Studying abroad has been the best decision I have ever made, and it has been rewarding in many ways. One of the aspects that I like the most about studying abroad is not just learning about other cultures (and being an international student often means that you get plenty of friends from outside of the US as well), but how it gives you an opportunity to learn about yourself and the culture that you grew up in. When you go to the US for the first time, you already have an idea of how it will be like. Having watched countless American movies and TV-series, American culture was, in a limited sense, already familiar to me. That is not to say that I was not surprised by the many aspects of Midwestern society that can only be revealed through experience, but perhaps the most interesting lesson you learn is about your own culture.
Sometimes, experiencing other cultures makes you question your own. You start to reflect on the aspects of your own culture that you come to disagree with. For example, the American openness to other people was initially quite uncomfortable to me. In Norway, we don’t speak to people unless we know them. Talking to someone you don’t know gives others the impression that you’re either drunk, mentally disabled, or perhaps completely unaware of social norms. I have come to really appreciate how Americans can talk to whoever they like, how they love meeting new people and give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s so much easier to meet new people in the US. Americans will straight out ask you to have coffee with them, or invite you to hang out with them. Encountering a different culture “full-time” allows you to identify aspects of your own culture that you never thought of before, and this in turn allows you to better adapt to your host culture. Whether it’s about how to meet new people, body language or what topics are appropriate, the experience teaches you to see your culture, and by extension yourself, in a different light.
Other times, the differences between your own culture and the host culture translates into action and spurs an interest in your own traditions. I have never done as many traditional Norwegian things as when I am here. Suddenly you start caring about obscure holidays and traditions you never celebrated back home. The Sunday before Lent, called Fastelavn in Norway, was never anything I celebrated before coming here. I was not very traditional back home, but here I have not only hosted Fastelavns for my “foreign” friends thrice (foreign to me!), after my first semester when I came back home for Christmas I even bothered to make seven kinds of Christmas cakes (they’re basically cookies) for the first time ever. This usually comes with trying every new “exotic” American tradition, food or practice you come across. Much like how I was excited to celebrate Thanksgiving and to try pumpkin pie, I have come to appreciate the opportunity of sharing Norwegian traditions (usually involving food…) with my American or international student friends.
Studying abroad teaches you all kinds of things. It teaches you new perspectives, it gives you an insight into different cultures, it gives you friendships for life, but it also helps you see your own culture and background more clearly. While you discover things you want to change, you also embrace parts of your culture you never subscribed to before. Out of all the benefits of studying abroad, this opportunity to learn about what you consider “home” is truly invaluable.