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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2003
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Cultural Transitions

Ways to Overcome the Overseas Helplessness Syndrome

At Duke Univ.’s Primate Center the lemurs have cold-weather enclosures where they spend the winter leaping from one end of their world to the other, without fear. When the weather warms up and they are released to vast outdoor enclosures, the same animals suddenly start missing their landings. Outside, real trees sway in the wind.

The lemurs have to learn that the landing spot they choose before they take off may have changed position before they land. In reaction, a few lemurs out of every group invariably huddle helplessly for weeks inside one of the indoor-type shelters—too off-balance to cope.

Humans in cultural transition may react with a similar display of helplessness. Here’s an example:

The phone rings. In Paris as a program assistant for an American study abroad program, it’s my job to answer it.

“Where am I?” a student on the other end asks, without preliminary.

“I don’t know, actually. Why don’t you tell me?”

“Because I don’t know either. I’d like to know.”

By now I recognize the voice and remember the student asking me to show him one of the branches of the Univ. of Paris on a map earlier that day.

“Did you find Charles V?” Charles V is the branch of the Univ. of Paris where English literature is taught and he can speak English rather than French.

“No. I can’t.”

I think, not for the first time, that cell phones have not been a service to study abroad students. Without this student’s dependence on his cell, and thus on other Americans, he would at least have to pull out a map or, even more alarming, ask for directions from a passerby.

“Well, where are you?” I try again.

“I’m exactly where you told me to go,” he says indignantly.

This seems unlikely; if so, I can’t imagine why we would be having this conversation.

“What street are you on?”

“I don’t know.”

I take a deep breath. “Why don’t you try walking until you see a street sign, and I will look at my map of Paris and tell you where to go from there, okay?”

A Collapse of Confidence

Now my fellow student is certainly as capable of reading a map and finding his own way around as I am. He ranks high in terms of social skills, so timidity isn’t the problem. The problem is that he is seeking any way he can to avoid coping with the foreign, any way he can to avoid jumping out to one of those swaying trees where he might risk a fall. I call it Overseas Helplessness Syndrome (OHS).

We all feel nervous facing the unfamiliar, even within our own culture. In another country the sense of disorientation is a hundred times worse. What were once automatic daily actions keep landing a visitor in uncomfortable situations. It’s not conducive to a feeling of confidence.

Of course in the long run most sojourners abroad not only recover from this collapse of confidence but develop new areas of competence they never previously imagined. But it’s important not to give into the sense of helplessness in the short term. The more OHS is resisted, the faster the traveler will adapt and the farther she will be on herway to becoming a strong and open person, comfortable interacting within other cultures.

Confidence Regained

From my years of study abroad and my experience working with students overseas and preparing to go overseas, here are a few tips for avoiding helplessness:

• Be aware of the helplessness syndrome. It can rear (or droop) its feeble head in all of us, no matter how practiced we are as travelers, if we let it. This is particularly true if experienced problem-solvers are at our beck and call.

• If you can do it at home, you can do it here. It just might take a little more courage and practice. Would you ask a university official back home to tell you where your classroom is? Of course not. You would ask other students. You can still do that overseas, no matter how poor your language skills are.

• When you hesitate, ask yourself what are you afraid of. In most cases the overseas helplessness syndrome is simply a fear of embarrassment or of stepping outside one’s comfort zone into incompetence. Remember, nobody has ever died of embarrassment, linguistic expressions to the contrary.

• Start with your strengths. The rules have changed but your past strengths and accomplishments haven’t disappeared. If you were a competent, capable person in your home environment, you haven’t suddenly become a weak, incapable person in your new environment. In fact, your prior accomplishments can stand you in good stead in other ways besides the psychological. One study abroad student I knew in Paris was a champion baton twirler back home. As soon as he arrived, he contacted the team at his new university in Paris and offered to help train other students. He was rapidly surrounded by native French friends eager to share everything they could about their country and their culture.

• Adventure into your weaknesses. To a certain degree you already have. After all, you’re already well outside your comfort zone by being in another country. Too many travelers quit there, seeking to maintain the familiar protection of their routine back home. You will never have a better chance to try something new. Take a non-school class, for example.

• Remember why you came. If you wanted to live or study abroad in the first place, you were attracted by the idea of adventuring into another culture. It may be a little scarier than you expected, but it’s still fun!

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