My sister sent me an interesting article of book reccomendations from 22 Ambassadors to the United States from various countries. The premise of the piece was for the ambassadors to reccomendone book everyone should read before visiting their country [click here for the article].
Of course as a lecturer, I assign required reading all of the time. Additionally, as someone who teaches a study abroad program, I do require students to do quite a bit of reading before getting to South Africa. However, if I was going to reccomend a single book that everyone should read before visiting South Africa it would be Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime (2016). Noah’s ability to tell his personal story while at the same time teaching the reader about South Africa’s complicated history, makes this book a great read. For an extra treat, get the audio version of the book because its read by Noah himself.
What one book would you reccomend for people to read before visiting your country? Either your home country or the country you currently live in?
If you search for travel tips you can find all sorts.
- How to book a flight to save the most cash
- What you pack depending on where you’re traveling
- How to eat like a local
- Where to find the off-beat curioities of a particular area
- Or safety tips depending on when and where you’re traveling
However, there are apects of travel that most people don’t talk about opening. Parts of travel and experiencing a new place can be difficult or a challenge. A lack of preparation for these challenges can make the traveler feel like they are doing something wrong or that something is wrong with them. Intercultural differences can definetly be a form of culture shock and if you aren’t prepared you could start becoming judgemental and closed off to your new location.
So, I wanted to write a post about some of these unspoken travel challenges.
- Space: Interpersonal space is not a universal concept. People from the US are used to having large amounts of personal space, even in a crowd. Our understanding of space and interpersonal space is a cultural concept.
- Here’s a few articles that get into this concept a bit more:
- “What personal space looks like around the world” [click here]
- “How personal space boundaries vary in different countries” [click here]
- “Which countries have the smallest personal space” [click here]
- Silence: Not just silence, but also when is it culturally approprate to speak and when are you expected to be quiet. Silience is a luxury that people living in most cities do not have. When you relocate to a new country or study abroad country you may find people talking when you would normally expect quiet, but noone else around you seems to be bothered by the noise. No, you aren’t alone or the first one to experience a struggle with this issue. Places that I’ve experienced this includes: movie theaters, conference presentations, airplanes, government offices…The funny thing is that when you do a search for “Why are [insert nationallity here] so loud?” You can find an article for almost every single country. Which just proves that its what we’re used to and then someone from another country or culture comes along and violates this norm. How we regulate noise levels or modulate our own voices is a cultural construct. So…here’s a few articles I found that speak to this issue.
- “My cultural noise threshold is being violated” [click here]
- “Cultural differences in percieving sounds generated by others” [click here]
- “Why are Americans abroad so loud and obnoxious” [click here]
- Smiling: Okay y’all. I’m just going to be totally real on this one. Americans are a little obsessed with happiness and a bit too cheerful for the rest of the world (see the article above about us being loud and obnoxious). I mean, we really do smile, a lot. Is everything really awesome?! In your new country strangers probably won’t exhange smiles with you on the street (I still can’t help myself most of the time and that’s okay). But this doesn’t mean that they are being rude to you, its just not part of their cultural practice.
- Table manners: How we eat varies widely from country to country. We use different utenciles and the types of food that we consider to be staples varies. So, it makes sense that the idea of what is rude or not at the table would vary from culture to culture, as well.
- Here are a few articles to help you understand how table manners are constructed around the world:
- “A guide to table manners around the world” [click here]
- “What proper etiquette looks like around the world” [click here]
- “Dining etiquette around the world” [click here]
- “Renaissance table etiqutte and the origins of manners” [click here]
- Public transportation: Now that you are in the other country, how are you going to get around? What looks like public transportation varies from country to country and you may be missing out on a budget friendly transportation option.
- What are the some of the varieties of transportation options?
- “Around the world in 30 unique modes of transport” [click here]
- “Top 12 world’s super authentic means of public transport” [click here]
- “8 unspoken rules of public transportation around the world” [click here]
- Alcohol: Buying alcohol around the world or even just from state-to-state within the US, can vary widely.
