I’ve lived abroad in three countries and each experience has been totally different, yet oddly similar in many ways. Before studying in Spain I did almost no research on Sevilla, the idea being that I didn’t want to get my hopes up and wanted to see it all fresh for the first time. It worked out well, but it also could have helped to know a thing or two about the city and culture. I remember one night I met a girl in a bar and got her number, even with my basic Spanish. We made plans to meet up at a cafe later in the week to practice Spanish and English together.
Of course I got there early, but not being savvy on the culture, I went in, ordered a coffee, and sat down waiting. I can’t picture it now, but I have to imagine that would have been normal for me in the States. The girl seemed kind of taken aback when she finally realized I was inside, and not surprisingly we never hung out again.
In Ecuador, I did a little bit of research beforehand, mostly because my organization, WorldTeach, mailed me a lot of information on it. My expectations were nothing like what I eventually found. Reading the literature, I thought I would have chickens living in my house and wash my clothes by hand with dirty water in a dark room. There are places like that in the country, but not for me in Cuenca. There was such a difference in being able to say a couple of words about the government or the president that separated me from other foreigners who just popped in for a few weeks. People actually want to talk with you when you know something about their society.
In Argentina it was similar, though even knowing a thing or two didn’t help for quite a while simply because of the culture here. It’s most closed off and more based off of trust. Now that I’ve been here 9 months I know enough about life here to be able to throw some comments in. But not only that, it’s about knowing what has recently happened. Knowing about a strike a few months back makes it much easier to relate to people. That’s why I feel like if you want to truly immerse yourself in a culture, you have to start well before you show up.
Start reading the local newspapers if you can, or at the very least look through sources like the New York Times or BBC for information on the region. This way, when you show up to where you’ll be studying or living, you have an idea about what people are talking about. Not only that, but try to figure out the local phrases, slang, etc. It’s not just the language that you need to overcome, but random buzz words that are actually more useful than complex subjunctive and conditional phrases. People will generally understand what you’re trying to say whether you sound like a professor or not. But they’ll be more likely to keep talking to you if you use the same words they use than try to talk above your level.
Watch movies, pick up a book, or find someone in your area who already knows the place for more background support. And with these things in mind, you’ll hopefully be able to hit the ground running when you land overseas.