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Making the Most of Being Overseas

By Laura Higgins Florand

You don’t want to be just a tourist. You want to get to know the real people to experience what life is really like in this foreign country you’ve worked so hard and risked so much to live in. But you still feel like an outsider looking in. What can you do?

Accept the fact that you are an outsider and enjoy the benefits. When I lived in Tahiti, my light hair, blue eyes, and 5'3" build made it impossible for me to blend in with the black-haired, bronze-skinned, and generally much taller Tahitians. But having grown up where light brown hair, blue eyes, and small size were the most common of features, I enjoyed being “exotic.” And I also made lots of friends, all with open minds and a strong interest in learning more about other countries and other cultures, in this case, mine.

Sign up to learn local arts or sports. In Tahiti, the sensual dancing seen in South Pacific is unarguably the most vital form of cultural expression for the Ma’ohi, as native Polynesians in Tahiti call themselves. I had my doubts about joining a class that would require me to bare my midriff and dance publicly in skimpy pareus, but by taking the risk I not only learned about but became a part of something quintessentially Tahitian. I also gained self-confidence. Since my return to the U.S. I have been teaching classes in dance to share this confidence and pleasure with others. In Spain I am now learning flamenco—completely different experience yet equally fascinating.

I have also tried outrigger canoeing, drumming, and cooking. For meeting people and learning about a culture, there is nothing like physically participating in something fundamental to that culture.

Intercambios

The word is Spanish, but the idea works everywhere. Meet a native of the country once a week at a café for conversation, alternating between your native language one week and his the next. You not only improve your language ability but the conversations you have can be fascinating and the friendships you develop will endure. I never became as fluent in Reo Ma’ohi (Tahitian) as I would have liked, but the fact that I tried led to my being surrounded with friendly, intrigued faces in the market and being invited to families’ homes for weekends. Local universities are ideal places to put up notices.

Volunteer

You do it at home, why not abroad? A friend of mine always works with underprivileged children wherever she goes and another involves herself with women’s shelters. Volunteering means being part of something that matters.

One nice thing about these “tricks” is that they work even for shy people like me. You live in another country because you are interested in its culture. All you have to do to immerse yourself in it is put a little energy into showing that interest.

LAURA HIGGINS florand has been a Fulbright scholar to French Polynesia and lived, worked, and studied in Spain and France. She now teaches French at Duke Univ.

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