- Are you old enough to drink? A guide to the min. drinking ages in 190 countries around the world [click here]
- Is drinking even legal where you’re traveling? Here’s 14 countries where drinking alcohol isn’t legal [click here]
- Okay, you can buy it here, but how expensive is it? Here’s a guide to how much alcohol costs around the world [click here]
- Now, you know if its legal, if you’re legal, and how much its going to set you back, but what should you drink? Here’s a guide to the best booze to drink in 43 countries [click here]
- If you’re going to have ‘one drink’ how does the alcohol content vary around the world? Good question [click here]
- Food labels: If you have dietary requirements that make reading food lables a normal part of your shopping experience, you may not be ready for how other countries label their packaged food. (Also, you may want to get a metric converter app for your phone to help make sense of international food lables)
- “Differences between EU and US nutrition lables go far beyond ounces and grams” [click here]
- “Food health labels around the world” [click here]
- “Global plan to streamline ‘use by’ labels” [click here]
- Operating hours: When are businesses open? In the US we are acustomed to businesses being open early and staying open late with many stores not changing their hours of operation for the weekend. However, this is something that varies widely from country to country and even within a country, if you move from a large city to a small town or village. For example: in the US if a store is open on Sundays it will most likely open later in the day (noon is quite common) and it will likely close early (6 p.m. is still common). However, in South Africa a lot of stores will open at the standard time, but close early.
- Work/life balance: If you are living abroad for an extended period of time you are probably working in a new culture. But working and living in a new country can be very different from working in the US. I’m not fully going down that rabbit hole here, but in general understanding how your new country places work into their overall cultural understanding of life will help you undertand your new neighbors and friends even if you aren’t working directly in the new country (I’m looking at you digital nomads).
- “Working hours around the world” [click here]
- “The 13 countries with the best work-life balance for expats” [click here]
- Women in the workforce worldwide (Pew Center) [click here]
Traveling can be fantastic! And anyone who knows me knows that I’m always trying to find yet another way to go abroad. However, its best if you’re aware of the many variances between countries that could catch you off-gaurd. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you encounter a difficulty that you weren’t expecting when you travel or relocate to a new culture. Culture shock is real and sometimes you don’t know when its going to show up!
The items I included in this post were things that I’ve encountered and caused me some stress as I acclimated to my new environment. What did I miss? Please comment with things that were an unexpected culture shock for you when you studied or moved abroad.
Weezer released a cover of Toto’s Africa last month, which closely coincided with my departure date and made me newly obsessed with this song. I thought I’d post three different takes of the same song and links to the story behind each one.
First is the original Toto’s Africa:
Here’s the short story behind how this song was written and the inspiration for the song [click here].
Next is Kristen Bell and Dax Shepperd’s video made to the orginial Toto version of Africa:
Even though this is the same song the video, made 30 years after the song was originally recorded, gives new meaning to the song itself. Here’s the story behind their video [click here].
Last, but certainly not least, is Weezer’s cover of Africa:
Follow the link for the sweet story behind this new cover [click here].
That’s the pace leading up to a departure date. So many things to do and many of them cannot be done in advance. As my travel date approaches the list grows and the pace quickens. Until the day of departure, when everything slows, clarifies, and simplifies. Today, the big push is packing.
But I’m not just packing. I’m also re-sorting my closet and culling my clothes for another donation run. Then I’ll sort through the clothes that are left and decide what to store and which ones to take back to South Africa in August.
Once the sorting, culling, and packing, is complete I feel a sense of calm. I know that feeling is coming. However, this time the trip that is coming on Monday will be the eye of the storm because when I come back the big move is happening. I’ll have to finish packing up my apartment and put everything into storage until a future, unknown date when I have an address again.
Its funny because I feel so hectic before I leave, but once I’m headed to the airport everything calms down for me and I’m in my happy space. For a lot of people travel is the hectic piece. In the airport they are scattered and a bit harried. Travel can be confusing and disorienting, but I think that’s some of what I really enjoy about it. I enjoy the fun of discovering new places. My favorites are bookstores, coffee shops, and the perfect vantage point to watch sunsets and sunrises. I don’t buy into the “life is a journey” cliche because the point of a journey is a destination. Is death really the destination of my life? I prefer the cliche that life is music (mostly jazz). We have ideas and pursue those ideas, but so much improve happens along the way. Songs do end. However, the music is the point. The beauty of the piece lies in it being played.
Okay…back to actually packing!
If the devil is in the details, then I have many little devils to attend to in the next fourteen days.
- Put my mail on hold
- Suspend my cell phone while I’m gone
- Add all the notes to my various accounts
- Prep my presentation
- Take both animals to the vet
- Make sure the old man has his meds for while I’m gone
- Schedule bills to be paid
- Finish collecting data for my dissertation
- and the list goes on…
This list is exacerbated by the list that I’ll need to complete before I leave again in August. Last night was the first time that these little devils danced around in my head and didn’t let me sleep. I sincerely hope that this does not continue for the next two weeks.
