Congratulations! You’re about to embark on one of the most gratifying and life-changing experiences of education: study abroad. By now, you’ve chosen a program through your academic institution and you’re preparing for the coming day when your plane takes off and you enter a new culture and society.
There are a few things you need to know before studying abroad. First, a study abroad trip can be immensely different than a standard vacation overseas. There are regulations you must follow and not just socially. There will be rules set in place by your school to protect you but also to protect the integrity of the institution. Your school will review these formalities with you, so be sure to take special notes as guidelines vary between schools.
One of the most important things you will learn is conduct, not only as a student but also as a tourist. Social expectations differ among countries, but there are many codes of conduct you will find remain the same throughout the world. Here are some Dos and Don’ts to keep in mind while studying abroad:
Of course, you could assume in all the excitement of traveling it would be difficult not to take in any and all information about the country you’re visiting. Unfortunately, many students and tourists alike skip this key step when traveling, and it can prove to be harmful in more ways than one.
Becoming familiar with the culture alone will help prevent mishaps. Again, your academic institution should make you aware of these points before the start of the program, but you can only benefit from over-educating yourself. There are some societies that may take offense to certain behaviors which seem insignificant to us, and those around you will appreciate your basic knowledge on their customs.
Another topic to research is the laws of the country you’re traveling to. Many might think this is a given, but something as simple as jaywalking can get you into trouble with the law. A few things to become familiar with regarding the place you’re visiting include drinking age, current political issues and sensitivity to certain topics like religion, sex and politics. For example, in places like China and Cambodia, it’s frowned upon for foreigners to openly discuss major political issues such as leadership or economics. There have been occurrences where foreigners have been thrown in jail for trying to exploit issues they believe to be wrong or unjust.
It’s also imperative to become familiar with the food of the area you’ll be exploring. For example, having food allergies or specific preferences for food can be an issue for someone traveling abroad depending on where you’re traveling to. Be sure to inform yourself on the eating habits and food selections of the country you’re visiting so you’re aware of whether or not alternative options will be available to you. Also, if you’re not accustomed to seeing full-sized animals and bugs being cooked and sold in the streets, then I suggest you prepare yourself when visiting many countries in Asia. Before my first study abroad experience in China, I learned fried scorpion was a delicacy throughout the country and was thrilled to try it. I’m adventurous when it comes to trying new foods, but many others are not.
Do try new things
You must remember as a study abroad student that this experience may never be available to you again. Although you could plan to return to the same destination in the future, it’s not guaranteed. You might find stepping out of your comfort zone results in some of the most memorable experiences. For example, I’ve always had an irrational fear of being near waterfalls. When I visited Cambodia we were able to hike to a beautiful location with a waterfall and swimming area. I think if I had chosen not to take part in this experience, I would’ve regretted it. I took some amazing photos and learned there’s really no harm in stepping a little out of your comfort zone. Of course, do this within reason and don’t put yourself or anyone else in danger for that excitement factor. There are plenty of ways to try new things while remaining within the boundaries of comfort and safety.
In many instances of studying abroad, you will have the opportunity to participate in different customs and traditions. Many locals love to see tourists taking an interest in their practices, as long as you learn the proper ways to participate without offending.
Become as knowledgeable as you can about a specific custom or tradition before partaking in it. Your interest and determination to get it right will ultimately delight those who want to include you.
Don’t treat everything as a tourist attraction
It’s easy to get carried away when the aesthetic of foreign culture is calling to you from every angle, but this is one reason people hate tourism in their country.
You must remember that while traveling, you have integrated yourself into the daily life of other people within their society. There will be plenty of time for candid photography, but keep it limited to yourself or those in your group. Depending on the destination, there may be important figures you’d like to photograph. Always ask for permission before directly photographing someone, and don’t overreact if they decline. Surely, you wouldn’t want a random tourist snapping their camera in your face during your daily commute to work.
Don’t be disrespectful
Basic respect might seem like an ideal we’ve all been taught since birth, but it’s commonly lost when traveling. When you come from a country like the United States where we simply accept everyone voicing their opinions, it might be hard to adjust to a different set of ideals in another country. If you find the food isn’t up to your standard, try not to overemphasize your distaste. Food is one of the main foundations of a society’s culture, so loudly voicing your disgust with such a main part of the culture can certainly offend most.
Also, if you see there are some moral issues in a society, try to wait until you’re back home or in a safe, comfortable area before speaking out about them. It’s not wrong to care about humankind, but look at it in a different perspective. If a foreign traveler visited your home country and complained about how bad they thought it was, the first thing you’d wonder is “then why are you even here?”
Don’t visit orphanages
One of the most critical components to keep in mind when traveling is to, at all costs, avoid visiting orphanages. Many tourists visit places like these in southeast Asian countries well known for areas of extreme poverty, but your visit could quite literally be damaging to a society. There are some who take advantage of this opportunity to draw in tourists, and in some cases fake orphanages are built by adults and sometimes by children themselves in order to get money or other goods from tourists who think they’re providing a valuable service. If you want to take part in community work, there are less harmful ways to do it.
You need to research special organizations that can prepare for your arrival and arrange ways for you to help. Many travelers mistakenly think a day visit to an orphanage can make a difference, but in reality your stay must be much longer in order to truly help the cause. Many facilities who educate and house children living in poverty are in great need of experienced volunteers, and your quick trip in and out of the facility hardly helps their objective. Even a week-long visit isn’t enough to support them.
If you must volunteer at a facility such as this, plan to stay for months at a time. Also, in any case, never take pictures of or with random children and, as difficult as it may be, do not buy anything from children.
This is especially dangerous for the child’s well-being and safety because it’s teaching children to trust strangers. Many children know the majority of tourists will buy from them, and some regularly skip school to take advantage of these opportunities. By doing this you’re contributing to exploitation and demonstrating irresponsible tourism. To put it into perspective, we learned never to trust strangers as kids because it could endanger our lives, and we teach that to the younger generations. Why then, would you treat a child in another country as an object rather than implementing the same ideals you do for your own children at home? It might seem like common knowledge, but this type of behavior is seen constantly.