Racial Issues Abroad
Probably no other issue elicits debate in the United States as does the topic of race. It can not be denied that racial prejudice exists in the United States. The extent to which student may encounter race-based prejudice in their dealings with society at large in other countries depends on the cultural, socio-economic and political situation of the host country, and on the education level, perceptions and attitudes of individuals you may encounter overseas.
One issue that may be surprising to many U.S. students of color is that in an international context, their race may be less of an issue than their nationality. Many past participants have reported that their race was actually much less of a concern than the fact that they were American; the color of the passport was more important than the color of their skin.
In dealing with issues such as race, you may wish to keep a few points in mind. First, be aware of your own self-image and expectations. Keep in mind that other people’s reactions may reflect their own curiosity about you – you may be the first African- or Asian-American that that individual has ever met. It is also important to keep in mind your own cultural assumptions when encountering new situations before jumping to any possibly negative conclusions. You can find more information about issues of race and underrepresented students overseas on the web through an annotated bibliography from the University of Chicago here.
GLBT Issues Abroad
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students can be expected to have much of the same kinds of study abroad experiences as their peers. For many of them, the role of outsider is one that they are already intimately familiar with before they even leave home. Because of this, many GLBT students may be better able to manage a transition into a new culture. Some students may find that there is an established GLBT culture to which they can plug into in their new host city and may have an easier time integrating than their heterosexual peers.
That being said, GLBT students may face a very different set of issues than do their heterosexual peers studying abroad. Some are cultural differences between the US GLBT culture and that of their host country; others are societal and legal. Social attitudes toward homosexuality vary from the accepting (in general, much of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and many Buddhist countries of East and Southeast Asia) to hostile (many Islamic countries, some parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, parts of sub-Sarahan Africa and more conservative parts of Latin America).
GLBT students should take the time to learn as much as possible about the gay community in their host country before they leave the US. An excellent resource for GLBT students is the Indiana University Office of Overseas Education Rainbow Special Interest Group, with a wide variety of resources for the GLBT student community.
Special Note to Women
Some female students in certain overseas countries (e.g. South America, the Middle East, and parts of Europe) have a hard time adjusting to attitudes they encounter abroad, in both public and private interactions between men and women. Some, but not all, men in such countries openly demonstrate their appraisal of women in ways that many American women find offensive. It is not uncommon to be honked at, stared at, verbally and loudly appraised, and to be actively noticed for being an American woman. Sometimes the attention can be flattering; however, it may become very annoying and potentially even angering. Indigenous women, who often get the same sort of treatment, have been taught how to ignore the attention. Many American women students find this hard to do. Eye contact between strangers or a smile at someone passing in the street, which is not uncommon in the States, may result in totally unexpected invitations. Some women feel they are forced to stare intently at the ground while they walk down the street.
You will have to learn what the unwritten rules are about what you can and cannot do abroad. Women can provide support for each other, and former students suggest that you get together several times early in your stay overseas to talk about what works and what does not for dealing with the unwanted attention. American women are seen as liberated in many ways, and sometimes the cultural misunderstandings that come out of this image can lead to difficult and unpleasant experiences.
Needless to say, this special and surprising status may make male-female relationships more difficult to develop. Be careful about the implicit messages you may be unintentionally communicating. Above all, try to maintain the perspective that these challenging, and sometimes difficult, experiences are part of the growth of cultural understanding which is one of the important reasons you are studying abroad.
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