I Am UMass Abroad: Cherika Rodriguez
While I was visiting a touristic island off the coast of South Korea, I had an experience I’ll never forget. I’d gone abroad with the idea that I would be prepared for anything that came my way since I’d done my fair amount of research on the country. But this experience made me realize that there is no amount of preparation or formula that could help me preclude people’s actions. I was trying to read the bus schedule, but I was having a really hard time. Apparently it was very noticeable since this man jumped out of his seat and came to help me. Now this is where it all began. In the United States we have certain social norms such as respecting people’s space (AKA the space bubble) or asking for permission before taking a stranger’s personal object. Well, he did the complete opposite. He got very close to me to the point where I could see the pores in his face, took my phone out of my hand without asking for permission, and then proceeded to take pictures of me without asking me first.
Now I had two options: act out and further emphasize the stereotype of the rude and entitled American, ‘specially the angry black woman. Or I could try to look at the situation from his point of view. It is not uncommon to come across a Korean resident who has never met a foreigner. This man just came across me, a black person, someone who he’d only seen on TV. At that moment I realized I was a unicorn to him. That mystical creature that you see on TV and never expected to meet. And because of the circumstances I just decided to look up and smile for the picture.
Some of you will have experiences similar to mine -- where you are confronted with the discomfort of being different from everyone else. But be careful that you could also be the one treating local residents as unicorns. While your excitement and curiosity are understandable, always make sure to be respectful of their boundaries. While both parties should do their best to compromise and accommodate each other, be aware that you are the one coming into the foreign space. That entails that it is your responsibility to have knowledge of their norms and values in order to maintain respect.
Some of you might face situations where you won’t have much time to think. Situations where your patience will be tested in ways that you’d never imagine. But this is when empathy and understanding should come in. Just because you live in a socially diverse society does not mean that this is the case for everyone. And just because your culture upholds certain standards of norms and values does not mean that they’re right, it just means that they are different. My advice, as you travel, is to try and understand other people’s thoughts and actions from the perspective of their own culture instead of your own.
Editor’s Note: Cherika’s story is a wonderful example of how students abroad are presented with opportunities to interact, observe and adjust. Cherika was able to reflect in the moment and respond to the stranger with kindness, despite the discomfort she initially felt. At IPO, we consider it important to listen to and transparently relay these experiences, to highlight just how unique and diverse the range of experiences abroad can be. This doesn’t mean that Cherika’s response is necessarily the right course of action for you, if you find yourself responding to a challenging or uncomfortable situation. Being open to engaging with new people is an important part of learning and making connections while abroad, but know that it’s also okay to refrain from an interaction if it’s something that feels unsafe or distressing (even if the other person seems well-meaning).
Students who study abroad will encounter cultural interactions and experiences that may or may not meet their expectations and perceptions of their chosen place of study. However, IPO believes firmly that everyone — regardless of sex, gender, race, class, nationality, and an abundance of other individual identifiers — should feel welcome, safe and supported during their time abroad. We are committed to supporting a diverse population of students and facilitating successful, meaningful experiences for all of our applicants. You may wish to explore our Navigating Identities Abroad resource or some of the great resources put together by Diversity Abroad.