Neither Here Nor There: The Reality of Heritage Study Abroad

Cecilia Haynes
Cecilia Haynes

Cecilia has lived in China, India, the U.S., the Philippines, and Turkey. After saving money by working as an English instructor in Hong Kong for a year, she backpacked around the Tibetan Plateau, western China, and northern India.

Study abroad in Paris

We live in an increasingly globalized world where the color of your skin or your ethnic background doesn't necessarily dictate your upbringing, your nationality, or how you identify yourself. Between immigrants, first/second/etc. generation kids, refugees, Third Culture Kids, and so on and so on, there are many people who were raised outside of their parents’ or grandparents’ birth country, but nonetheless still feel a connection.

If this is you, you may have a distant relative who gives you a hard time for not speaking your “mother tongue.” You may have rolled your eyes when your parents try to get you to participate in a religious rite that you do not identify with nor believe in. Maybe you don't even like the food your relatives prepare from your “home” country. But still, you have this different heritage, and you're unique for it.

You're interested in the land(s) of your ancestors... But then, your plane touches down and you realize that living fully immersed in this culture is completely different from what you've known until now.

Then high school or college rolls around and you decide to study abroad. You're interested in the land(s) of your ancestors and you figure that it might be easier to fit in since you already know a little about the culture. You grew up eating the food and maybe speaking (or at least hearing) the language. You've got this. But then, your plane touches down and you realize that studying abroad in your heritage country and living fully immersed in this culture is completely different from what you've known until now. It's a strange feeling, but whether you expect it or not, there are some challenges you might face while studying abroad in your heritage country. But what exactly? And how can you prepare?

People Feel Offended When You Don't Know the Language

Unless you were a super studious kid and actually absorbed what you learned in Sunday language school or even what your parents spoke to you, you might find language is the biggest hurdle. There are many countries where the people really believe that your skin color and apparent ethnicity dictate where you are from and what language you speak. Since you look like you are from there, they expect you to speak the language. When you can't, it will lead to glares, shaking heads of disappointment, and even a lecture on the importance of speaking your own language.

This blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner would be the one answering back because she spoke Mandarin better than her ABC friend. The locals were outraged and confused at this.

For example, one of our Go Overseas interns experienced this while studying abroad in Korea. While she and her other Korean-American friends were speaking English, the surrounding locals were throwing them dirty and judgmental looks for not conversing in Korean.

Similarly, Go Overseas's American-born, China-based Megan Lee, found that in China, whenever she would go out with her American Born Chinese friend, the locals would always speak to her friend in Mandarin thinking that she would of course know the language. Instead, this blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner would be the one answering back because she spoke Mandarin better than her ABC (American Born Chinese) friend. The locals were outraged and confused at this.

A partial solution to this is assuring the locals that you're still learning. Even if you aren't studying abroad to learn a foreign language, take a class, get a language buddy, or practice what few phrases you know. It's not just polite, but it's in your best interest since learning a language is very much still important. Even if people are still critical of lack of fluency, they'll at least be encouraging of your attempts to meet them halfway. Look at this as an opportunity to expand your skill set and to make you desirable to future employers who want bilingual or trilingual employees.

Reality Doesn't Match Cultural Assumptions

Cecilia Haynes

One of the most frustrating aspects of studying abroad in your heritage country is when you get the question, “But where are you really from?” You may have heard this in the U.S. by well-meaning folk who just want to show their curiosity, but, in your heritage country, they are waiting for you to claim them as a part of your ancestry. Or they might immediately assume based on your appearance that you belong, and then get frustrated when you're clearly culturally American/Canadian/British/etc.

As a half-American, half-Hong Konger, third culture kid, I found this to be the case in the airport. I was traveling in China with my American passport and I was stopped by an immigration official. She kept on asking me, “What is your Chinese name?” She ignored me when I explained I didn't have one and just kept repeating the question. I finally just gave her the made up name that I was given in my Chinese language class and to this day it is officially on record in China as my official Chinese name.

You can try to mislead them with a foreign sounding name, at which point they will insist on your “real” name which must be in their language, or you might even insist in saying you're not from there. Instead, meet them halfway. You may already be used to having a complex answer to the "where are you from?" question back home, so use it here too. In the end, it will help you smooth over conversations and you might even find locals treating you in a more friendly manner than some of your fellow “foreign” cohorts. They only want to feel a connection to you and being able to tell a story about how your mother/father/grandparent/etc., and celebrated such-and-such festival or knowing about such-and-such locally loved food will only go to win you more goodwill.

You Feel Disconnected

You might go into studying abroad with the mentality that because your heritage is from there, you must really know what it is like to live there. This is a difficult barrier to come up against since you're the one really looking for a point of relatability, and when you don't find it, it can feel alienating.

Just because you know some of the language, have seen films from there, or know how to cook local dishes, it doesn't mean you really know what it's like to live in this place all the time. There are cultural references you might miss, and slang you won't understand. Worst of all, you might realize you were fed a fantasy portrayal of this heritage and it's nothing like how you constructed it in your mind. It might be dirtier, or louder, or more foreign than any of the other foreign places you have been.

Understand that no matter how much you think you know a place, living there for a time is the only way to get to know it in real life.

What you need to keep in mind is that even people who were born and raised there, but have been away for a few years, will feel a sense of disconnection. Cultures and societies don't stand still, and leaving even for a little bit can leave you behind. So, factor in those rose-colored glasses of relatives building up how glorious “home” was and keep an open mind.

Like anywhere else you would travel to, don't go there with preconceived notions of what the place should be like. Just because your family is from your study abroad destination, you're still capable of experiencing culture shock. It's just a different breed of culture shock than what your non-heritage peers are feeling. Understand that no matter how much you think you know a place, living there for a time is the only way to get to know it in real life.

Added Pressure to Be an Expert


If you're in a language course in your heritage country, then you might feel the added pressure of having to be the best in the class. Your peers may look to you to explain odd cultural nuances or identify some strange looking food. Somehow you should magically know more than other students because it is in your genes or your lineage.

Discard this pressure immediately. You may or may not have had a leg up because you grew up listening to this language or because you took a few classes when you were a child. This advantage can not only be exceeded by people who work hard and put in the time, but it can also turn into a disadvantage since you assume you know more and therefore do not move past what you already knew.

On the other hand, maybe you grew up with strong ties to your heritage and do speak the language fluently or feel defensive of your peer's (mis)interpretations of your heritage culture. If this is the case, try to understand where they're coming from and discuss your diverse points of views in a mature manner. If they ask for help with the language, be patient but also don't feel bad if you don't have the time to help everyone. You have to study for your classes too, after all!

It's All a Learning Experience

While studying abroad in your heritage country comes with a set of challenges, the rewards will outweigh the negatives. This is your chance to really see where you came from, where your parents came from, and how to embrace a part of your personal history.

This rich experience can only make you more understanding. You might even find yourself becoming closer with that kooky relative that you had never really gotten along with until now. If you have the opportunity, take the chance to learn more about your origins and to share this experience with your friends and, possibly, continue to pass this unique heritage to your future family.

Photo Credits: Faces in Places Runner Up, Clarissa Bryant, Cecilia Haynes, and Mariana Yazmin.