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Education Abroad — Going Native or Standing Firm

Cultural Relativism

By Brian Harley

It was dusk in Kerala, India, and the placard-toting American students under my watch were gathering for a demonstration. Some stood away from the trees as hundreds of crows returned to their roost. The Indian student leader in her multi-layered salwar kameez spryly said, “We are here to say that girls should be allowed to leave their hostel after 7 p.m. at night if they are sick. But we are not feminists.”

The American students’ shoulders slumped. Their cries of “Take Back the Night” reverted to “Take Back the Early Evening” and they began their march.

American students abroad may come to realize, to their surprise, that their home society is relatively permissive. In India at least this realization can lead to a unique set of cross-cultural challenges. In hindsight many challenges are seen as growing experiences and often described in amusing, romanticized, or heroic storytelling. Nevertheless, the “things” of culture are often easier to deal with than the attitudes.

Students quickly learn to eat thali meals with their right hand and speak enough of the local language to both fend off vendors and invite conversations with passers-by. Adaptations to “interesting” new realities such as housing and climate are expected and routine. But adaptations to relatively restrictive cultural attitudes are different.

Modest at Home, “Wild” Abroad

It is sometimes daunting for American students who see themselves as relatively modest in their demands at home to be treated as if they are wildly pushing the limits in India. For example, a woman at a Midwestern college may consider herself rather well-behaved if on a Saturday evening she and her roommate walk to a man’s residence hall room where they drink one alcoholic beverage, play a game of cards, and spend a few hours in conversation with the male friend and his roommates. That same woman would not be considered conventional in India. In fact, the response to her behavior would be far from flattering.

Obviously, coming to terms with cultural relativism is easier said than done. American students may resist even the gentlest of negative sanctioning. When a suggestion is given that “this is not acceptable behavior” students may take it personally and on behalf of their entire society. One reaction is that if they conform to the local (restrictive) customs they have failed to take a stand for individual rights. Several young women with my group felt alienated when they found no feminist kindred spirits at the entire Cochin Univ. of Science and Technology.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” said one. “I want to encourage them to speak out, but everything they say is so superficial and trivial.”

Living abroad brings special demands. It is easier to deal with the stares that come from being a tourist than with the stares of disapproval and suspicion that come when the visitor is a temporary resident and expected to know better. One temptation is to become indignant and even exaggerate the offending behavior. Anecdotes are endless, often reflecting expectations relative to age, gender, and a sexual double standard.

Compounding the Problem

Frustrated students wishing to prove that there is indeed nothing implicitly wrong with their lifestyle inadvertently compound the problem when they flagrantly, or even good-naturedly, deviate from a local social more. Imagine a student repeatedly wearing shorts to prove that there is nothing implicitly promiscuous about a bare leg, particularly when the temperature and humidity are both in the 90s. Pushing the boundaries is more likely when the behavior is thought to be communicating “who I am” instead of “what I do.”

Because the U.S. is seen as permissive relative to India, students are seen by their hosts to respond in at least four ways:

First, in order to not inadvertently offend, the visitors maintain their American lifestyle in a student guesthouse ghetto, a textbook reaction to culture shock.

Second, students blatantly disregard any local customs that they find either “unjust” or just plain illogical.

Third, they make concessions by modestly adjusting their lifestyle so as to honor professors and administrators during the daytime hours, but they do not give up their nocturnal chatting, imbibing, and generally being involved in group revelry past local bedtimes.

Fourth, students resolve that for one or two semesters they will not go out past 10:30 p.m., not visit the rooms of the other gender, not drink publicly (especially if they are females), not date, and generally live as the local students live. (Spending a Friday night hand-washing clothes may not sound exciting, but it can do no harm.)

Acceptance Aids Understanding

Accepting cultural expectations as gracious guests may be difficult, especially when these customs appear to be illogical or inconsistently enforced. But acceptance will insure positive interpersonal relations and positive institutional collaboration. Furthermore, students are likely to obtain greater understanding of the host culture by becoming sensitive informal quasi-ambassadors.

As a former study center director in Southern India and as a long-term study abroad administrator, I encourage students to participate fully in the host culture. This includes honoring local customs such as keeping the same hours and showing deference to professors. Such behavior does not suggest moral compromise or passivity regarding general safety and welfare. Participating in the culture fully means just that. Despite the fact that this may initially bring the feeling that one is “selling out” to the establishment, especially as a young adult, the reality is that one barely has time to participate in the host society and not nearly enough time to become a prophetic voice for social change.

DR. BRIAN HARLEY is Chief Academic Officer and Director of the Program Division of Brethren Colleges Abroad, a study abroad consortium for university educational exchange.

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