Student to Student
Visitors from Home
Sharing the Overseas Experience with Relatives and Friends
Directly sharing your overseas experiences with friends and loved ones helps them to better understand how you have been affected by your newly adopted cultures and environments. And absolutely the best way to show them what you have learned is for friends and relatives to pay you a visit in your host country setting. More often than not, visitors will come away with a much better understanding of who you have become and why you love living abroad.
My mother once told me that she managed to stay calm during the 1989 political turmoil in China, where I was living, only because she remembered watching me argue with a surly peasant woman who had stolen my glove and was trying to extort money for its return. This convinced her that I could both take care of myself and speak the language.
Being a guide to friends and relatives can also create a bond that might not form back at home. I will never forget seeing tears streaming down the face of our family lawyer as she looked out across the Great Wall and exclaimed how she never dreamed she would ever see it. A childhood friend and I enjoyed walking arm in arm every day in China until the end of our three-week trip came and we realized that in our homophobic home country we would have to drop the practice.
Friends who visit develop a keen interest in your adopted country and will be able to envision the places and events you describe later. One friend who visited me a second time in China was still able to use the bargaining vocabulary I had taught her five years earlier.
Of course, visits always have their potential pitfalls. Trips for first-time visitors have to be planned carefully; keep in mind what aspects of the new environment might be commonplace to you but shocking to the visitor. My own mother had a hard time following me through crowds in Bangkok and Beijing, and I had to remember to slow my pace.
Visitors Can Be Disrupting
On the other hand, I have seen students' adjustment to a new culture greatly disrupted when a boyfriend or girlfriend visited. Sometimes the motive of the visitor is merely to take advantage of the chance to see a new place, but often the visit carries the hidden agenda of the visitor's wanting to somehow interrupt the experience to make sure that he or she won't be forgotten. After the visit is over, the host is often left feeling either homesick or angry.
Also be prepared for the possibility that your friends or relatives might not like the place you have come to love. Remember that you may have had months or at least weeks to gain a fuller understanding of the place. Two psychiatrists on a short visit to China wanted to see a hospital. They were so shocked by the standards in the hospital that they ran out before the tour was over, leaving the hosts to apologize to the guide and doctors who had worked hard to get permission for the visit.
Timing Is Important
It is most important to plan visits according to when you have the time to show everyone around. Parents should not plan on visiting their kids during the beginning months of their study abroad experience. Visits during these early months can be disruptive both to cultural adjustment and to the academic schedule of the student.
In one case, the parents of a student thoughtlessly insisted on pulling her out of a month of intensive language classes because the only time they could visit was April. Needless to say, she did not get credit for any of the course work she had completed that term and had to start over with the same classes the next term. I have also seen parents insist on a particular time of the year, regardless of the inconvenience it caused to the students? schedules, because their frequent flyer miles were about to expire.
Visitors sometimes expect that having a friend or relative as a guide will make for a cheaper trip. In fact that is not always the case. Often large tour operators get better discounts on hotels rooms and transportation than you can on your own. One Australian student I met solved this problem by booking her parents on a tour and then picking them up for evening and weekend activities. This proved to be an enjoyable and less stressful arrangement for everyone involved.
Careful planning and discussion of all the options available will make for the best visit. Students and teachers living abroad often have two holidays, winter and summer, when they can be more flexible with their time. If both sides plan with consideration for each others? needs and circumstances, a visit from friends and relatives can be a welcome opportunity to share the joys of living abroad.
TAMULA DRUMM holds an MA in Asian Studies from the Univ. of Michigan. She lived and worked in China and Taiwan for seven years and is currently a Program Officer at Brethren Colleges Abroad.