You have planned this study abroad experience for months and have turned all the paperwork in. The night before you leave has you tossing and turning in bed, anxiety churning in your stomach as you think about beginning your journey in a new country. Nobody told you this, but the eve of your departure will be a long night. You’ll get very little sleep and then you’ll be on a plane the next day, wedged between a large man who snores the whole flight and a mother holding her 3 month old baby girl with the overwhelming smell of a rotting ham and cheese sandwich in your nostrils…so good luck sleeping there.
Anyone who has studied abroad can tell you that they had a mental picture of what their experience would be like – created with the help of gorgeous Instagram pictures – stories they’ve heard from friends or advice they received from the Study Abroad Office. But there are many things you will probably never be told about studying abroad, and they become very obvious once you’re on the other side of the world when there is no English being spoken within earshot. First, everybody will know you’re an American. You can try to disguise it by wearing your slim button-down and skinny jeans that you got at H&M for $33. But as an American you will likely stick out, so doing the best you can to blend in will only earn you more respect from the locals.
However, as Americans, when we sit down at a restaurant, we expect a glass of ice water to be placed in front of us before we are asked what we’d like to drink. If you study abroad, you will quickly realize that they do not fill your glass with 75 percent ice and pour water over it. Additionally, water at restaurants outside the United States is not free. If you ask for water, they will bring it in a bottle and you will have to pay. As a person who almost strictly drinks water, I hated feeling like I had to ration it so I wouldn’t run out and have to buy another bottle. Waiters will also likely ask if you’d like water with or without gas. Most of us aren’t accustomed to having gas in our water, so asking for still water is always a safe bet.
Then, there is deodorant; something most Americans take for granted. In general, people in other countries care less about wearing deodorant so just brace yourself for some stinky people if you’re getting on the train, or if you happen to get unlucky with who sits next to you in class. This also means that the deodorant shelf in a store in a foreign country will not look like the one in CVS; it will be a limited selection and none of them will meet your standards.
One positive you will likely notice while abroad is that most people don’t price things at $7.99 – they will just say it’s $8 (or whatever currency it actually is). I found this to be very refreshing. Another thing worth noting is that no culture swipes the credit card as much as Americans. The country you are traveling to will likely use cash as their primary currency, and this includes coins, so expect them to rattle around in your pocket daily.
One of the most distinguishable differences about life outside the United States is the alcohol culture. One of the easiest ways to spot an American late at night is by how intoxicated they are. In many foreign countries, kids start drinking at 15 years old, so they know how to handle their alcohol and don’t end up trashed. Additionally, the alcohol abroad is usually stronger than our alcohol, so they have learned how to pace themselves. Before you knock a drink back really quickly, know that the contest isn’t to see who can be the drunkest. You will definitely get a few looks if you are the person who throws up on their way home.
Finally, the part that I anticipated the most, but wasn’t applicable to any other study abroad group before this year, were the endless questions about our president. As an American, whether you love him or hate him, you will be asked about President Trump everyday. You need to be ready to defend yourself with an answer – nobody in the world understands what happened in our election.
These examples just scratch the surface of cultural differences you may not be warned about before you leave the States. The United States is a unique country: we don’t use the metric system, we drive more than people in any other country and we are more patriotic than any other country in the world, among many other things. So before you show the gate attendant your passport to board your flight, consider these cultural differences and expect the unexpected. None of it will click until you arrive in your new “home country,” and that’s half the fun of it – embrace the unexpected!
*This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Yard.