws money around, drinks too much, is loud and rude, expects all foreigners to speak English, thinks the United States is better than any other country, and is always in a hurry. There are other countries in which all Americans are seen as happy, cheerful, carefree, and above all rich. Locals in your host country may assume parts or all of this to be true about you, simply because you are from the United States. Remember that their images of what 'Americans' are like are based on the other Americans they have seen, if not in person, then indirectly through our movies and media. Such is the nature of stereotyping. The challenge is to go beyond misleading images and false impressions, so that you and they can be yourselves, and mutual understanding can deepen over time.
Learning and Respecting Local Customs
'When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do' is not legal counsel, but rather seasoned advice to newcomers. Certain ways of acting in a country not your own affront local custom and show ignorance or disrespect, or both to local citizens. In many countries, for example, women traditionally cover certain parts of the body, such as the head, arms, and legs. In others, it is frowned on for couples to hold hands or display other types of physical affection in public. Most countries have customs associated with religion and sacred places. In certain Islamic societies, non-Muslims may not enter sacred sites. In Thailand, Buddhist monks must carry out an elaborate purification ritual if a woman touches them, including sitting next to them on a bus!
Understanding local customs will help you feel a part of the new culture and avoid potentially embarrassing situations. Especially if you are not fluent in the local language, your body language is often what expresses you. Saying hello or goodbye via a simple hand gesture is, for example, done quite differently from place to place, even within Europe. When to shake hands or kiss is signaled between people in different ways from country to country. How close to sit or stand when talking also varies greatly. These are just a few of the many simple habits for you to learn and then follow in order not to give unintended offense.
Appropriate behavior for young women varies from country to country, and even within countries. Some countries have well-defined gender roles. Others restrict certain activities for women, such as driving and meeting with men who are not relatives. You may find that behavior and dress that are acceptable in major cities are inappropriate in rural areas. Sometimes, though, just the opposite is true, and behavior is more relaxed outside of metropolitan areas. Observe how local women your age act and dress and try to do likewise. In spite of your efforts, however, you may find that you are harassed. In some countries, women are routinely whistled at, pinched, and even grabbed -- especially foreign women. This may be because, in some countries, the cultural stereotype of western women is that they are promiscuous. You can minimize unwanted attention by taking the following steps:
Dress modestly. Avoid sleeveless tops and short skirts, even in hot climates. Try to dress in the same style as the local women.
Avoid making eye contact with men in the street. What may seem to you like simple friendliness might be interpreted as flirtation to a man from a country where women keep their eyes down.
Watch the local women; see how they avoid and turn away unwanted attention, and mimic their behavior.
Take a friend with you when you go out at night or to an unfamiliar area. In some countries, young unmarried women never go out alone. Arrange a public meeting place when you get together with people you don't know well.
It is advisable to do some reading before departure regarding culture-specific norms of friendship and dating for relationships between people of any sexual orientation in the country where you are headed. Knowing about the culture-specific norms of friendship and dating for relationships between people of any sexual orientation in the country where you are headed is especially essential.
Laws regarding same-sex relationships differ from country to country so you should inform yourself about those before your program begins.
Issues regarding sexual orientation are often included in materials prepared by study abroad offices and program providers. Check to see what information is available regarding GLBT issues from the programs in which you are interested. Travel guides, web resources, and your institutional GLBT office can provide additional valuable information.
For a bibliography regarding sexual orientation issues in countries outside the U.S, check the web site maintained by the Association of International Educator's Rainbow Special Interest Group: http://overseas.iu.edu/living/glbt_biblio.shtml
You have the best odds of staying healthy abroad if you come prepared, are careful about what you eat and drink, and don't engage in risky behavior that can jeopardize your health.
The food in your host country is almost guaranteed to be different from what you're used to. In many places, the local diet may be based on meat, entirely vegetarian, very spicy, or just "odd" by U.S. standards -- for example, the main staple may be rice or manioc root. While your stomach is still adjusting, you may wish to include some familiar foods in your diet. Look around for a western-style supermarket, and purchase some of the foods that you would eat at home. You are likely to find restaurants that serve familiar foods in major cities and tourist areas. You can probably also find U.S. fast food chains, for those times when you feel you need to have a burger or pizza. The point is that gradual adjustment and adaptation to the local diet makes social and usually nutritional sense.
The old adage for eating abroad is "Peel it, boil it, cook it, or forget it." Ask your program director, your host family, or local students if you need to take these precautions in your host country. If you do, peel all fruits and vegetables before eating them; anything that can't be peeled should be cooked thoroughly. This means no green salads. In areas where sanitation is poor, avoid unpasteurized milk and cheese made from unpasteurized milk. In some areas, it is unhealthy to eat food sold from stalls on the street. In others, "street food" is fresh and high quality. Consult friends from your host country before you sample food sold from stalls.
Can You Drink the Water?
Find out before you go whether the local tap water is drinkable. (In most Western European countries, it is.) If it isn't, drink bottled water. As an alternative, you can boil tap water for ten minutes, then let it cool; it will then be safe for drinking, cooking, and brushing your teeth. In restaurants, order bottled water if tap water is unhealthy, and don't request ice -- it is usually made from tap water. If you are going to be hiking in a remote area where bottled water may not be available, bring a high-quality water filter or iodine tablets to purify water.
No matter how careful you are about what you eat and drink, you can still contract diarrhea. Travelers commonly experience this temporarily debilitating illness after a few days in a new country. In most cases, it lasts no longer than about five days, and the only treatment required is to replace lost fluids by drinking bottled water, fruit juice, or carbonated drinks. If diarrhea persists or is severe, contact a doctor.
Regular exercise will help fight the culture shock blues and speed you through your initial jet lag. Throughout your time abroad, you'll feel more energetic and less stressed if you jog, swim, play tennis, or even go for a walk three or four times a week.
