Stereotypes: Why You Should Do Your Research Before Studying Abroad
** AUTHOR’S NOTE: I wrote this several weeks ago with the intent of adding photos. This past weekend, the IES Granada program took us to Morocco. The experience made me really happy that I hadn’t posted this. I found myself needing to take my own advice, which you will find below. The sections written in italics are what I learned from my Moroccan adventure. Enjoy! **
Before coming to Spain, I watched a lot of videos about Granada. One of these videos was about a woman who studied here on a whim without knowing anything about the culture. Though she did have a rough time with her program (which won’t happen with IES Abroad), several of the things she struggled with were culture shock-related. For that reason, I want to propose to ANYONE who plans on studying/living abroad that you do a bit of research before you go. Research the culture, places to go, things to know, etc. Of course, it’s not going to completely prevent you from experiencing culture shock, but it can definitely reduce it. Here’s how it can benefit you:
1. Knowing what to pack.
Some cultures may have a certain style of dress that does not match what you would wear at home. In Granada and most parts of Spain, from what I’ve heard, view wearing leggings and oversized tees as only workout wear. Most people here dress according to current trends – meaning if Wal-Mart existed here, it’d look MUCH classier.
It might also help to know weather patterns of the region if you can find them. For instance, Granada is in the south of Spain. My initial thought was that of a tropical, sunny paradise. However, my research pointed out that, since the city is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, winter here is actually quite cold. So I packed my suitcases full of long sleeves, jackets, and 2 short sleeve tees. Now it is March 11th, Spring has sprung, and afternoons are reaching highs of 75. Needless to say, I very much regret my choices.
We had an orientation before our trip to Morocco which (slightly over-) prepared us for the culture we were getting ready to visit. Morocco is a primarily Muslim country (tbh thought it was a city…oops), so the style of dress is MUCH more conservative. Women must cover their shoulders, skirts must fall below the knee, women don’t wear clothing that is super tight like leggings…basically follow your high school dress code and you’ll be in the clear!
Side Note: bring rain boots/ rain jacket/ umbrella or some combination of the three. You will most likely need them. Rain in a city with very little green space to absorb running water and lots of cobblestones and marble is not very easy to walk on.
2. Breaking down stereotypes.
No video I watched before my trip could fully envelop the varied beauty that is Granadina/Andalusian culture. There are people from all walks of life here and from various parts of the world. Of course, most of the city reflects the typical Spanish culture and Christian (Catholic) history. But there’s also the more modern city center, the centuries-old Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods, the gypsie culture, a strong belief in helping protect the environment, the laid back, slow lifestyle, people who still love Flamenco, the touches of Islamic decoration from the 12th century, and so many other things. It’s practically impossible to ascribe a single word to reflect the culture of this city.
No orientation session could have prepared me for the complex, colorful culture that exists in Morocco! I was expecting a more third-world type of scene, but it’s actually quite modern, especially in the cities and port towns. We did take a trip to the rural countryside (honestly the most breath-taking views I’ve ever seen!) to see what rural life was like. They have electricity, go to the city, their children go to school, arranged marriages aren’t really a thing (at least not in that particular village), the atmosphere was very communal and I actually had the best time of the entire trip there! We hung out with local university students in Rabat who showed us around. My guides (Idriss and M) were skateboarding filmmakers who spoke really great English. You can find some of their videos here if you’d like to check them out! We also stayed with the loveliest host family in Rabat! The father is a former Moroccan soccer player and they’re all just the sweetest and most caring people! Hospitality is a huge deal in Morocco. “Southern hospitality” is a close second. Almost everyone I met spoke at least 2 languages – Moroccan Arabic and French (the country was once colonized by the French). Quite a few spoke at least some English and most people in the port cities also spoke Spanish fairly fluently. All this is to say, I really had a wake-up call about stereotypes in Morocco. It really takes traveling to a country you think will be so incredibly different from yours to realize that we’re all still human and we’re all quite similar!
3. Understanding that identity is complex and multi-faceted!
As described above, you can’t shove Granada or its inhabitants into a single box. Each person brings with them the history of their ancestors along with the new things they’ve learned. You have to know and understand fully that bad eggs exist in every country, religion, neighborhood, race, etc. You ALSO must know and understand that a few bad eggs do not mean a bad basket. Yes, there are bad people, but those people do not depict the entirety of the culture they belong to.
To harp a bit more on the “yes, there are bad people”: Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country located on the northwest tip of Africa. Of course, I had a few qualms about being there. Then, I found out that in the past 17 years, there have only been 2 (yes, t-w-o) major terrorist attacks in the entire country despite nearby countries having problems for quite a while now. This is thanks to the intense civil guard and self-policing/self-protecting concepts throughout the country. Our tourist van was stopped several times during our journies between cities to ensure that our driver was licensed and to know what our purpose was for being at each place. Moroccans take great pride in their civil guard and it keeps them well protected. So, yes, many Americans tend to be fearful of Muslims due to a number of radical extremists. Morocco, in my opinion, serves as a great example of why we can’t place the blame on an entire group. I could go much further into this specific topic, but just know that Morocco isn’t some crazy dangerous place and it’s actually really lovely, the people are great, and you really should visit!
4. Adjusting to living with a host family.
Before Spain, I’ve only ever lived with family or friends – people I know. Living with my host mom (no, it’s not always a picture perfect family, but IES won’t put you in a bad home. Everyone is screened and has experience!) has really helped me better my Spanish and learn more about the customs. She’s always willing to correct me or help me figure a word/concept I don’t know. You also learn a lot about respect. You’re staying in someone else’s home, they’re cooking your food and keeping your room clean. Respect is really important. If something they do bothers you, talk to them about it! It’s a really great experience living with a host family. I’m sure you’d love it!
OMG my host family in Morocco was the greatest and I was not expecting to miss them so much!! They had the sweetest little girl who immediately tried to connect with us in Arabic (even though my roommates and I don’t know Arabic) and brought us her toys to play with and kept talking to us! Our host mom was super sweet, always made sure we were comfortable and well-fed, and even gave me one of her recipes! The other daughters and the father were also lovely, but we didn’t get to see them too much over the 2 days we were there. We couldn’t communicate with them beyond gestures without our translator’s help, but the entire family still welcomed us with such open arms and couldn’t have been greater!!
So, how do you research? Most programs will send you bits of information about where you’re gonna live. Most destinations are also fairly popular so you’re likely to find some articles about it. There are plenty of guide books out there and lots of videos on YouTube. You can also talk to people who’ve been there before. They’ll usually give you a more honest and detailed explanation of what to expect. Ask the Internation Programs office if they can put you in contact with anyone. And if you’re thinking of heading to Granada, I’d love to answer any questions or doubts you have!
Just keep in mind that everyone’s experience will be different in some way. You won’t all have the same motives and objectives for going to your destination and you won’t all get the same things out of it. The most important thing is to be yourself and make the most of YOUR experience!
Until next time!