“Going back to the villiage”
Johannesburg is famously easy to navigate this time of year because people have traveled home for the extended holidays. The Northern Virginia and D.C. metro areas experience this as well because so many people have moved there for work but are not from that area. One of the Instgram accounts I follow posted a picture from Accra showing a taxi rank from before the holidays and during the holidays with a dramatic difference between the two photos. While this story is known and the proverb is widely accepted, there are other people who travel back to their country in this same spirit.
Yes, this is another blog post about people I met on the plane. Just like these previsous posts…this one from my second trip over [click here] and this one from last year’s trip [click here].
The first person I met was on the flight from D.C. to Atlanta. We didn’t speak at first because he was busy texting before we took off. I figured He just wasn’t chatty and believe it or not I do try not to chat with people who aren’t interested in chatting. But then he saw me sorting through my boarding passes and showed me his phone where he’d typed out his question for me asking me if I was going to Johannesburg. I pulled my phone out and we had a little chat. He told me that he was going back to South Africa for his brother’s birthday. His brother is turning 50 and wanted to go back to South Africa, where they were born to celebrate. He told me they left South Africa in 1989, but he didn’t elaborate from there and I didn’t ask. When we boarded the plane in Atalanta I was sitting close to his brother and the rest of his family. I think all of the men in the family were deaf. I eventually caught his brother’s attention and wished him a happy birthday before we de-planed. I saw his brother from the back of the plane letting him know how I knew!
My seat mates from Atlanta to Johannesburg was a South African couple who had left the country in 1988 because they were classified as Indian during the Apartheid government and did not have full opportunities and freedom. They have dual citizenship as Canadians and South Africans and have been traveling back to South Africa since they left. They still have family here and now that they are both retired they can escape the unfogiving Canadian winter by traveling here during January and Febuary, which they told me they do every year. Toward the end of our flight we started a conversation about South Africa and why we were all going. They were facinated that I was bringing students from the United States to study social movements in South Africa. Our conversation wound around various topics from Robert Kennedy’s 1966 visit to South Africa to Cyril Ramaphosa and the complications (baggage) that come with him, and his respect for Thabo Mbeki and regret that he was pushed out of the presidency by Zuma. He told me that he still has hope for South Africa, but that he doesn’t expect South Africa will reach its potential for 30 or more years.
These brief encounters gave me a different framing for travel at this time of year and for the type of travel my students are about to embark upon.
“Not all those who wander are lost”-J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m not sure if you can read a study abroad blog without, at some point coming across that quote. However, not all those who travel are seek to have their minds broadened. Sometimes travel is just about a nice trip. I’ve had profoundly moving experiences domestically as well as when I’ve traveled internationally. I’ve also encountered people
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It
almost seemed to be determined not to change despite of the evidence around them. I’ve met a lady who in some ways confounds me and in others ways I feel like I’ve known her my whole life. She’s been living in South Africa for 8 years and came on two mission trips to the country before moving here. She lives in the house where we are staying in Cape Town and encounters/works with people from all over the world. However, when she talks about current political issues in South Africa she does not sound all that different from how the majority of white people in America talk about #BlackLivesMatter. She is one degree removed from saying “those people” but the phrase feels embedded in her thoughts, the language she knows better than to say.
When she started talking about the current university protests from last year and simply how wrong the students were, everyone in my little group (me included) just let her talk. It was only our second day at the house and we had five more to go. South Africans are quite open about controversial topics, but Americans are not and this was an American speaking. The Dutch couple eating with us did not have the same social constraints because they were leaving later that same day. So, when the American woman stated how wrong the students were for their demands of free higher education because “no one in the world gets that”, they quickly challenged her on the facts of the matter by stating the countries in Europe that do, indeed, get free bachelors education. I wondered if she was accepting the new information or if she was re-calclulating why the students were still wrong even given the new information.
Yesterday afternoon I brought her up to our guide that’s been with us since day one. But in that delicate way you have to do when you are not sure how the other person feels about the situation. He responded in the same delicate way but letting me know that he did not agree with her. Once I saw an opening then I stated flatly how I was a bit shocked that someone could live here for eight years and coming here for two more years before that and still not know very much about South Africa. He said that they “just let her talk because she knows everything already.” Honestly, it seems as though she has moved from one small bubble in the United States to another small bubble in South Africa.