If you drink, drink sparingly. The customs regarding drinking wine and beer may be different in your host country than in the United States. The minimum drinking age may be lower, and it may be customary to drink wine or beer with meals. The result for some students is a problem with alcohol.
Illegal, addictive drug use is of course never good for one's health. Aside from the legal consequences, drug use can contribute to feelings of isolation and frustration. Further, anti-narcotics laws are strictly enforced in many foreign countries, whether a student is caught with a small amount of a drug for personal use or with a large quantity for sale to others. Young people, including Americans, are often targeted by police, especially in countries where the U.S. has complained about local enforcement of drug laws.
According to the U.S. State Department, one-third of U.S. citizens arrested abroad are charged with possessing or using drugs. Worldwide, an average prison sentence for narcotics possession is seven years. In some countries, the sentence for certain drug charges is death. Never transport or deliver a package for anyone. If the package turns out to contain drugs, you can be arrested even if you were ignorant of its contents. To be safe, stay away from illegal drugs or anyone who uses or sells them.
AIDS and Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases
In some countries, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is a widespread health problem. Take the same steps to avoid this disease as you would at home. Use a condom if you are sexually active. (It may be a good idea to bring condoms with you, because the quality of condoms in some countries is unreliable.) Never share needles or use a needle that has been used before. This applies not only to injecting drugs, but ear or body piercing, tattoos, and acupuncture.
Other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis and herpes, are also present worldwide. Use the necessary precautions to avoid these diseases.
Get up-to-date travel health advisories from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/travel. Travel Health Online offers links to physicians, U.S. State Department publications, and other health information. Contact them at www.tripprep.com.
Dangers exist at study abroad locations, just as they do on or near U.S. college campuses. Problems can occur if and when students fail to take the same precautions abroad as they would at home. The best way to maximize your safety while studying abroad is to be aware of conditions that affect safety in your host country and any countries you plan to travel to; then adjust your behavior so that you take normal safety measures. If you are enrolled in a study abroad program, listen carefully to the director when you are told about safety conditions and concerns in your host country. You can also receive general information by following the international news in newspapers and on all-news television channels such as CNN, though this is often sensationalized and does not accord with local accounts. Safety information on all countries is available from knowledgeable sources on campus, including the study abroad office, and from the U.S. State Department.
The most important factor in your safety abroad is likely to be your behavior. It's wise to do the following:
Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Don't wander through unfamiliar areas alone, and always remain alert.
Don't go out alone at night. Even when you're with friends, stick to well-lit streets where there are a lot of people.
Don't flash jewelry, expensive cameras, or electronic equipment.
Use caution when walking or jogging. Remember that in some countries, drivers use the left side of the road. In certain areas, drivers may not expect anyone to be running along the road.
Be careful with alcohol. If you drink, make sure it is only with people you know and trust, and designate one person to remain sober. As in the United States, never drink and drive. (Drunk driving laws abroad are sometimes much more severe than those in the United States.)
Don't attract attention to yourself with provocative or expensive clothing or boisterous conversation in public. Observe local students' behavior, and try to mimic it.
Use only official taxis. Unless meters are used, agree on the fare before you get in.
Before you travel from your program site, find out what methods of transportation are safest and whether any roads should be avoided.
Read the local papers to find out where high crime areas are and whether civil unrest is brewing.
Stay away from demonstrations or any kind of civil disturbances. Even innocent bystanders can be hurt or arrested.
Protect your passport. Keep it with you, in a front pocket or your purse. Be careful when displaying it.
In general, avoid being engulfed in a crowd. This is the preferred environment of pickpockets.
Accidents can happen anywhere. If driving, know what local traffic laws are and follow them. Always use a seat-belt. Make sure you understand local road signs and signals.
Remain alert when walking. Before crossing streets, remember to look both ways; in some countries, traffic will be coming from the opposite direction from what you would expect. When crossing streets, keep in mind that pedestrians may not be given the right of way.
Obeying the Law
Whether at your program site or elsewhere, when you visit another country, you are that country's guest and are expected to follow its laws. They may be very different from those of the United States, which is why it is so important to find out what they are. Then be sure to follow them carefully-- even if you feel they are repressive, irrational, or antiquated. Don't make the mistake of assuming that other countries will excuse illegal acts simply because you are a foreigner or a student. Even "minor" infractions, such as exchanging money on the black market or making purchases for foreign friends in hard-currency shops that are off limits for natives, can lead to severe penalties. Breaking a law will, at a minimum, get you dismissed from your study abroad program and possibly deported from your host country.
Try to understand the cultural context of these laws and regulations. If you disagree with them, it's fine to discuss your feelings with other North American participants in your program. You may also want to write about objectionable conditions in your journal. However, be careful about discussing your feelings with your host family or local students, until you know their views and the cultural context better. They may well be embarrassed to hear their country criticized. They may risk trouble by talking about issues that may not be discussed openly in their society. If you object so strongly to local laws or customs that you don't think you can follow them, it may be advisable to choose a different country. Talk to your study abroad advisor in the early stages of your planning.
U.S. notions regarding freedom of speech and expression have no parallel in many countries. It is important to realize that civil rights protections and U.S. legal procedures don't apply in other countries. People who are arrested are typically held without bail until their trial. Prison conditions in many countries can be wretched, and the U.S. idea of "innocent until proven guilty" may not apply.
U.S. embassies and consulates are able to offer only limited assistance to U.S. visitors who break laws. If you are arrested, they can contact your family and provide you with a list of local attorneys. They can visit you in prison to see that you are being treated humanely. They cannot, however, provide free legal assistance or money for bail. Most importantly, they cannot get you out of jail.