Monday, October 10, 2005

Why People Don't Think Like Me...

I had an interesting post on the Fodor's travel website today. I answered a woman's question about how they were weighing what countries her daughter should go to as an exchange student, and whether she should go somewhere that would require a second language.

Some people on the board were saying for her to go somewhere in the U.K. (England, Scotland, one of the Irelands), or Australia or New Zealand, encouraging her not to put her under the strain of having to be immersed in a language she doesn't know.

One teacher referenced her experience working with foreign students on a regular basis, citing their intense homesickness and apparent inability to adapt to the U.S. English language and our customs.

I was an exchange student to Brazil in the 1980s, which feels like eons ago...but nonetheless the experience has stayed with me, and has formed a large part of who I am today. I told the mother that the only kids I knew who truly struggled and perhaps regretted going were those who were sent to Japan and other places where the language and culture were such a shock that it took months to learn enough of the language and customs to function properly and enjoy anything about where they were.

My point isn't that kids shouldn't go to Japan or India or other places like that, only that the intense changes of those cultures could make it harder...and that other countries (like Brazil) had many challenges to overcome including the language, customs and climate, and that facing those challenges -- even at the tender age of 16 -- could be a good one.

It amazes me that someone would be interested in shipping their kids off -- but if they're not going to a more known place like Europe -- they falter in their decision-making. It's the decision of "I want her to have an experience, but not that big of an experience."

My main beef with that kind of argument is that you are no more safe in India with a good family than you are in Berlin. The fact remains, your experience overseas -- if you're over there for a year -- is going to vary by the families you're placed with, but mostly your attitude and willingness to adapt.

I went to Brazil in August 1983, at 16 myself, and had basically no knowledge of the language. I wrote my parents letters weekly from the time I arrived, but hadn't talked to them on the phone until Dec. 12, my Mom's birthday. I called and the first I heard of my Dad and Mom's voices reduced me to tears. I was so homesick. After about 20 minutes, we hung up, and I went for a walk. I'll never forget standing on the hill overlooking a large sugar cane field at the edge of town, as a large thunderstorm passed over, and crying at my homesickness.

But I didn't cry for long. I realized I was just a few months into a year-long commitment, and that I'd better make the best of it while I was there. Mom wasn't there to tell me that -- I just grew up that day and realized I had to "buck up" as my Dad used to call it, and get over it.

After that, I took the time to learn Portuguese -- I immersed myself in my new family's traditions, learned a lot of the language in just a few more months' time, and soon was able to feel less lonely by the fact that I could now actively participate in everything from classroom lessons at school to dinner table discussions. By the end of my year there, I was picking up vocabulary words almost intuitively, and was able to speak fluently enough that I could convince people I was either a native or had lived there for most of my life.

Learning the language was part of learning the culture. Today as I read the post from someone pushing this mother to send her daughter to an English-speaking country made me wonder: Why is learning another language so scary, and why is it such a negative thing in this country? Why don't people think like me and see what a huge advantage it is to take the time to learn something new -- particularly when you're so young and have the time and energy?

I just finished reading "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte, and recently started Jane Austen's masterpiece, "Emma". In Emma, there's a statement about her father where he secretly believes that's what's good for him must be good for everybody.

I don't really believe that -- I don't think everyone should think like me, in fact it would be a bit of a boring world if we were all the same.

But in matters of education, travel and learning new experiences, I sure wish to heck that people were more adventurous than they are. Kinda like me.


Gina in N'Awlins said...

I couldn't agree more with you, Jules! There was a point in my life when I really wanted to join Peace Corps -- and go somewhere really different. Never did it - but there's still the rest of my lifetime! I love travel - and one of its big lessons is that the more different a culture seems to be, the more it really comes down to human beings and our similarities, how the same things make us laugh, make us cry, make us wonder . . . Great post!

Lauren said...

Jules, dahlink... since you're one in a million, you do the math! That's how many people think like you!!! ;o)

Seriously though, I agree with your assertion. I was supposed to be an exchange student my junior year, but I got mono during the application semester and couldn't complete the process. I was eyeing Brazil as one of my options... the other was Lisbon. I've always regretted missing that opportunity.

Now that I think about it, illness always seems to f-up my travel plans... I was supposed to travel to Europe with a vocal group, but got a really bad case of cedar fever when we were living in Austin and couldn't make it.

But I digress... great post!


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