Social and Political Activism Abroad
What you need to know:
- Don't be afraid to express your political views in a respectful manner while abroad. It's all part of the cross-cultural experience!
- There are many different ways to stay connected to important events back home
I studied abroad in Barcelona during the Fall of 2008, and it doesn't take long for any politically-focused person to realize that I was out of the country during one of our nation's most monumental elections.
On that historic night in November 2008, I sat alone in my Spanish bed, watching election footage on my computer screen as it came in at the crack of dawn local time. Not only did the Chicago native within me ache to be celebrating with my fellow countrymen in Grant Park, but the American within me ached to share the feelings of solidarity that so obviously radiated throughout my home country. Alas, I was alone. And truth be told, it was hard.
Similar feelings stirred recently when President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. While this time around I was enlightened of the news in my New York City apartment as opposed to my Barcelona abode, my heart immediately ached for those abroad who would doubtlessly spend the next weeks and months feeling lost and confused.
It is hard enough to try to fit in while abroad as a foreigner, but when national issues occur - and in particular, controversial ones - there can be a disconnect between new friends of different cultures, which can lead to an overwhelming sense of confusion and lack of connectivity.
In order to feel rooted while abroad no matter the unprecedented circumstances, there are a few pre-emptive steps you can take.
#1 Stay aware of current events
Al-Queda announced mid-June 2011 that they have found a replacement for Osama Bin Laden, and if a history teacher singles you out as the token American student in the classroom asking for your perspective (which a teacher of mine used to repeatedly do to me), it is helpful to be prepared with a thoughtful and knowledgable answer. Not only will this earn the respect of your peers, but it will also help you feel more grounded to your home country.
Additionally, it is hard enough going back to your home country and being out-of-the-loops in terms of new music trends or movie releases; being at least self-aware of current events will help made ease the transition that may occur post-reverse culture shock.
#2 Stay politically active, even while abroad
Political rally in Barcelona, Spain
Just because I was abroad during an election did not mean I was going to miss out on all that election had to offer. I commented on political websites, I submitted an absentee ballot, and I was as vocal about politics in my online presence as ever I had been. Not even thousands of miles could hold me back from being a part of a national election.
Even if something as monumental as an election does not take place while you're abroad, keep abreast of social and political issues. Try writing to your congressman or congresswoman while you're abroad, expressing how your worldview has given you a new perspective on a given situation. Maybe you couldn't be there to rally at the gates of the White House at news of Osama's death, but you can write about it, talk about it, and experience it in your own, unique way while abroad.
I think Americans, Spaniards and other ethnicities alike all learned a lot that day.
#3 Do not feel as though you have to "trash talk" your country
While abroad, your country may do things that you do not necessarily support. Contrastingly, your country may do things that you support entirely, but in general your home country's actions have not been embraced by your host country's culture. In this instance, do not feel pressured to say bad things about your home simply to "fit in." Cross-cultural differences and varying opinions can often be a lose-lose: other cultures don't always appreciate what your government has done, but your vocal defiance of a government you otherwise supported may make people question your loyalty as a human being.
Instead, use this as an opportunity to learn and share. Be open and honest about your ideas, but also be incredibly open-minded hearing about others' ideas. George W. Bush was still president when I studied abroad, and one of the most deep, interesting and courageous conversations I saw was when another American student spoke openly to our mostly-liberal and almost entirely European class and with our VERY liberal and Spanish professor about her admiration of President Bush, a figure who was generally viewed negatively in Spain at that time.. She was not arrogant and she was not boisterous, but she rationally shared her viewpoint and history to help us all better understand. I think Americans, Spaniards and other ethnicities alike all learned a lot that day.
#4 Become a citizen of your host country
Learn about the social and political events occurring in the town, city and country where you are studying. Invest in these issues both academically and emotionally, and allow yourself to feel tied and rooted to these issues. While it is not suggested that you feign a knowledge or cultural ties to an issue that has perhaps long plagued a culture of which you are not a part, you can still show your dedication and loyalty to a new culture by, at the very least, being able to intellectually discuss it.
A friend of mine in Spain invited me to a Catalonian Independence Rally while I was in Barcelona; never did I regret more not picking up a history book. While others around me either boo'd at the prospect of Catalonian independence or chanted in its favor, I was a deer in the headlights, completely ignorant of the issues about which they were so passionate. My Spanish friend helped me to understand some of the history behind this event, and you may meet people who will want to do the same for.