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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine September/October 2002
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Stop Ethnocentrism!

A Case for Armchair Multiculturalism

By Laura Higgins Florand

First as a program assistant in France and Spain and now as a language professor and study abroad adviser, I continue to be amazed by students’ ethnocentrism. While they are ready to spend a small fortune for the experience of a semester abroad, only a tiny minority have had enough interest in the host culture to, for example, watch a film on their own before they leave home (despite the fact that their university library contains an extensive collection of foreign language films, all absolutely free). Only 3 percent of American undergraduates ever study abroad, and less than half of those go for a whole semester. . . Are we to suppose that these enthusiastic but culturally blind students have actually made the 99th percentile as the least ethnocentric Americans?

Ethnocentrism is an easy trap to fall into, and American Anglophones are at higher risk than any others because of the hegemonic position of the U.S. and the English language

There are many ways to explore the world without ever leaving our hometowns, and the more we take advantage of them, before and after our return home, the richer our overseas experiences will be.


Films produced by directors native to the country are an accessible, fascinating, and cheap way to visit another culture. The Web makes it easy to find out what is selling well at the box office or on video this week around the world. Yahoo! has local sites for various countries at the bottom of the Yahoo! home page ( Once at the local site, the “Cinema” or “Movies” category will take you to the top 20 films currently in theaters in that country.

Box office hits won’t be available in U.S. theaters or video rental stores yet, but a few clicks will get you to lists of earlier films by the same director or featuring the same actors. In larger cities, you should have no problem finding sources for foreign film rentals, in either video stores or libraries. Smaller towns may have a disappointingly limited selection of foreign films, so it might be worth it to buy a film or two—I have seen interesting foreign films on DVD at Amazon for as low as $12.


Sources for finding out more about the music of your country of interest are similar to those for film—with the additional advantage that websites like Amazon often have short samples that you can listen to. Also, many of the major chain bookstores, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, now carry international CDs and can order others. Unlike DVDs and videos, CDs are not artificially zoned to make them unplayable in non-compatible regions and their release dates are the same worldwide. It is therefore possible to order CDs directly from the country you are interested in. El Corte Inglés (, for example, has a much larger selection of Spanish and Hispanic music than anything you’ll find in the U.S., just as Amazon’s French site ( has the best collection of Francophone music, and shipping is not as expensive as you might imagine., for example, charges less than $10 per shipment.


The possibilities for armchair multiculturalism here are overwhelming. Browse the personals in Martinique, chat with someone in Australia or Scandinavia, and access the major newspapers and magazines of all computerized countries. Research films and music, find recipes, or practice obscure languages. For some countries and cultures the possibilities are endless. If your language abilities are up to it, listen to the daily news reports on many major foreign news stations. After returning from France, I watch TF1’s Journal de 13 Heures or Journal de 20 Heures (two major French daily newscasts) off my computer three or four times a week. Not only does this habit keep me in touch with what is happening in France, the different perspective on international events is enlightening.


Food is one of my favorite ways to experience another culture, but then I’m an unabashed gourmand. Odds are good that something new won’t kill you, and you can still call out for pizza. Is there an authentic Ethiopian restaurant somewhere near you? Does your town have a market that carries varieties of Italian cheese other than that plastic excuse for “mozzarella?” Try a different type of cheese a week, and do a little research on the region it comes from.

Do you drive past one of those little “Tienda Mexicana” stores that are popping up with increasing frequency in towns all over the U.S.? Stop in, and if you’re not sure of what you want, try talking to the person behind the counter. Chances are that your interest will be very much appreciated, since the Hispanic community is often isolated by Anglophone Americans. She or he will enjoy suggesting foods, or even recipes for you to try.

Speaking of which, don’t forget cookbooks—even if you are not a particularly gifted cook, experimenting with recipes from around the world can be enormous fun. That way you will be less likely to go into a “culture shock of the palate” (and take refuge in a comforting McDonald’s) once you are overseas.

Those who stay with what is safe and American in their everyday leisure choices at home are far more likely to find themselves yielding to the same temptation abroad. Experimenting with multiculturalism at home not only lights one candle against the darkness of American ethnocentrism, it opens your mind to the differences you will encounter; it adds to your knowledge and understanding of what you see and experience.

A flamenco class, a Brazilian carnival festival, a performance by Tibetan monks, a capoeira lesson. . . . Use your imagination, explore your interests, and take advantage of the possibilities around you. There might be more to the rest of the world here than you (or I) realize.

LAURA HIGGINS FLORAND, a frequent Transitions Abroad contributor, has been a Fulbright Scholar to French Polynesia and lived, worked, and studied in Spain and France. She now teaches French at Duke.

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