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West Meets East

The Adventure of High School Study Abroad in an Asian Country

A few miles outside of Tokyo you may hike through the mountains and experience scenery that can not be compared with anything seen in the U.S., or even the Western world. From the mountains a path through the woods leads to a remote inn set among natural hot springs where you can relax after your long hike and dine on wild boar meat.

This is the kind of adventure which may await you if you choose a high school exchange in Asia. American high school students often shy away from this experience, thinking that the language and culture difficulties will be too great. But don't be afraid of trying what you feel may be exotic or strange. We all have the ability to adapt and find the common threads that run through all of our lives.

Why Asia?

Once high school study abroad was largely confined to Europe. Now American students are increasingly realizing the competitive edge they will have by being able to write on their college essays or job resumes that they have spent some time studying in Asia. Even if the exchange is a short-term program and teenagers do not come away with fluency in a language, those who choose to study in Asia show they are flexible and adventurous. And they will have gained a new perspective.

Families in some Asian countries will not allow their children to study or travel in America because they believe it to be a dangerous place. On the other hand, young Americans have also heard stories about human rights violations in many Asian countries and accept stereotypes which are not necessarily true. Chris Frantz, from the Experiment in International Living, says that when he takes a group of American students on exchanges to China he encourages them to discuss with their Chinese counterparts those issues which most interest them. Even short-term visitors come away with a better understanding of the other's world.

Adapting to an Asian Culture

As a visitor to Asia you must be flexible and open to a culture filled with rituals as old as the civilization itself. You will find very different foods, personal habits, living standards, and philosophies. But perhaps the largest difference to consider before traveling is the very American ideal of individualism versus the Asian one of collectivism. American high school students learn that the way to succeed in American culture is to take it upon themselves to advance their personal interests and to increasingly take on more responsibilities--to be assertive and direct. Many Asian teenagers, on the other hand, are taught to consider the group's harmony above their own personal interests. It is telling that the Chinese word gerenzhuyi can be translated as both individualism and selfishness.

If you attend school in an Asian country, be aware of the differences between the American teaching styles and those in Asia. It is normal for Americans to form close, informal bonds with their teachers. Relationships with teachers in Asia, on the other hand, tend to be more formal.

Visiting students should get ready to be the center of attention. In many areas of Asia, Western tourists are rare. Therefore, especially in areas other than large cities, you may be in for many questions and stares. This will be particularly true for African-Americans. Privacy becomes a thing of the past.

Learn All You Can

One of the biggest complaints heard about Americans from Asian hosts is that while Asians make an effort to learn American ways, Americans do not extend them the same courtesy. It should be standard practice in preparing for any exchange to read about the country you will be studying in: the government, customs, diet, general philosophies, geography and climate, key language phrases (invest at least in a phrase book), dress, common religious denominations, and gender norms. Most organized programs provide this information in their orientations. Ask questions of your exchange organization about the specifics of the host country. But don't rely solely on the organization; do your own research as well.

Many high school students who travel to Asia do so on short-term exchanges and most do not have a good grasp of the language of the host countries. Most organized exchange programs will have someone in the group to help translate; however, do your best at communicating. Speak phrases slowly, use body language to help explain yourself. Be creative in how you communicate. It is a compliment to others when you at least attempt to speak their language.

Before You Travel

Before you leave for an Asian country, make sure to contact the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta or your personal physician to determine whether or not you will need shots.

Gifts are given frequently in Asia and it is an appropriate gesture to bring gifts for your host family or Asian group leaders. Even small tokens from America are a good way to say thank you, even upon arrival--such things as pictures or postcards of your home town, pins, or small crafts will be much appreciated. Most Asians are proud and hospitable; they may want to show you their appreciation for your joining them in their homes. Accept gifts generously and respectfully.

An American high school student had been staying with a family in rural China for two weeks and on the eve of his return home the family announced that they would be having special farewell dinner for him. All day long his four-year-old host sister was out in the village collecting "something." That evening when the meal was served his host sister could hardly contain her excitement before the main dish was brought out. When the dish was placed before the student he could see the size of the cicada bugs which he would have to eat. Not to do so would have offended his hosts.

In any society you may be exposed to unusual experiences. Asia is no exception. Above all, bring an open mind and your sense of adventure in order to make the best out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And cicadas are surprisingly tasty!

VANESSA RELLI-MOREAU is Membership Director for the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), Alexandria, VA. For information on high school study abroad contact CSIET at (703) 739-9050. Information for this article was contributed by Robin Weber, www.afs.org; Chris Frantz, The Experiment in International Living; Margie Eulner-Ott, YFU; and Marty Koessel, Nacel Open Door.